Homesteaders from Across the Waves: Immigrant Homesteaders

Barbara Bamberger-Scott
19 Min Read

While the question of immigration is on the boil in America, and while the current season is one that should invoke charity, not disparity, I began reading a book about Rachel Calof called Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains.  Since my grandfather, Leon Bamberger, was also Jewish and lived around the same time as Rachel, it was a story that naturally attracted my attention.

Rachel must have been a powerhouse of a person because the chronicle of her life is simple, honest, and complete.  It’s also scary.

The early part of Rachel’s life, in Russia, was miserable. Her straightforward description of the hardships she endured as a child makes one wonder if children in the nineteenth century ever had a decent chance to survive, whether in the country or in the city.  Later, her own children would experience extreme deprivation, but none of them would ever be abandoned, demeaned, or punished in the way that Rachel herself was.  The punishment began when Rachel’s mother died.  She was four, with an older brother and two younger siblings.  Her father hired a Jewish servant girl who ate her employer’s food or gave it away to her own family, and fed the children starvation rations.  Once he figured out what was going on, her father married in haste, so the children had a stepmother with two children of her own.  She, too, gave Rachel and her siblings short shrift, and endlessly complained about them, provoking their father to punish his own son so harshly that the boy nearly died.  Rachel spent much of her childhood in tears and fear.  When she was old enough, around age 17, she took a job as a maid in the city where her brother lived.  Though the work was hard, the hours long, it was the most liberated situation Rachel had experienced since the death of her mother.

Then, because of family connections, and despite her love for a local boy, she was assigned by the rigid rules of her culture to marry a man who had recently settled in America.

America had begun accepting foreign immigrants happily following the Civil War, spurred by the first Homestead Act.  Later, we pulled back the welcome mat during World War I, and then laid it out again in the booming 1920s.  Then, before World War II, as is well known, we made immigration very difficult, and especially for our enemies, interning the Japanese and treating the Germans among us with extreme suspicion.

During the time when Rachel’s husband-to-be, Abraham Calof, and his family immigrated to America, pogroms in Russia were at their peak.  You can rightly think of pogroms as a form of terrorism.  A pogrom was a mass uprising aimed at persecuting and killing Jews and other undesirable populations.  Pogroms were sometimes instigated or led by local armies.  Because Jews and other undesirables were already forced to live in the “Pale of Settlement” (a “homeland” that comprised Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland) they were easy to find, round up, and terrorize.  Wikipedia offers this description of a pogrom in a small town near Odessa:

“The soldiers tore through the night, dragged the victims from their beds, and killed whomever they met.  People ran into the steppe or rushed into the sea. They were chased after and fired upon—a genuine hunt, as it were.”

Poor Europeans were attracted to the U.S. by the Homestead Act, which promised farmland in exchange for labor.  Though the promise was not always exactly as stated—the Great Plains were very arid and there were some Native Americans who took umbrage at being crowded out—still, it was a powerful magnet.  During the time that Rachel was making a difficult journey to America to meet a man she did not know, for the purpose of marriage for the rest of her life, there were hordes of others, of different nationalities and religions, also heading west across the Atlantic.  Swedes in their millions came, driven by religious and political oppression.  Germans fled harsh home rule.  People came from Iceland and Norway.

Unmarried women, ironically, could make homestead claims; married women couldn’t.  So lots of foreign and native-born girls ventured to stake claims, and then seek husbands.  This loophole for “heads of household” (always the man if a couple were married) allowed widows and strong-willed women to homestead, giving them far more power and independence than they could have had in Europe or even in the American cities back East.  Rachel and Abraham made separate, adjoining claims before they wed.

Rachel and Abraham were part of a large Jewish farming colony in North Dakota in a region called Devil’s Lake.  It was often the case that the new immigrants homesteaded in enclaves, bound together by language and culture, and protected by in-group solidarity to combat the out-group hostility of the dominant populations of already settled folks.  The earliest arrivals started a “chain” to link with the next and the next.

