New frontiers in Wild West for Jew who became Sioux

By Orlando Radice and Jim Winnerman, April 14, 2011
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Julius Meyer (top right), who lived with Sioux Indians for several years, photographed with (front, left to right) Sitting Bull, Swift Bear and Spotted Tail. Meyer went on to interpret Indian languages for the US Congress

Julius Meyer (top right), who lived with Sioux Indians for several years, photographed with (front, left to right) Sitting Bull, Swift Bear and Spotted Tail. Meyer went on to interpret Indian languages for the US Congress

If you thought the Wild West was no country for Jews, you haven't heard of Julius Meyer.

Meyer emigrated to America from Prussia, washed up in Nebraska in 1867 and became a frontier-land legend. Captured by Sioux during a buffalo hunt, he lived with the tribe for several years. A speaker of six Indian languages, Meyer was known by the Indians as "Curly-Headed White Chief with One Tongue" because of his honesty. Later in his life, he served as an Indian interpreter to Congress and as an Indian agent.

According to St Louis writer Jim
Winnerman, who, until a few years ago, thought his grandparents were virtually the only Jews to strike out for the Wild West, such stories are missing from the American-Jewish narrative.

"Yiddish and Cherokee is an unusual combination of languages, but my grandparents, Abe and Goldie Winnerman spoke both," says Winnerman. In 1900, Abe and Goldie opened up the New York General Store in Cherokee Indian territory that, in 1907, would become Oklahoma state.

Spurred by the discovery of the book Pioneer Jews: A new life in the Far West, by Harriet and Fred Rochlin, Winnerman began to piece together a remarkable story of pioneering Jews who ranched cattle, prospected for gold and married into the native Indian communities.

"Prospective single Jewish women were almost non-existent. Many men who had ventured west would take a trip to New York or even Europe to meet a bride and convince her to return as a frontier wife," says Winnerman.

But one man, Solomon Bibo, a wagon driver originally from Prussia, ingratiated himself with the chief of the Acoma pueblo and eventually married the chief's granddaughter. Later he became the first non-Indian governor of a North American Indian tribe. His children were raised as Jews.

Then there was the circuit-riding mohel, Dr John Elsner, who travelled on horseback to perform circumcisions in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska from 1887 to 1905. Elsner, who had emigrated from Austria, left records which reveal he carried out 169 circumcisions in that period.

Fenced-off sections of local cemeteries was a common final resting place for frontier Jews. "I discovered such a plot in 2001 at Boot Hill, the famous 1879 cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona, where some of the West's most notorious characters died violently and lay buried in the boots they were wearing," says Winnerman.

He adds: "Decades after the cemetery had closed in the 1880s, the Jewish gravestones disappeared, and the section was forgotten by most. Then, almost a century later, in 1982, an Arizona historian with knowledge of the plot invited Israel Rubin, an economist and prominent communal figure from Maryland, to see the site. With them was Judge C Lawrence Huerta, a full-blooded Yaqui Indian from Tucson.

"As Rubin recited the Kaddish, Huerta was so moved that he vowed to restore the graveyard in honour of the Jewish pioneers. 'In honouring my Jewish brothers, I feel I am also honouring the lost and forgotten bones of my people who lay where they fell when the West was being settled,' he said."

A memorial placed in the cemetery in February 1984 reads: "Dedicated to the Jewish Pioneers and Their Indian Friends." Inscribed into the stone are the Star of David and an Indian sun-symbol, meaning "those who vanished", and a rabbi re-dedicates the site each year.

Recently, Dave Askey, the owner of Boot Hill, reported stones left at the 4ft-high memorial were several layers deep. In life, as in death, pioneer Jews were everywhere on the American frontier.

    Last updated: 12:51pm, April 14 2011