Jews in the California Gold Rush

Jewish adventurers were crucial in establishing American civilization on the West Coast.

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The call rang around the world: Gold in California! Of the 300,000 fortune-seekers who flocked to America's West Coast, at least 4,000 were Jews. The majority hailed from Prussia and other German-speaking lands, though others came from France, Spain, England, Poland, and America's East Coast. These Jews proved crucial to the establishment of American civilization in the Far West.

Levi Strauss and the Capitalists

Unlike other forty-niners (a reference to 1849, the year the Gold Rush peaked), most Jews in the Gold Rush avoided the down-and-dirty work of mining. They typically were single men who wanted to take their chances with the alleged riches California promised, but they also wanted economic stability and the possibility of family growth in the future. Miners moved from town to town chasing gold discoveries; their intransient work was hardly family-friendly.
levi strauss
So the Jews who went west, many of whom were already trained in business, became prodigious commercialists. They seized the opportunity to establish reliable lines of supply to meet miners' demands for boots, clothing, hats, and equipment. Some Jews worked as prospectors or engineers in mines, but most started supply businesses.

Levi Strauss was the most famous German Jewish entrepreneur to exploit Gold Rush fever. Born in Bavaria in 1829, Strauss immigrated to New York City in 1847 to help run his two older brothers' dry goods business there. In 1853, he journeyed to California via the notorious Panama route. He sailed to the Isthmus of Panama (decades before its canal was opened), disembarked, and journeyed via mule and canoe through 60 miles of malarial swampland. At Panama's Pacific coast, he boarded a ship for San Francisco--the city that had become the hub of the Gold Rush.  

Strauss opened up a dry goods shop in San Francisco as a West Coast branch of his family's New York business. He traveled California selling clothing to miners. Strauss later recognized a need for strong pants that could withstand the abuse of miners' work. In 1872, he and his partner Jacob Davis patented Levi's denim pants--a revolutionary and unprecedented garment. Although by that time the Gold Rush had ended, there remained a strong market for miners' equipment.

Democracy

As Jews like Strauss gained prominence in California's commercial community, they started to exercise their influence. Jews put together chambers of commerce, worked to broaden local public education, advocated for publicly funded railroads, and pushed the government for federal subsidies to advance their towns' civic plans. Though they were a small minority in California's population, Jews contributed significantly to the civic growth that led California to become an official American state in 1850.

One of the most civically-minded Jews to come to California in the Gold Rush was Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro, who was born in German Belgium in 1830. He immigrated to California in 1850, and became famous for building an innovative mining tunnel that provided better ventilation and drainage for miners. He was also a real estate investor who once owned a twelfth of San Francisco's acreage. These achievements contributed to his election as San Francisco's mayor in 1894.

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Jonathan Ellowitz

Jonathan Ellowitz is an educator and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.