Willa Cather, who lived in Nebraska as a child, offered accurate observations about the separate ethnic groups that settled the Great Plains in several classic novels.  In Cather’s My Antonia, the suicide of a Bohemian patriarch, Mr. Shimerda, touches upon some negative aspects of this “melting pot,” when the Shimerda family is unable to find a cemetery for the old man.  The Catholics won’t have him because he committed suicide, and the Norwegians, who have the closest burial ground, refuse him by reason, it is implied, of nationality.  This causes an old woman who has moved to Nebraska from Virginia, to declare, “If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we’ll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded.”

Rachel Calof Story book
Click to buy from Amazon.

Rachel Kahn (her maiden name) finally met Abraham in New York, after a lengthy journey across Europe and a 20+ day Atlantic crossing (during which she was seasick for all but the last few days), and after jumping through the hoops at Ellis Island.  It may have been at Ellis Island that my great-grandfather Julius, father of Leon, lost whatever had once been his name, and became a Bamberger because he hailed from the Bavarian town of Bamberg.  Many foreigners were thus “christened” with American names, due to the inability of American officials to pronounce or spell their strange surnames. Luckily, after feeling so alone and having had such a harsh life in Russia, Rachel immediately liked Abraham. They would have been young and both were strong and excited about adventure.

Unfortunately, what confronted Rachel once she arrived at her new home in North Dakota was—not a home at all but one shack with neither floors nor walls, and the prospect of sharing quarters with her future in-laws, for some undetermined period of time until she and Abraham could improve their “house” and marry.  There were in-laws of all ages, gathered in one shack to keep warm for the impending winter.  The most hostile of these was her mother-in-law-to-be, with whom she had to sleep, along with a peeing child, on a straw mattress, in a 12’x14’ shanty.  All were in view of one another, and often, once cold weather set in, the humans were joined by chickens and cows.  The in-laws had kindly dug a pit in the middle of the floor for Rachel and Abraham’s to sleep in, for “privacy,” but she declined this offer.

Rachel, though poor and dejected, exhausted and in mild shock from the alteration in her life, had brought with her a few articles of clothing and personal items, and felt herself to be a respectable, organized person. She recalls her horror and disgust upon seeing the filthy condition of Abraham’s family: “they were dirty and unkempt… they had wild unshaven faces.  Their skin was broken out in big pimples and they wore rags around their feet in place of shoes.”  The women were barefoot.  There was no latrine, only the endless prairie where it was as hard to get one’s bearings as in the middle of the ocean. These ragged, disorganized, disapproving people were her only contacts, the family that had been deemed suitable for her to marry into.

And there was another blow yet to come.  Abraham had been selected by the family to spend the fall working for a local farmer who had made good on his claim and could pay a harvesting crew.  When Rachel protested this arrangement, suggesting that a different brother might take on the task, she was told that women had no say in decision-making.  The $75 Abraham would earn in three months would, amazingly, get his extended entire family through the winter.

However, Rachel had guts.  Her first independent action happened in the first day of being in these depressing conditions.  She learned that the family went to bed at sundown because they had no way to light their shanty, so she foraged.  Making a container out of mud, adding a bit of butter and a rag, she “invented” a lamp.  Abraham’s family was impressed.  There would be many other chances for Rachel to show her mettle.  Once she got so lonely that she took off to see Abraham at the farm where he was working, with no real idea of the location, and no roads to follow.  Amazingly she found him, and though she couldn’t stay more than a few minutes for fear of his being caught by the overseer dawdling with his bride, it was a cherished memory for both of them.

