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1880: A Missouri Town Renames Itself After a Jew

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The arrival of the circus to Seligman, Missouri, 1880.
The arrival of the circus to Seligman, Missouri, 1880. Credit: Fanschon Mitchell, "Looking Back Over The First Century of Seligman, Missouri", WikiCommons

On September 27, 1880, the town of Herdsville, Missouri, renamed itself in memory of the recently deceased railroad financier whose investments had helped put it on the map. Thenceforth, it was called Seligman, named for the senior member of one of the great families of American business, Joseph Seligman, who had died on April 25 of that year.

What makes a town: A pharmacy, a liquor store

Seligman is in the southwest corner of Missouri, about two miles north of the Arkansas state line. Historically, it had been part of the lands of the Osage Indian nation, and was claimed by France as part of the North American holdings it sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803.

Before it was Herdsville, the village had been referred to as Roller’s Ridge, for the five Roller brothers (Andrew, George, John, Joshua and Jacob) who set up a homestead there, with a trading post next to it, around 1830. Forty years later, the U.S. Post Office established a station there, to which it gave the name Herdsville.

In 1880, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, a line that actually never got anywhere near the Atlantic coast of the United States, constructed a track running the roughly 40 miles south from Pierce City, Missouri, to Herdsville. (Originally the A and P was intended to stretch from St. Louis, MO, to Southern California, although it was never continuous between those two points.)

During construction, the railroad allocated 80 acres for laying out and building a town at Herdsville, which until then consisted of little more than a pharmacy and a liquor store, and whose inhabitants were principally railroad workers.

The railroad, then, had turned Herdsville into a living, breathing town, although it should be noted that at its peak, its population never exceeded 1,000.

Joseph Seligman (1819 - 1880), a prominent U.S. banker and businessman. Credit: WikiCommons

Rags to riches to renown

Joseph Seligman is one of those amazing tales of a German Jew who arrived in the United States penniless, in his case in 1837, and over the course of three decades, became one of the country’s most influential businessmen.

He was born on November 22, 1819, in Baiersdorf, Bavaria, the first of the 11 children of David and Fanny Seligman, all of whom ended up in America and worked in family-owned enterprises.

He was 17 when he sailed from Bremen to America, where he began working as an itinerant peddler in Pennsylvania. He soon was joined by two of his brothers, and together they moved to Alabama, where they opened several dry-goods stores. Eventually, uncomfortable with being dependent on a slave economy, the family moved its base to New York, although the next brother down, Jesse, relocated to San Francisco after the start of the California gold rush. (Jesse also had a town named for him, in Arizona, also called “Seligman.”)

Seligman was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party. Although his involvement in the Union cause began with the manufacture of uniforms for the Northern army, he soon became a major financial backer of the North, selling $200 million in  bonds in Europe to cover its debt, something that historian and diplomat William Dodd later described as being “scarcely less important than the Battle of Gettysburg.” (In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant offered Seligman the post of treasury secretary, but he turned him down.)

After the war, J & W. Seligman & Co. became a major investment house for the funding of railroad construction, one of the major engines of economic growth – although a very risky one -- in the latter half of the 19th century.

Building railroads almost inevitably involved investments in real estate, but the Seligmans also were involved in shipbuilding, in mining, in setting up public utilities and in the establishment of Standard Oil, among many other businesses.

Joseph Seligman is also remembered for the 1877 incident in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he and his family were turned away at the door of the Grand Union Hotel, where they had been visiting for a decade, because its new owner was no longer willing to have “Israelites” as guests. Seligman decided to go public with the incident, which turned into a cause célèbre, and led to boycott of other businesses held by the hotel’s owner.

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