The Homestead Act of 1862, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, opened up a huge swath of the western United States to settlement. In order to claim land, a homesteader had to file an application, improve the chosen land and file for a deed of title. The only requirements to be a homesteader were that the applicant be at least 21 years old or the head of a household, and had never taken up arms against the government.

Jews were part of the great flow of human traffic that moved west. In many cases, Jewish philanthropists set up settlements for Jews coming from Russia and Eastern Europe (see examples in Kansas and Colorado). Many individuals also received assistance and loans from agencies such as the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society, Chicago’s Jewish Agriculturalists’ Aid Society of America, and the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society

Among these settlers was a small but fascinating group of women who came west as part of an arranged marriage, not dissimilar to the romantically named Old West “Mail Order Brides.” One better-known stories that has become a highlight of studies of Jews and women in the Old West is that of Rachel Bella Kahn Calof  (1876-1952), who is known because the transcript of her autobiography (written in Yiddish in 1936) was translated into English and published. Born in the Ukraine, the orphaned Rachel was raised by her grandparents. At age 18, her grandparents arranged her engagement to Abraham Calof. She traveled to America, met him in New York City, and agreed to go with him to North Dakota. Rachel’s journal makes it clear that living a Jewish life on the Plains was not easy. In addition to the physical hardships (freezing winters, starvation, etc.) observing ancient rites such as circumcision was extremely difficult. After 23 years on their homestead, which eventually was successful, the Calofs moved to St. Paul Minnesota in 1917.

This Treat was written in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

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