Rediscovering Jewish pioneers of Old West

Recently, a Nevada news item popped out at me as I searched the web for the latest news, a controversial silver and gold mining operation that was “possibly endangering nearby historic Virginia City, Nevada.”
I didn’t realize that the old 19th century silver and gold mining activity had been renewed. Perhaps the use of modern technology has led to discovery of previously hidden rich veins of ore.
The brief news item reminded me of a ’90s road trip Deanna and I took out of Las Vegas. Since neither of us are gamblers, we rented a car and hit the open road, stopping six hours later in the old mining town of Virginia City, Nevada.
As we entered what looked just like the main street of Hollywood’s version of the Old West, movies I had enjoyed as a child, I wondered out loud, “Do you think any Jews lived here back then?”
Starting with the first building, the Fourth Ward School, we walked through town visiting old saloons, boarding houses, the opera house, mercantile stores, cafés, hotels, museums and old homes.
Picking up a brochure at the visitors’ center, I took time during lunch to read about the different people who lived in and around town during its glory days.
And yes, there were Jews!
Many came from the overflow of the earlier California gold rush, seeking fresh opportunities in neighboring Nevada Territory.
In addition to those involved in mining, there were also Jewish doctors, engineers, storekeepers and fortune seekers.
By 1862, Nevada’s Directory listed 200 Jews in the Virginia City area. One Jewish child who attended the Fourth Ward school was born into a Jewish family and became famous in later life after moving to California by becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Albert Abraham Michelson is known for formulating the experiment to measure the speed of light. His storekeeper parents were not religious Jews and he considered himself an agnostic.
The first Jewish school in Virginia City was started by Rabbi Herman Bien in 1861 and he was one of four Jewish members of the state’s constitutional convention.
Another notable Jewish resident was Joseph Goodman, a writer and co-owner of the first printed newspaper in Nevada, The Territorial Enterprise.
Goodman gets credit for recognizing the talent of a young then unknown reporter, hiring Samuel Clemens, writing under the name of Mark Twain.
Goodman’s paper became so popular that he allegedly had more subscribers in California than in Nevada.
In a short time, I found some interesting information about just a few of the many Jewish pioneers in the Old West.
We Jewish people are contributors to our country wherever we land. More about the “Jewish West” to come.

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