#42 Nukwa and the merchant of Yale
Pioneer merchant Louis Oppenheim: not Oppenheimer
by Bonnie Ellen Campbell
First published Nov. 14, 2016
Editor’s note: Bonnie Campbell assumed she was English. As a young adult she was surprised to learn that her grandmother was the daughter of a Prussian-Jewish merchant Louis Oppenheim, of Yale, and his wife Nukwa (Hannah) of Spuzzum, daughter of the Nlaka’pamux Chief Oshamôt.
Here, Campbell follows Louis Oppenheim from his birth in what is now Wolsztyn, Poland, in 1810, to Sacramento City in 1851, to Victoria in 1858, and to his death in 1890 at Yale.
A more widely known pioneer family in B.C. were the Oppenheimers from the Kingdom of Bavaria. David Oppenheimer was elected the second mayor of Vancouver in 1888. The Oppenheimer brothers were in business at Yale at roughly the same time as Louis Oppenheim. Not surprisingly, there was some confusion within Bonnie Campbell’s family about whether Louis was an Oppenheim or an Oppenheimer. Here she sets the record straight. Louis probably knew the Oppenheimer brothers but there was no familial relationship.
In this article Bonnie Campbell also traces her grandmother Rosy’s early life and her education at All Hallows School in Yale, an institution that was prominent in “Across the Bright Continent,” a recent Ormsby Review article by Jennifer Iredale — Richard Mackie
I never knew Louis Oppenheim, but I wish I had. It turns out that he has influenced my life in many ways.
His black and white photograph in the modest frame hung on the wall of Gramma’s room for as long as I can remember. He is sitting in a barrel-backed desk chair, dangling a pair of wireframe reading glasses from his right hand as though having just reviewed his business ledgers. He has what Gramma would describe as a “nice, handsome face” with strong cheekbones and a resolute jaw. He looks at the camera with warm dark eyes — the same eyes with which Gramma looked at me for most of my childhood.
He is nearly sixty years old in the photograph. His dark hair is thinning and he is sporting bushy mutton-chop sideburns that travel halfway towards his chin. Around his white dog collar is a narrow black bowtie that he would have tied himself, with a short bow and two long extending tails. He is wearing a dark woolen overcoat with wide lapels and peg-top sleeves with two cuff buttons; his button-front vest is of lighter wool. It is the men’s fashion typical of the 1860s.
His left arm rests comfortably on the cushioned arm of the chair, showing the white linen cuff of his shirt and his broad hand. That photograph was one of the few personal treasures Gramma had from her childhood in Yale, B.C., the once world-famous gold-rush town on the mighty Fraser River where the turbulent canyon waters start to stabilize as the river nears the coast.
When I was old enough, I was told that my great-grandfather was from Frankfurt, Germany; that he owned a store in Yale; and that he was Jewish. Two of these things are true. Mom did not deliberately mislead me, she just got it wrong, as is so often the case when family members mishear stories and those stories get repeated. That was over forty years ago, when Gramma was in her early 90s. Even though she had helped raise me, we never talked about her heritage, and she spoke little of her father, Louis Oppenheim.
A year of research has revealed much about Louis’s life through government documents, newspaper articles, and history books. My great-grandfather was not from Germany, as Mom thought. He was from its main political antecedent, Prussia. The country of his birth is given as Prussia or Poland on various government documents, as borders and regimes changed in Europe over his lifetime.
It is true that Louis was a merchant. He operated a mercantile store in Yale with his brother, Samuel. We have proof in the form of a torn scrap of paper — a hand-written receipt for a case of boots purchased from L. & S. Oppenheim, dated 10 May 1869.
And it is true that Louis Oppenheim was Jewish. He was born in Wollstein, in Prussia, in 1810 in the province of Pozen. It is now the city of Wolsztyn, Poland. He had at least two younger brothers, Samuel and Raphael. Their father, Philip Oppenheim, was a merchant in general trade goods; all three boys were probably educated similarly, with eight years of public and then private school. They were most likely multilingual, speaking Yiddish, German, and English. Gramma wrote some childhood memories: “He was quite a scholar. I’ve seen his books. Shakespeare, Roman history, his small Hebrew Testament and many others.”
The Oppenheim brothers had no idea where they would end up when they left Prussia in the late 1830s. Whatever was going on in Prussia at the time, whether political, economic, or religious persecution, was enough to make all three brothers want to start new lives elsewhere in the world. Louis, Samuel, and Raphael met up in London, where they would have improved their English, before they left for New York in 1840.
Louis was the oldest at 30 years, Samuel was 22, and Raphael just 18. They didn’t stay long in New York, as Winfield Davis wrote in his History of Sacramento County:
After a short time there, they proceeded southward to Charleston, South Carolina in a brig. They were travelling for pleasure, and from Charleston, they proceeded to Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, having their private conveyance in which to make their interesting trip across the mountains. They crossed the Tennesseee [sic] River and travelled across the Raccoon and Lookout Mountains, to Columbus, Georgia, and from there went to Nashville, where they sold the horse and buggy and took a steamer for St. Louis.
They were aboard a paddle wheeler on the Mississippi about when Samuel Clemens was a child playing along the banks of the river. Their grand tour took them through five of the slave states, twenty years before the Civil War.
