In 1848, nothern Mexico ceded California to the US, and gold was discovered. Suddenly the town of Los Angeles, located among rancheros, became a stop for gold prospectors heading north from their homes in Mexico, Central and South America. Hearing of the exorbitant prices near the gold fields, some of these men bought their mining supplies and clothing as they passed through Los Angeles. This was an opportunity for merchants, and competition was fiercer in San Francisco, the gateway to the gold country, than in relatively sleepy Los Angeles.
The Jews listed in Los Angeles’ first US Census outfitted these gold-seekers and the increasing number of Angelenos. The 1850 census document, donated to a museum by Cecil B. De Mille, records 3,530 people in all of Los Angeles County, only eight of whom were Jewish.
A microcosm reflecting the settling of the American frontier, all of the Jewish residents were single men, and almost all were young. There was a forty-year-old tailor, but all the others were merchants ranging in age from 19 to 28. These gentlemen lived behind their storefronts in the Bell’s Row block of Los Angeles.
They were born in Germany and Poland, and all had lived elsewhere in the United States, so they spoke their native languages and possibly other European languages, had learned English, and picked up Spanish in their stores, doing business with Spanish-speaking locals and gold seekers. Multi-lingualism was a key to success in early Los Angeles.
The two census pages listing these men were a small part of a wide-ranging exhibit, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, at the Autry National Center. I was fortunate to have a tour with a docent offering more information than was on display — guided tours are a great way to see a museum exhibit. This exhibit has a companion book of the same title, published by the University of California Press.