Like most people, when the phone rings – I run to answer it. Sometimes I do have trouble getting there before the caller hangs up. But unless the caller is a scam, a political advertisement or bad news – just making the effort to get to the phone is worthwhile. I have yet to decide what classification a caller the night of the regional volleyball games belongs to, but a young sounding male voice told me someone had given him my name and phone number, and he needed help with researching his family. In the next hour or more (yes, missed most of the Lady Cards game), he told me several times that he must be Jewish and Lutheran since that was the information included in his DNA. He might have already questioned Lutheran sources of information, but most of his questions for me had to do with Jewish settlements in North Dakota and particularly in Cavalier County.
By Rita Maisel
In other words, I maybe should have hung up after the first minute of the conversation, but I was curious as to why he thought there had been colonies of Jewish settlers in Cavalier County. He did have a reason for that belief, in fact, two reasons. One was Mount Moriah and the second was Mt. Carmel. In his reasoning both are mentioned in the Bible – actually in the first books of the Bible and, therefore, revered by Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and LDS (Mormon) congregations. At no time did he answer my questions as to his name, the family he was researching, where he was calling from, or who he knew that also knew me.
There are many things I know very little about. One of those is DNA which does make a fortune these days for genealogical organizations with possibly the best known ancestry.com and “23 and Me”. The understanding is that each cell should have 23 genes each with its own specific name and function. Once the firms have received your payment, they will send you a letter or certificate telling you the race and characteristics your genes show and that you are probably related to a list of people you might read about in the newspapers or see on television. Ninty-nine percent of people are said to receive almost identical replies telling them of famous people who could be their “cousins”. This is because, while each person’s DNA is unique, you also share some characteristics with the world in general. DNA also identifies information found at crime scenes and sometimes will assist in charging the wrong-doer. At other times it is used to prove the innocence of a bystander. My guess is that neither a lock of hair, a swab of saliva or a drop of blood will show up on a microscope in terms of religious heritage, although it could place a certain individual as having Middle Eastern or Scandinavian heritage which might be construed as Jewish or Lutheran.
To give this person the benefit of the doubt, I did some checking on both Mount Moriah and Mt. Carmel. Yes, both are mountains mentioned in the Bible and in religious heritage. Mount Moriah was the place Abraham went to offer a sacrifice when he believed God wished him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, according to the story in Genesis. On that occasion this journey up the mountain was to test Abraham’s faith, and God provided a lamb for the sacrifice allowing Isaac to grow up and become the father of nations. Why this name was given to the specific location in Cavalier County (roughly four miles from Mt. Carmel) by early settlers is unknown. However, it is a hill near the Canadian border which was known to the fur traders as a burial spot and a place where priests traveling with the buffalo hunters would hold mass.
In more recent years two types of burials have been uncovered according to newspaper stories. On the top of the hill were the type of graves where people using the trail from Pembina to the Turtle Mountains might have buried people who died on the journey in horizontal graves. Bones uncovered there were identified as from the fur-trade era or possibly the last two centuries. When gravel or rock was dug from the base of Mount Moriah other bones appeared, and in that area the bones were at least 8,000 or more years old with the placement of the bones suggesting the person had been buried in a sitting position. Burial mounds of that sort have been found from Ohio west and north across northern states and southern provinces of Canada. Pilot Mound and Star Mound are mentioned in that context as well as other hills or mounds in our general area. The mound shape originated when soil was placed over a sitting body and grew when more of these mounds were placed close together forming a hill as time passed. The tops of these hills were sometimes decorated with the skull of a buffalo which identified the hill as part of an old indigenous trail.
Mt. Carmel began as a settlement of German speaking immigrants from Ontario with names like Koehmstedt, Schneider, Hell, Kartes and others included, many of whom have descendants in Cavalier County today. A priest from Olga came to offer mass in early pioneer days and is said to have suggested the name Mt. Carmel since the day of the first mass was a Feast of Mt. Carmel on the church calendar. More information is available in the Mt. Carmel Centennial Book. My memory is that Lawrence Kartes did quite a bit of research on the early church at that location. The church and cemetery land were given by Lawrence’s great-grandparents who were among the early burials at that location. In many visits with Lawrence and his family members no mention was ever made of this being a Jewish settlement, so that information was passed on to the anonymous caller. Since Lawrence is no longer living, I also called other long-time Mt. Carmel residents who verified this as similar to the stories they grew up knowing.
The caller then began talking about a Jewish settlement near Devils Lake, and like many readers I did remember a book by Rachel Calof whose family had settled near the Starkweather area. Their family had a difficult time adapting to pioneer North Dakota. Today, there are thought to be no Jewish farmers in that area, but there is an old historic cemetery. Signs pointing to its location can be seen when driving west from Edmore on Highway 17 or east from Highway 20. The actual location is south of Highway 17. You can also read Rachel’s book which is in the North Dakota Room at the Cavalier County Library.
Both the Calof group and other groups of Jewish settlers who arrived in the 1880s appear to have been sponsored, at least in part, by the Jewish Agricultural Aid Society headquartered in New York which began sending groups of settlers west following the Civil War. At least two wagon trains are remembered as coming with cavalry troops and spending time at forts along the way. The Aid Society was funded, in part, by a wealthy man who may also have had railroad interests since many of the settlers came by rail and on census records listed their occupation as railroad construction. They did, however, file on homestead land and prove up their claims before continuing west to Spokane, Seattle and Vancouver when rail lines reached those points. Only limited aid was offered later settlers with much of that evaporating with the bank failures and depression years.
A second book I should have recommended to the caller, but could not recall the title while on the phone, would have been one of the books written by Robin Silverman of Grand Forks. Langdon area people got to meet and visit with Robin when she published her first book “The Ten Gifts”, and many local people also purchased a later book “Something Wonderful is About to Happen”, which includes stories of people we knew and remembered. Robin, at that time, was president of the Jewish group in Grand Forks and wife of the owner of Silverman’s Store located in Grand Forks for many years.
The caller was sure there had been many groups of Jewish settlers who had come to North Dakota, and he may have been correct. Today there are only four synagogues in our state: Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot. In general, Jewish settlers became businessmen, politicians, bankers and so on rather than generational farmers. Their names are still on some of the companies they founded such as the Herbst and Stern businesses. In the early 1900s many original Jewish settlers left their farms and became peddlers going from farm to farm. Later they went on to study law; some became professors in area colleges and others moved to cities in surrounding states and began businesses there.
The best historical record of Jewish settlements in North Dakota can be found in Father William Sherman’s book “Plains Folk,” published in 1988. He has also written or written with other authors newer books on North Dakota and its ethnic history which may be found in the North Dakota Room. Most of the references on the internet quote from Father Sherman, but his original writing is worth consulting for its illustrations, maps and additional information.
One of the interesting aspects that I noticed is that the references in North Dakota histories rarely mention Jewish settlements except to refer the reader to Germans from Russia or the Ukraine. Many Germans from Russia and other former or present-day Eastern Europe nations did settle in North Dakota but belonged to other religious groups such as Catholics, Mennonites and Ukranian Orthodox churches. Those are reflections of their years spent in colonies under Russian rule before leaving for America.
There are two or three other known Jewish cemeteries in North Dakota with one near Ashley mentioned in several places although that site had no burials before 1913 and apparently none since 1932. That cemetery served Jewish settlers in the Ashley and Wishek areas. Maybe one day the editor of the Ashley and Wishek newspapers will write a book about life at that settlement. As it happens, that newsman is married to a lady remembered as a beautiful redhead who, years ago, worked at the Cavalier County Republican.