Plains Folk

Ashley Jewish Cemetery


It makes a difference what the weather is like when you visit a site like this. On a glorious day in May we ventured into the Ashley Jewish Cemetery, also known as Beth Itzchock, final resting place of more than a score of Jewish homesteaders in McIntosh County. To me, on this sun-bathed day, the site seemed one of triumph, not tragedy.

The trouble is, no descendants of the Jewish homesteaders here in German-Russian Country remain on the land or in the locality, and so people are free to impose on their history, and on their historic sites, whatever interpretation they wish. Generally they say the Jews didn’t know how to farm, they were urban folk who tried it for a while, but failed and soon cleared out. I question that common story, because I have come to question the given narrative of homesteading in general.

Historians are inclined to talk about how many homesteaders failed on the Great Plains frontier, because either they didn’t prove up their claims, or they sold out soon after proving up. I suspect that many homestead entries were not proven up because the entrants found better prospects, better claims somewhere else, and pulled up stakes, literally. I am certain that most of those who sold out shortly after proving up title to a quarter-section intended to do so all along and the use the money to open a store, go to college, or in some other way pursue their true aspirations. This was not failure. It was success, things working out as planned.

At the Ashley Jewish Cemetery I was accompanied by a company of heritage tourists, and I don’t think they were buying my story about the success of Jewish homesteaders in McIntosh County. Several of them had read the memoir of Rachel Calof, who married into the Jewish homesteading colony near Devils Lake and lived a miserable life with her in-laws. I argue that the Calofs were unusually feckless. Some people are just not cut out to be pioneers.

Anyway, back home at NDSU, I started searching for historical literature on Jewish homesteading in North Dakota and found an article by a scholar from Brendeis University published in 1990. Sure enough the article, by Janet E. Schulte, was entitled, “Proving Up and Moving Up”—confirming my thesis that the Jewish homesteaders knew what they were doing.

As described by Schulte, the Jewish homesteaders received assistance from colonization societies in New York and Chicago. Wealthy, established Jewish patrons there wanted new Jewish immigrants to go west and take up farming in true American fashion. Most of the Jewish homesteaders in McIntosh County came from Minneapolis, with financing that ultimately traced back to New York. They farmed for a time and then sold out on a rising land market. After that they went to towns or cities, many of them opening stores.

So now I feel more confident in my revisionist treatment of the history of the homesteading community represented by the Ashley Jewish Cemetery. But I would go a bit farther yet. The Jews in Russia were not permitted to own land, and so people assume they must have been poor, inexperienced farmers. I’m not so sure.

From what I have seen of land patent files and manuscript census returns, the Jewish homesteaders did pretty well. They had hired hands, they had working teams, and they brought under production more than enough acreage to satisfy the terms of the Homestead Act. This needs more documentation, but I suspect the Jewish homesteaders were pretty good farmers after all, who eventually departed by choice on their own terms.

I suppose I should go out to the Ashley Jewish Cemetery on a bleak day in February and see if I see things the same way.


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