History of Our Cemeteries
Rabbi Marcus Crystal, Staff Scholar, Cincinnati Community Kollel
CINCINNATI IN 1820
With enthusiasm and a feeling of destiny in his step, Joseph Jonas, generally considered the first permanent Jew of Cincinnati, wrote in his memoirs of his decision to travel along the Ohio River: “The fiat had gone forth, that a new resting place for the scattered sons of Israel should be com-menced, and that a sanctuary should be erected in the Great West, dedicated to the Lord of Hosts…”. Jonas’s enthusiasm was definitely shared by the nation, as this was the period known as the “Era of Good Feeling,” reflecting a nationalistic can-do attitude that followed the War of 1812. The American people were beginning to establish for themselves an independent “American” cul-ture instead of modeling themselves after their European counterparts. This included modes of dress, architecture, and literature, which at last were being shaped by the American experience.
On the eighth day of March in 1817, Jonas entered the growing city of Cincinnati, which had a population of 6,000 at the time, but was also a trading center for thousands who surrounded the city to farm the rich Ohio soil. Indeed, over ninety percent of the rest of the nation lived in rural areas at the time.
The land of Cincinnati had originally been settled by non-Native Americans in 1788. Whereas the village that sprang up there had originally been called Losantiville (a name still perpetuated as a Cincinnati street name), the new governor of that Northwest Territory region renamed the village “Cincinnati” after the Society of Cincinnati, an organization of men who served as officers in the Revolutionary War. Cincinnati was the base of operations for the military’s attempt to defeat the Miami Indian tribe who, under their chief Little Turtle, had roundly defeated the first two armies gathered against them. At the third attempt, the military routed the Miamis in 1794. A treaty, such as they were, was signed the following year: The Miami Indians ceded most of the land which would become Ohio and moved west into what is now Indiana.
The exodus of the Native Americans opened the floodgates into the Ohio part of the Northwest territory, and would lead to Ohio entering statehood in 1803. Indeed, when Jonas traveled down the Ohio River, Westward Expansion was happening at a dizzying pace. By 1820, almost 800,000 people had moved into the areas that had been the Northwest Territory. At first people traveled along the National Road which stretched from Maryland to Illinois. Significantly for Cincinnati, steamboat service on the Ohio River began in 1811. This resulted in the towns along the river growing exponentially due to increased trade opportunity and easier transport, and Cincinnati grew large enough to receive a city charter in 1819.
Civic leaders in Cincinnati had high hopes for the city almost from the beginning of its existence. A man named Daniel Drake who served as doctor to the citizens of Cincinnati was in part responsible for founding a library, museum, college, medical school, hospital, medical journal, Cincinnati’s first soda fountain, and more. Doctor Drake was quoted as saying that only an Ohioan could make a good president. Other civic leaders included Judge Jacob Burnett and Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer who would become a real estate baron in the Cincinnati area, and whose name will forever be con-nected with the founding of Jewish Cincinnati. Completed in 1820 was the city’s largest mansion, built for the financier Martin Baum (Burnett’s brother-in-law), which was occupied by Longworth at one point and is today known as the Taft Mansion. Baum was partner in many early Cincinnati busi-nesses, including mills and Cincinnati’s first refinery and iron foundry. Baum, looking for workers for all his interests, was involved in bringing immigrants to Cincinnati.
It seems that the religious leaders at Jonas’s time of arrival were able to keep a strict hold on their constituents. Sabbath restrictions forbade the playing of marbles, flying a kite, rolling a hoop, and kicking a ball. Public dances were rare, the theater was only for children, horse racing was banned (the locale that began having horse races nearby was immediately nicknamed “Helltown”), and cards of any kind were only played in the saloons frequented by the rough dock workers.
Jonas caused somewhat of a stir with his arrival in town. Most of the population had never seen a Jew before, and several humorous anecdotes remain a part of Jewish Cincinnati lore. One incident involved a Quakeress who asked Jonas, “’Art thou a Jew? Thou art one of G-d’s chosen people. Wilt thou let me examine thee?’ She turned him round and round and at last exclaimed, ‘Well, thou art no different to other people!’” In another, an elderly woman, upon confirming that Jonas was a Jew, lifted her eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “How can I thank thee, O Lord, that I have lived to see one of the descendants of Abraham before my death!”
Jonas apparently was happy in his new place of residency, as shortly after his arrival he was joined by his brother Abraham and his sister Sarah, who was married to a man named Morris Moses. David Israel Johnson and his young family joined, as well. Johnson had attempted to join his brother Phineas who had established himself as an Indian trader on the frontier, but decided that such a life was not for him. In 1821, the Johnsons would have the honor of bearing the first Jewish child born in Cincinnati.
Despite the belief that Cincinnati had but six Jews, in this year it was found that there was indeed another. Jonas and his brother-in-law Moses were called to the bedside of a dying man who had lived his life as a Christian but wanted to be buried according to his true faith. As there was yet no cemetery for Jewish burial, Jonas approached Nicholas Longworth, the major landholder of Cincin-nati, and purchased a lot outside the city for seventy-five dollars. Interestingly, Cincinnati had been hit by somewhat of a financial panic in 1820, which in the ensuing years would bring some of the wealthier men of the city to financial hardship. One can only wonder if this backdrop motivated Longworth to liquidate assets, so that he readily sold land for the cemetery, or if it was simple magnanimity to the few Jews in town.
It seems that the Jewish populace had made many friends amongst the gentiles of the city and had been making a generally good name for “Israelites.” This unusual incident led to the first lasting marker of Jewish settlement in Cincinnati: the first Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Moun-tains. You can visit that very cemetery today, at the corner of Chestnut Street and Central Avenue in the Betts-Longworth Historic District. Chestnut Street Cemetery is conserved and cared for by Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, and it will be 200 years old next year.
As this first marker was laid, the city would only increase its rapid transition from frontier town to bustling metropolis, and the industries which still define it today began to take shape. Cincinnati’s Jewish community would parallel, propel, and often lead the city’s growth in the following dec-ades.
Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors. United States, Somerset Publishers, 1979.
Sarna, Jonathan D., Klein, Nancy H. The Jews of Cincinnati. Center for the American Jewish Experi-ence on the Campus of HUC-JIR. 1989.
Merkel, Jayne. The Baum-Taft House: A Historiography. 1988.
Michael, Ann Deborah. The Origins of the Jewish Community of Cincinnati 1817-1860.