Skip To Content

How Jewish immigrants helped build Montana

When the 1860s Montana gold rush ended, the Jews of the territory were just getting started.

“The thing about gold towns is that they come and go,” said Paul Kingsford, a native Englishman who now lives in Missoula, Mont. “And so they built these wooden buildings downtown, because they knew there was no point — there’s probably going to be no need for it to be around four or five more years. But the Jewish population didn’t think that way. They started to build brick and stone buildings. They built everything from schools to libraries to super large hotels.”

Kingsford, who spent his career in advertising, is the designer of “Leiser’s Footsteps,” a museum exhibit on the Jewish settlers of Missoula currently on display at the Historical Museum in Fort Missoula. It’s named for the first Jew believed to have settled there, the Prussian-born merchant Jacob Leiser, who travelled from San Francisco to Missoula on foot.

Leiser, a tailor, abandoned his possessions at a river crossing and arrived in 1870 with little more than the clothes on his back. He was successful nonetheless, trading with the native Salish people — a people that had helped him on his journey — when the gold rushers left town. In 1895, he built a major clothing store on Main Street.

Members of the Salish people and a Jewish family in Montana.

Members of the Salish people and a Jewish family come together in Montana.

By then, Leiser wasn’t the only Jew in town. Daniel Bandmann, an internationally-recognized Shakespearian actor who owned a prodigious head of cattle, was there too, as was the saddler and jeweler Herman Kohn. In the past decade, some of Kohn’s descendants have returned to Missoula, where they grew up.

Bert Chessin, the research director of “Leiser’s Footsteps” met Kohn’s descendents through a fellow congregant of Missoula’s Har Shalom synagogue, where Kingsford is also a member.

Kohn’s great-granddaughters, Brenda Henry and Mary Paulson, showed him two photo albums dating from the late 19th to early 20th century. The albums, which included photos of Kohn’s saddle shop and gatherings of Jewish families with Native Americans, are at the core of the exhibition.

Chessin estimates that the Missoula has between 300 and 500 Jewish residents, with the Har Shalom synagogue counting around 70 member households. (Montana as a whole has around 1,400 Jews.) The community is growing, with Missoula’s first resident rabbi, Laurie Franklin, assuming her pulpit at Har Shalom last year.

Missoula’s Jewish presence has rallied since a dip that began in the mid-1960s, when many Jewish faculty left the University of Montana, which is located in the city. In recent years, some Jews like Chessin have made a homecoming, and newer Jewish residents like Kingsford, an immigrant like so many of the early settlers, have beefed up the ranks.

Lately, though, Jewish residents have been made to feel unwelcome.

The idea for an exhibit, which will debut at the new Missoula Public Library in the fall and plans to eventually expand to incorporate other parts of Montana, came in response to anti-Semitic flyers found on the University of Montana campus and near Missoula churches in 2018. This leafleting was part of an ongoing trend of White Nationalist activity directed at the state, which began in 2016 after Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin alleged that a Jewish realtor had forced alt-right figure Richard Spencer’s mother into selling her Whitefish, Mont. home.

“I think it’s the ignorance of those people,” Kingsford said of Anglin and his confederates, who planned a march on Whitefish in 2017, but were foiled by local opposition. “They come out here and think it’s this pure white, it’s white people that built this. Err, wrong. Sorry, dude.”

Chessin is living proof that this isn’t the case. He was raised in Missoula; his father, Meyer “Mike” Chessin, was a professor at the University of Montana for 41 years. When the elder Chessin arrived in 1949, esteemed literary critic Leslie Fiedler and Greek and Latin scholar Henry Ephron were established members of the Missoula community, having also taught at the university. (Fiedler and Ephron’s stories are both featured in the exhibition.) Chessin, in fact, attended a Jewish Sunday school run out of the Fieldler family home.

Fieldler and Ephron were just two professors who brought their talents to the University of Montana, a trend that started with economist Lewis L. Lorwin (née Louis L. Levine). Other Jews, like wilderness movement pioneer Bob Marshall, left an outsized contribution to the state — the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area is the fifth-largest wilderness area in the continental United States.

“Montana is really mixed,” Chessin said. “It’s had both progressive and reactionary tendencies.” The exhibit, he hopes, will “reeducate people” on “the contributions of the ‘other.’”

The “other” doesn’t just include Jewish Montanans, who have served as mayors of Butte and captains of industry in the capital of Helena. This month, Chessin and Kingsford are expanding the exhibit to profile members of the Salish community who interacted with Jews like Leiser and Kohn, and whose lives were fatefully disrupted in 1861, when miners discovered gold at Cedar Creek.

“At the turn of the last century, Montana was a more diverse state than it is today,” Chessin said. “There were the Chinese that came because of the railroads, there was an African American community because of the mines. There was a strong community from Finland and Eastern Europe — Serbia, Croatia, and the Irish. The history of people who were the outsiders coming in is an interesting one here.”

Correction March 17, 2020 10:51 AM: A previous version of this article gave the wrong name for Char Shalom’s rabbi. Her name is Laurie Franklin, not Laura.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.