Jews in the Upper Midwest

Jewish settlement in Minnesota and the Dakotas

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Reprinted with permission from And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855 (Minnesota Historical Society Press).

The first groups of Jews to enter the Upper Midwest had emi­grated from German-speaking lands. Arriving in the 1850s and 1860s, many had already lost their immigrant "greenness" by ped­dling or by clerking in mercantile establishments east of the Mis­sissippi. Economic opportunity pulled them to the Upper Midwest to trade with Indians for furs, to speculate in land, to open stores and small manufacturing concerns in the new river towns, to mine gold in the Black Hills, and, less frequently, to farm....

First Arrivals

In gen­eral terms, the German Jews, most of whom arrived between 1850 and 1880, settled in significant numbers in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth, and, for a short time, in Deadwood. In these places they became merchants and manufacturers. Amelia Ullmann was the first Jewish woman who recorded her arrival in St. Paul, but there were certainly others in the town. In 1856, a year after she debarked, there were about 25 Jewish men and women--enough to form the Mount Zion Hebrew Association. Six years later it became Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation.

The Minneapolis Jewish community grew as well, and, in 1878, German Jews there founded Shaari Tof [sic] Hebrew Congregation, which was later renamed Temple Israel. By the 1880s, German-Jewish merchants could generally be found in every sizable market town or transportation center in the region. Sioux Falls and Aberdeen in present-day South Dakota; Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck in what is now North Dakota; and Mankato, Austin, Le Sueur, and Albert Lea in Minnesota--all had one or two Jewish families.

Many maintained their ties to larger Jewish communities through synagogue affiliations, while others drifted away from Jewish practices. Often, family ties connected members through the region. For example, in turn-of-the-century St. Paul, the Plechner-Fantle family of furniture and clothing merchants spotted fertile business ground in the thriv­ing divorce-mill town of Sioux Falls (the Reno, Nevada, of its day [where divorces were easy and quick to obtain]). Espying opportunity in the enforced leisure of estranged and bored spouses, they dispatched relatives there to open another store.

Entry Points

The second and much larger wave of migration to America--and the Upper Midwest--began in the early 1880s and consisted of Eastern European Jews, primarily from the Russian empire and Rumania. They were helped westward, and ultimately across the ocean, by Jewish communities along the way. The process did not stop at the East Coast. One example was the band of 200 people who arrived in St. Paul by train in July 1882 without warning. Their sudden appearance overtaxed the resources of the mem­bers of Mount Zion Congregation, who gratefully accepted help from Christian citizens of the city....

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Linda M. Schloff

Linda Mack Schloff is director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, St. Paul.