Jews in Iowa? Cohens on the Prairie 1880-1900

“Sioux Falls panorama 1908 1” by G.W. Fox – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pan.6a09880. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Although the descendants of Moses and Adeline Cohen stayed close to Washington until 1880, in the next two decades many of them ventured further away.  I’ve already written about the children of Moses, Jr., four of whom left DC, three for NYC, and one for Baltimore.  But his siblings and their children ventured even further away, although for some it was just a temporary move.

The real adventurer seems to have been Jacob M. Cohen, apparently known as JM.  JM married a woman from Cuyahoga, Ohio, named Belle Lehman, on August 19, 1877.  Their first daughter, Fannie Sybil, was born in Washington, DC, in 1879, but sometime after 1880, JM and his wife and young daughter left town and moved west to the Dakota Territory where the second child, Seba Maude, was born in 1882.  I wish I knew what drew JM away from Washington and off to the prairie and how he met a woman from Ohio in the first place.  Was it a desire to be a pioneer or a desire to strike out on his own away from his family?  I don’t know, but I was certainly surprised to see “Dakota” as the birthplace of his second child.

Not long after Seba’s birth, the family must have moved again because a third daughter, Ruth Josephine, was born on June 8, 1883, in Sioux City, Iowa.  Sioux City seems to be where JM and Belle established deeper roots. They lived there until at least 1905, and their fourth child and only son Arthur was born there in 1885.  According to the 1885 Iowa state census, JM was working as a pawnbroker; in the 1888 directory for Sioux City, he is listed as being in real estate, but in 1900 his occupation on the census is a ticket broker.  Perhaps the census taker heard that incorrectly; perhaps he was still a pawnbroker.  Or maybe a real estate broker.

JM Cohen and family 1885 Iowa census

JM Cohen and family 1885 Iowa census

JM Cohen and family 1900 US census

JM Cohen and family 1900 US census

JM and Belle suffered a terrible loss when their daughter Seba died on January 2, 1886; she was not even four years old.

Seba Maude Cohen headstone

I fear that their son Arthur, born in 1885, also died young.   He does not appear on the 1895 census or the 1900 census when one would assume he would have been only ten and then fifteen years old and presumably living with his family.  On the other hand, I cannot find a death record for him in Iowa or elsewhere, nor is he buried where Seba and his parents were buried in Sioux City.

I wondered whether there were any other Jews in Sioux City at that time and was able to locate a book by Simon Glazer entitled The Jews in Iowa: A Complete History and Accurate Account of Their Religious, Social, Economical and Educational Progress in this State; a History of the Jews of Europe, North and South America in Modern Times, and a Brief History of Iowa, published in 1904 by Koch Brothers Printing Company and now available as a free e-book on Google.  According to Glazer, there were only 25 Jews in Sioux City in 1869, but by 1904 there were over two thousand, including my relatives. In fact, when the Jewish community decided to form a cemetery association, the Mt Sinai Cemetery Association, in 1884, JM Cohen, my cousin, was one of the founding members.  (Glazer, p. 295)  Moreover, that same year JM’s wife Belle was the leader of a movement among the Jewish women to create a fund-raising organization to help the poor and to raise money to build a house of worship. (Glazer, p. 296)  Despite this burst of energy in 1884, there was no formal congregation until 1898.  As described by Glazer:

“The Jewish spirit which kept them together was a mere ghost of little more consequence than a shadow. Everything they had gained during their childhood, everything their parents had imbued within them vanished form [sic] their memories, and nothing new could come and knock at their gates since no effort was endeavored prior to 1898, to form a congregation and engage the services of a minister.” (p. 297)

According to Glazer, “Their temple was built largely through the efforts of the ladies, and the man [sic] frankly admit that had it not been for the heroic efforts of the Jewish women no such place for Judaism in Sioux City would as yet have been made a matter of fact. Their first services were conducted at the Masonic Temple, which is, indeed, very complimentary to both, the Masons and the Jews.” (p. 300)

JM Cohen was listed by Glazer as one of the ten officers and leaders of Mt Sinai Congregation in those early days.

Mt Sinai Synagogue, Sioux CIty, Iowa From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Glazer then described the influx of Russian and Eastern European Jews in the late 1880s and thereafter and the divisions between the older assimilated population which had established Mt Sinai, the Reform congregation, and the newcomers who were more Orthodox.  He concluded his chapter on Sioux City by saying, “The Jewry of Sioux City is as yet in its infancy, but it has plenty of mettle to make itself a stronghold of both Orthodox and Reform Judaism in the northwest.” (p. 302)

So my cousin Jacob M. Cohen was a pioneer.  He left the comforts of a well-established Jewish community in Washington, DC, where his older brother Moses, Jr., was a leader in the Washington Hebrew Congregation, a well-established synagogue, and went out to the prairie lands of the Midwest (the northwest in 1904 when Glazer was writing) to become a Jewish leader there.

