Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon

My Pioneers

by Joan Teller 

 

The Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles will present Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation  6/21/02-1/20/03.  The exhibit examines Jewish immigrants from 1820 to 1924 and features art, documents,artifacts and photos. A game box given to  Joan's Grandfather by the Texas Rangers in 1864 is included.

When I was a little girl, my father always told me bedtime stories that were really the adventures of his mother and father along the Old Santa Fe Trail. His father, Henry Mayer, had come out West as a young man in 1835 where he traveled by horseback to settlements and towns selling merchandise to general stores. Later he led mule trains and guided settlers' wagons across the trails to New Mexico and Texas. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, he met a young Jewish watchmaker, Bernhard Cohen and his wife, Rachel, and their baby daughter, Rebecca.

 In those days there were many Jewish single men west of the Mississippi, but there were not many Jewish women. Some of these men went back to Europe for Jewish wives. Of course, there were quite a few who married out of their faith.

So,  when Henry saw baby Rebecca, and she seemed to take fancy to him from the start, he promised to come back and marry her when she grew up. The family story is that he once brought her the first doll she ever owned. In those days, and in that section of the country, a large doll was a great novelty.

Rebecca's father, Bernhard Cohen died in 1844 at the age of 33. Rebecca had vivid memories of her mother, Rachel, trying to find a burial place for him because there was no Jewish cemetery in Vicksburg at the time. After Bernhard's death, Rachel took her two children to live with her parents in Cincinnati, Ohio. They probably took a riverboat all the way. Nevertheless, Henry managed to find them there, and in 1852 Henry Mayer married Rebecca Cohen in a Jewish ceremony. She was 15 years old; he was 35.

The newlyweds set off at once by riverboat for the jump-off city to the West: Independence, Missouri. Their ultimate destination was San Antonio, Texas. Because Henry had made the trip many times before his marriage and knew the country  well, he probably did not feel there was much danger taking his little wife on such a perilous overland journey. In addition to knowing the terrain, he was an excellent communicator. He spoke German, French and English and had learned a lot of Spanish and some Indian languages, especially that of the Kiowa.
Rebecca kept a diary so that her mother and grandmother would know about the challenges she faced. I had read that old diary many times, so when I crossed the same trail in 1946 via the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway on a train called the Super Chief, I realized that I was looking at the same vast landscape as my grandmother had in 1852, ninety-four years earlier. But what different modes of travel we used!  Rebecca had some
experience with horses, and instead of walking or riding in the wagons as most other women did, she insisted on riding horseback. There is even a family story of Henry objecting to her changing her long skirt for men's pants so she could ride more easily. This was 1852!
Other family members traveled to join Rebecca and Henry Mayer in San Antonio. Rebecca's mother, Rachel, had remarried, and Henry asked her new husband, Sigmund Fineberg,  to come San Antonio to help manage his three businesses. Rebecca's Grandmother (and Rachel's mother), Eleanore Bomeisler Lorch had lost her husband, Benedict  to cholera in 1848. Eleanore had married Benedict in Heidelberg, Germany and they had come to Philadelphia together in 1815 where she already had family. Now alone, she decided to follow her daughter, Rachel, and granddaughter, Rebecca, to San Antonio.

Property of the Old Colorado City Historical Society

 

Eleanore would have gone by riverboat and stagecoach, which must have been a very difficult trip for a 72-year-old woman. She apparently worried about her health because she is said to have carried a shroud with her. When she arrived in San Antonio she was very upset that there was no Jewish cemetery. No matter where Jews traveled, or how far they were from organized communities, when they had need for the rites of passage, they sought to be together. At once, she contributed to the establishment of the first Jewish cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. She must have sensed that her time was quickly approaching because she was the first burial there on September 11, 1855. 
By the time the Mayers were settling in Texas, they became aware of other Jewish families; and since Henry remembered his Hebrew, he started the first services and classes in their living room. Henry had been a Bar Mitzvah in Oberingleheim, Germany in 1830. This was the beginning of the Temple Beth-El, the first synagogue in San Antonio

I often think of my courageous grandmother and how difficult it must have been to be a woman in the West in those days and about all her responsibilities as a Jewish pioneer woman and how proud I am of her and my industrious, well-traveled grandfather who inspired so many wild and wonderful bedtime stories.

Joan Teller is a member of the board, and secretary of JGSO.

 

Sources:

1. Seven Years in Central  America by Julius Froebel published in 1859 chronicles the 1852 trip of the Mayers

2. Research by Frances Kallison of San Antonio, Texas

3. Memoirs of Henry Mayer (as told to Jenny Mayer)

4. Diary of Rebecca Mayer

5. Memoirs of Rebecca Mayer (written in her 80's)

6. Bomeisler Family Tree

 

 

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