A History Snapshot

I once had an acquaintance who, upon viewing the Minnesota History Center, murmured, “such a large building for so little history.” While it is true that the history of European settlement in this region does not cover millennia, it still behooves us to know something about it, and in the context of this newsletter, a little bit of early St. Paul Jewish history. A few Jews were drawn here before the area became the Minnesota territory in 1849. An English-born Jew named Maurice Mordecai Samuel settled in the St. Croix valley, married an Indian woman, and ran a trading post for some time prior to the Civil War. Fur trading and the promise of cheap land was always a draw.

The first Jews to come to the village of St. Paul generally arrived by riverboat in the 1850s. Roads were non-existent, and dogsled travel was confined to wintertime. Names like Elfelt, Ullmann, Solomon, Noah, Cardozo (the only Sephardic pioneer) are recorded in the early records of Mount Zion Congregation, founded in 1856, two years before the territory gained statehood. They were generally born in German-speaking lands, were young, had lived in other parts of the United States, and arrived with some capital with which to begin business. Most of the early members opened clothing stores, while the wealthiest were fur traders . Indeed Joseph Ullmann became so successful that he opened branches in Chicago, New York, and Leipzig, Germany. He and his wife returned to Europe after selling the bulk of his business to his nephews. It continued for over a century as the Rose Brothers Fur Company .

Mount Zion’s membership waxed and waned with national economic cycles, for it was not until 1871 that the congregation felt secure enough economically to build a simple structure at 10th and Minnesota Streets and hire a rabbi. Congregants lived nearby, at first in what is now the downtown area , while with prosperity they moved to the area now called the Capitol Heights.

A small group of Lithuanian and Polish Jews had arrived by the end of the Civil War. They too settled along the northern reaches of the downtown area and along Payne Avenue. They also appear to have arrived with some cash, because they soon established stores and manufacturing concerns, and one was even a physician. These people founded Sons of Jacob some time in the early 1870s and purchased a building on 1 I ‘h and Minnesota Streets to use.

Mount Zion 1881

Mount Zion 1881

By the 1870s St. Paul was no longer a frontier town. The communal structure was not as fluid, and Jews were not as welcome in every social gathering. The arrival of the “Polish” Jews manifested itself in a fracturing of the Jewish community, evident in the establishment of the Standard Club, an extension, to all extents and purposes, of Mount Zion as well as a turn by that congregation toward the Reform movement.

The city received its largest influx of Jews beginning in the early 1880s. The assassination of Czar Alexander II and the advent of pogroms, along with worsening economic conditions sent Jews fleeing over the borders. Countries like Germany and

England were not anxious to host these penniless refugees and moved them on over the ocean. In 1882 alone, around 250 Russian Jews arrived in St. Paul. They more than matched the established Jewish population and overwhelmed their ability to take care of these desperate people. City officials and civic groups stepped us to help house, feed, cloth, and find jobs for them. They found the newcomers work on railroads, on road crews, and in their trades of cigar making, carpentry and cabinet making. With these new arrivals the Jewish community had been irrevocably changed.


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