Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jews of South Dakota


For fortune hunters looking to strike it rich in Deadwood, the gold is no longer in "them thar hills," but rather in the many casinos lining Main Street. For history hunters, though, especially those interested in Jewish history, a visit to this South Dakota city offers great treasures. Just a quick dig at the surface reveals that Deadwood's past is intimately connected with the Jewish community that called this once rough-and-ready mining town home.
Deadwood was established in 1876 during the Black Hills gold rush. The Jewish population of Deadwood, which numbered in the hundreds at its peak, was drawn to the lawless frontier less for the chance to strike it rich on the gold claims (though Jewish prospectors undoubtedly tried their luck with everyone else) and more for the auxiliary services they could provide the growing town. Such was their success that about one-third of all the early buildings on Main Street were owned or occupied by Jewish merchants. These were mostly traditional Jewish enterprises such as dry goods or those related to clothing.

The wooden huts and muddy streets where the first Jewish inhabitants conducted their business are long gone - gold rush-era Main Street burned down in a fire on September 25, 1879. Long gone too is the licentiousness and vice that characterized the infamous mining town. Today's Deadwood is a sanitized echo of its notorious past. While gambling remains a major pastime (there are some 80 historic gaming halls), modern Deadwood is a combination of Disney's Frontierland, complete with swing door saloons and "period" photographers, and an aging seaside resort where tacky memorabilia and taffy stores jostle for space.

A visit to Jewish Deadwood should initially ignore the gambling establishments on Main Street and begin instead with a foray up the steep hill overlooking the town where Mount Moriah cemetery - Deadwood's Boot Hill - is located. While many of the approximately two million tourists who visit Deadwood annually visit the cemetery to see the graves of two of the Wild West's best-known characters, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, the graveyard is also the final resting place of a number of the town's Jewish citizens.

EVEN BEFORE entering the cemetery (admission $1, which includes a walking tour guide and map), the gates indicate a Jewish presence. Three metal circles adorn the entrance. The circle on the left contains three smaller circles, possibly signifying the trinity of Christianity; the middle circle encloses a triangle, either a well-known Masonic symbol (many of the cemetery's founders were Masons) or a nod to the Black Hills that surround the city, while the circle on the right surrounds a Star of David.

Established in either 1877 or 1878, Mount Moriah replaced a smaller cemetery situated further down the hill. On August 28, 1892, the Hebrew Cemetery Association purchased a section in the new cemetery for Jewish burials for the sum of $200. Hebrew Hill, as the Jewish area was called locally, is located at the top right-hand side of the cemetery and is accessible via a pathway marked "Jerusalem," which is most likely a Masonic, rather than a Jewish, reference.

While there are more than 80 Jews buried up on Hebrew Hill, or Mount Zion as it was known among the community, Deadwood's most famous Jewish citizen, Sol Star, is not among them. In accordance with the wishes of his family, Star lies in the Mount Sinai Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. Two hundred and fifty meters up from the Jewish section lies the grave of Deadwood's first sheriff and Star's long-time friend and business partner, Seth Bullock.

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