The most harrowing stories of Rachel’s new homesteading life center around childbirth.  Even though they didn’t get along, her mother-in-law came to stay with her when she was in labor.  In one horrific instance, the house was so cold (never heated except when cooking because of lack of fuel) that her mother-in-law brought a hot pot lid from the stove and put it on Rachel’s belly to keep her and her newborn daughter from freezing.  This resulted in the baby’s arm being burned down to the bone.  How Rachel and all her infants survived is nothing short of miraculous.  She had seven children.  By the time of the later births, she and Abraham were just prosperous enough so that she could go to town and have the babies under the care of a man who claimed to be a doctor.  You can see from this why our foremothers might have wanted to have babies in hospitals.  Isolation, pain, and terror are hardly the best companions in time of travail.

Yet even as Rachel and Abraham became more self-sufficient, times were hardly easy.  The Jews of Devils Lake had organized a system of charity and sharing from the time when they lived in the Pale, and the couple had often to receive this kind of social assistance.  One fall, as they were storing up fuel for cooking, some local Indians came to call, bringing them a supply of wood.  This reminds us of the Thanksgiving story, in which the Indians pitied the poverty and apparent stupidity of the newcomers, their total inability to survive without help, and helped get them through the first harsh winter.  And despite their better days, the couple and their small children were still crowded in on by Abraham’s relatives in cold weather.  One gets the sense that they were the only two people with gumption and smarts enough to make it, and the relatives were moochers, though Rachel never states this

After about twenty years on the Great Plains of North Dakota, the couple had changed significantly.  With greater leisure born of financial security on the homestead, Abraham had more time to read and became the center of a group of intellectuals.  Rachel was less involved with this part of his life except to do her wifely duty to entertain her husband’s many guests. They moved to the city and though they continued to respect one another, they no longer lived under the same roof.  Abraham had saved Rachel from a life of poverty and oppression in the Old World, and she had made it possible for him to move upward in the New World by her constant unwavering love and support.  Rachel had many illnesses later in life, many due to the ravages of childbirth.  She died in Seattle, at the age of seventy-six.

By living in a region populated by others of their same faith and culture, Rachel and Abraham Calof avoided a lot of prejudice that was endured of immigrants in cities.  Jews had helped found America, but those who did were wealthy and English speaking.  Rachel Calof, whose diary was written in Yiddish, probably never learned any more than rudimentary English.  Her culture didn’t encourage women to speak out or act out.  Yiddish speaking Jews particularly faced significant social disapproval in crowded cities, and lived in ghettoes for the most part.

But it wasn’t only Jews who faced bias and poor treatment.  The Irish famously were despised by almost everyone else when they came to America desperately fleeing famine and seeking to do hard, unpopular jobs.  Adoption agencies, including the famous Orphan Trains, had a hard time placing red-haired children, who were believed to be Irish, therefore lazy and stupid.  But at least, the Irish spoke English and this made it possible for them, over time, to assimilate.  Asian immigrants, all but dragooned to the U.S. to help build the railroads and work in the mines, avoided out-group hostility by sticking together and not bothering to assimilate at first, though this defensive mechanism has gradually faded.  Mexicans, many of them wealthy landowners, were some of our earliest occupants, and became part of the dominant culture, after having BEEN the dominant culture initially.  They proudly retained features of their heritage that distinguished them and that were adapted by other Americans.

Leon Bamberger, like Rachel Calof, was an independent sort, and being male, had more choices open to him.  Still, he made an unusually bold step outside his cultural boundaries by marrying a Christian, Ella Harned.  They had one son, my father, Edgar.

With the Christmas season upon us, and we Americans ponder the implications of immigration in our modern, complex society… and as we recall the couple who were forced to leave the land of their birth and find a suitable place for a mother to labor and a child to be born 2000+ years ago… we could perhaps take time also to think of our grandparents and great-grandparents, since we are nearly all “immigrants” here.  We can ask questions, big and small, about what would have happened, where we might be, if these folks had not had a chance to stake a claim in the American dream.

Rachel Calof’s little book ends with her departure from the North Dakota homestead: “I have lived a long and tortuous way from the little shtetl in Russia where I was born.  It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but if you love the living of life you must know the journey was well worth it.”

Share This Article
Leave a comment