Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jews in Early Minnesota

It is often surprising to realize just how recent it was that the majority of the United States was wild, unsettled territory. Minnesota, which became the 32nd state on May 11, 1858, was a well-forested base for the fur trade. Thus the territory drew the attention of men such as Maurice Mordecai Samuel, a London born merchant who worked a peddler’s path in this sparsely populated area and watched as the territory transformed into a state. While the fur trade brought Samuel to the St. Croix Valley in Chippewa County, his name is recorded in history for his participation in the Civil War as part of the St. Croix Rifles.

St. Paul, which is the capital of Minnesota, drew many of the Jews who headed into the Minnesota territory. Situated on the Mississippi River, it was an easily accessible trade route. The Jewish community grew swiftly, and by 1856, Minnesota’s first Jewish congregation, Mount Zion Congregation, was formed. Founded by Jewish immigrants from Germany, it was supported by families who were actively involved  in the growth of the city:


  1. The Elfelt brothers, who arrived around 1850 and entered into mercantile ventures - one brother (Abram) organized the city’s Board of Trade, while another (Charles) helped establish the city’s first theater. Abram also helped found the city’s Bnai Brith Lodge.  
  2. Jacob Jackson Noah, son of Mordecai Manuel Noah, was a lawyer who participated in the Constitutional Convention preparing Minnesota for statehood. 
  3. Joseph Ullmann ran such a successful fur trade that he opened branches in Chicago, New York and Leipzig, Germany. The diary of his wife, Amelia, is an important document recording life for those settling the area.


Mount Zion Congregation recently celebrated their 160th anniversary! A second congregation, Chevrah Bnai Yaakov, was founded in 1875. Over the course of history, it merged with several newer congregations and is now known as Beth Jacob Congregation.

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