This Day in Jewish History

1893: The Wild West Gets Its Hebrew Hill

The gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota, attracted not only prospectors but also hundreds of Jews, some of whom played key roles in its development.

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On August 28, 1893 (or 1892 – sources vary), the Hebrew Cemetery Association of Deadwood, South Dakota, purchased a plot of land in the Mount Moriah Cemetery for the burial of the town’s Jewish citizens. The Jewish section, where a total of 86 people were eventually interred, is situated at the top of the hill on which the cemetery sits, and was referred to in the day as “Hebrew Hill,” and also as Mt. Zion. Burials, in fact, were with the dead facing east, toward Jerusalem.

Deadwood, which has established a firm place for itself in the public’s imagination as the prototypical Wild West town, where gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was himself shot dead while playing cards, and bullwhacker Calamity Jane – about whom almost everything known is thought to be legend – was founded in 1876, after a prospector, searching for gold in South Dakota during the Black Hills Gold rush, found flecks of the element in the water flowing through a local canyon.

Federal officials tried to keep the discovery a secret, as the land where Deadwood would stand had been ceded to the Lakota-Sioux Indians as part of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. News got out, however, and little could be done to stop fortune-hunters from migrating to the site in search of gold, and creating an illegal settlement.

The hastily assembled mining camp attracted not only prospectors, but also all the tradesmen and merchants one would expect such a community to require. Among them were many Jews. Although Jews numbered only some 200 when the town’s the town’s population was at its peak of 5,000, they played key roles in its development.

One of the first to arrive was Solomon “Sol” Star, a German-born entrepreneur who, with his business partner Seth Bullock, opened a hardware store (Star & Bullock Hardware, Queensware and Tin Ware), dealt in real estate and livestock, and established a flour mill and Deadwood’s first hotel, the Bullock Hotel, which functions to this day. Star, the only one of the town’s Jewish denizens depicted in the recent eponymous TV series about Deadwood (which ran 2004-2006 on HBO) also served as its mayor for 14 years. His partner Bullock was sheriff.

Although Star died in Deadwood in 1917, and had his funeral there, his family had him buried in St. Louis, Missouri, rather than in the town he helped build.

Harris Franklin, born “Finkelstein,” was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in Deadwood penniless and became one of the wealthiest residents of South Dakota through his investments in real estate and cattle. To design his family residence, a beautiful Queen Anne-style building today referred to as the Adams House, he brought out a well-known Jewish architect from Chicago, Simeon Eisendrath, in 1891.

When he died, Franklin was buried on Hebrew Hill; one of his eulogizers recalled that he “never foreclosed on a mortgage.” Franklin’s son, Nathan Franklin, was also a leading citizen, running the First National Bank and serving as mayor of Deadwood from 1914 to 1918.

Other Deadwood Jews who found their final resting place at the town cemetery were Nathan Colman, formerly “Kugelman,” who was the town’s longtime justice of the peace, and its lay rabbi.

Deadwood never had its own synagogue; rather, the Jewish residents had their holiday in the Masonic Temple, and weekday prayers in private homes. The community’s Torah had been brought over from Germany, and today is used by a synagogue in Rapid City, South Dakota. Nathan’s daughter, Blanche Colman, the town’s first Jewish baby, was a lawyer who spent her career working for the nearby Homestake Gold Mine, in Lead, South Dakota, walking the two miles to work each day. She lived in an apartment at the Franklin Hotel, and died at age 94, in 1978.

Today, Deadwood has only some 1,300 residents, but its attracts an estimated two million visitors per year, thanks in large part to its casinos, having been the first town in the United States to have legalized gambling so as to generate revenues for historic preservation. (Even the town, on its official website, acknowledges that both gambling and prostitution were always important parts of Deadwood’s economy, even when illegal.)

A photographic history of the Jews of the Black Hills was published in 2011 by Ann Stanton, who has taken it upon herself to document the history of the Jewish community. In cooperation with her and the local historic preservation commission, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation placed three markers in key spots in town with text and photos telling the story of Jewish Deadwood.