JM also succeeded in getting two of his siblings and his mother Adeline to move to Iowa, if for only a short time. Adeline, who was born in Baden, Germany, had immigrated to Baltimore, raised four children on her own when her husband Moses died in 1860, and supported them herself in Washington, DC.  Adeline again uprooted herself and left a safe, settled urban world to live in Iowa.   In 1888 she was living with JM in Sioux City, according to the city directory.  I don’t know how long she lived there, but she did return to Washington, DC, by 1894.

Title : Sioux City, Iowa, City Directory, 1888 Source Information U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989

Title : Sioux City, Iowa, City Directory, 1888
Source Information U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989

In that same 1888 Sioux City directory is a listing for Hart Cohen as well, JM’s older brother.  The first half of the 1880s for Hart and his wife Henrietta brought two more children to their family, Isadore Baer, born in 1883, and Jacob M. II, born in 1885, in addition to Frances, who was born in 1878, and Munroe, born in 1880.  Hart, like his brother JM, was a pawnbroker, and like his first cousin Hart in Philadelphia, he was charged in 1885 with receipt of stolen goods in the course of his business; he was acquitted of the charges in 1886.


Hart DC Cohen arrested 1885 snip

(“A Pawnbroker Arrested,” Wednesday, March 25, 1885, Critic-Record (Washington (DC), DC),Issue: 5,187, Page: 3)

Letter from Washington. A Pawnbroker Acquitted - Measures to Avert a Flood in the Potomac Date: Friday, February 12, 1886  Paper: Sun (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: XCVIII   Issue: 76   Page: 4

Letter from Washington. A Pawnbroker Acquitted – Measures to Avert a Flood in the Potomac
Date: Friday, February 12, 1886 Paper: Sun (Baltimore, MD) Volume: XCVIII Issue: 76 Page: 4

It might have been in the aftermath of these criminal proceedings that Hart decided to join his brother JM in Sioux City.  He was there at least until 1895, as on the 1895 Iowa census he and his entire family are included.  His occupation at that time was described as a jeweler.

Hart Cohen and family 1895 Iowa census

Hart Cohen and family 1895 Iowa census

By 1900, however, Hart and his family had returned to Washington, DC, where he was still working as a jeweler.  His children were now all at least teenagers, ranging in age from 14 (Jacob) to Frances (21), and perhaps he felt like he had gotten his life in order and could return to his hometown.  They were living at 1424 Seventh Street, NW, in 1900.

Hart Cohen and family 1900 census

Hart Cohen and family 1900 census

JM even lured his sister Rachel to come to Iowa for some time.  Rachel had been newly married to Frederick Selinger in 1880, and in 1882 they had their first child, Fannie Selinger, in Washington, DC.  Their second child, Monroe, was born in 1888 in Washington as well, but in 1891 when Frederick applied for a passport, they were living in Sioux City, Iowa.  (Interestingly, the witness on the application was Myer Cohen of Washington, DC, his wife’s nephew, son of her brother Moses, Jr.)

Frederick Selinger passport application 1891

Frederick Selinger passport application 1891

Frederick is also listed in directories for Sioux City from 1890 through 1892.  Like Hart and Adeline, however, Rachel and Frederick returned to Washington, DC, where in 1900 the family was living at 1502 Seventh Street, NW.

Frederick and Rachel Selinger and family 1900 census

Frederick and Rachel Selinger and family 1900 census

Thus, by 1900, the great experiment of living out in Sioux City had ended for all of the DC Cohens except for JM and his family, who would never return to Washington, DC.  All the rest of the Moses Cohen family—from Adeline (until her death in 1895) to Moses, Jr., to Hart, to Rachel– were living within five or six blocks of each other in the Northwest section of Washington, DC, in 1900.

The twentieth century was about to begin, and with it came new challenges and new family members.  The story will continue…






6 thoughts on “Jews in Iowa? Cohens on the Prairie 1880-1900

  1. Pingback: JM Cohen and Family: The Pioneering Spirit Lives On « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  2. Pingback: Rachel Cohen and her Descendants: The Last Chapter of the Family of Hart Levy Cohen « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  3. Hi Amy – I was born and raised in Sioux City. My family in Sioux City was Jewish (now all except one have died or moved away.) What intrigues me about this particular entry is that my maternal grandfather’s name was Lehman. On their 1888 manifest, it states that he/his family are headed to Iowa. Somehow, they wound up in Chicago, and stayed there… well, with a few exceptions. Do you know anything about Belle Lehman’s family before they arrived?

    Liked by 1 person

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