In November 1846, the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives, all three brothers become American citizens in Ottawa, Illinois, near where Lincoln was practicing law. On 16 January 1849, Raphael married a Kentucky girl, Louisa Gaugh, from a “prominent old southern family,” in Morganfield, Kentucky. He and probably his brothers had been “engaged in business” in Uniontown, Kentucky, a coalmining town on the Ohio River. The next year, the three brothers were together in Salisbury, Illinois, living in a hotel.
Their lives would change again after gold was discovered in 1849 on John Sutter’s property in California, and the Oppenheims decided the opportunities there were more promising. They did not seek gold themselves: they sought to do business with the gold-seekers. By 5 March 1851, the three brothers left “New York [having decided to go to California] and there took passage on the steamer Ohio” south to Panama. Louisa likely remained with her family in Kentucky before joining her husband, Raphael, in California.
In 1917, historian Kimball Webster recalled the voyage from New York to California in his book, The Gold Seekers of ’49:
The long and tedious voyage of five or six months around Cape Horn, though perhaps the cheapest, was viewed by many as being almost beyond endurance. The route by the Isthmus of Panama was attended by difficulties and dangers increasing as the traveller crossed the Isthmus from Charges to Panama, a distance of about fifty miles. This journey was performed in boats up the Charges River and thence by mules to Panama.
They then arranged passage north to San Francisco. This trip was not for the weak, Webster wrote, as “a large percentage of those waiting passengers were sick with the Panama fever or other tropical diseases, and many died.” The brothers resumed their sea voyage on the steamer, Tennessee, landing at San Francisco in the spring of 1851. They travelled to Sacramento near Sutter’s Mill and opened mercantile stores.
Sacramento was a place of opportunity for the three brothers. There were no established social hierarchies or restrictions due to their faith. Men from all over the world had already arrived and thousands more were on their way with hopes of making their fortunes. The Oppenheims were free to start any business within their means and become part of a growing community, of which they later became prominent citizens. They were educated, they had merchandizing experience, and they understood supply and demand. They sold guns, shot, gunpowder, and cigars.
Because of their extensive affairs at Sacramento, their business and community activities can be tracked through various newspapers. The two older Oppenheim brothers, Louis and Samuel, formed a partnership, and Raphael operated his own business. Unfortunately, within a year both businesses and their complete inventories were lost in the catastrophic Sacramento fire of 5 November 1852. Details of the community’s business losses were listed in the Sacramento Daily Union the next day, including: “L. Oppenheim and Brother, cigar store: $4000, R. Oppenheim, variety store: $22,000.”
A priority of the Jewish pioneers was to organize their communal and religious life. This involved establishing a Hebrew Benevolent Society to help those less fortunate, buying land for a Jewish cemetery, and building a synagogue. Louis Oppenheim was elected a trustee of the Hebrew Benevolent Association in Sacramento at an annual meeting of the society in May 1857. The Hebrew Cemetery in Sacramento was “under the control of the Congregation B’nai Israel, but owned by the Hebrew Benevolent Society.”
Both Louis and Samuel joined the Freemasons in Sacramento and are listed as charter members and officers of the Union Lodge, No. 58, F. & A. M. in Sacramento. No religious affiliation barred their membership, as historian Jacob Katz wrote: “In fact, if we trace the history of the Freemasons back to its very inception, we find that the principle of religious toleration was already incorporated in the very first constitution compiled in England in the 1720s.”
Membership in the Freemasons, inclusive and non-denominational, helped integrate the Oppenheim brothers into the business community at Sacramento. The Freemasons provided the brothers with relationships with other men they could trust to do business with, as well as an opportunity to integrate with others outside their faith as they put down roots.
The evidence suggests that the two younger brothers, Samuel and Raphael, had a serious falling out in the summer of 1857, probably over money. The Sacramento Daily Union reported that, “The stock of S. Oppenheim, who keeps a variety store on J Street, near 3rd, was attached yesterday by the Sheriff for the sum of $4,500, at the suit of R. Oppenheim, for money loaned.” The youngest brother, Raphael, had put a lien on the business assets of Samuel [and Louis]. This episode probably damaged their relationship.
By June of the following year, 1858, Samuel was in Victoria, and there is no evidence that he ever returned to Sacramento. He described his first impressions in a letter to his brother, which was published in the Sacramento newspaper for the many readers anxious for news of the distant gold fields: “When I entered Victoria I found a great many acquaintances.” He also recorded that the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had not been anxious for news of the gold discovery to reach the outside world: “The Hudson’s Bay Company discovered gold for the first time on the Fraser River last summer, and they kept it dark until it leaked out.” The northward rush of miners and merchants, which started in April 1858, explains Louis’ early presence in the duty-free port of Victoria.
The thirty thousand miners following the Fraser River gold rush were required to travel to Victoria to obtain a mining licence, and then arrange passage across the Gulf of Georgia and up the Fraser River. Naturally, the merchants followed. Former HBC officer, James Douglas, already governor of Vancouver Island colony, became governor of the new mainland crown colony of British Columbia on 19 November 1858. On that same day, the HBC lost its exclusive trading rights with the “Indians” in the new colony.
In December 1858, Douglas proclaimed that all mineral rights along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers belonged to the Crown, and that mining licences, held by a monthly fee, were required to dig, search, and remove gold. The intent was to raise revenue for the Crown with which to provide a new colonial infrastructure on the mainland colony.
Previously, during the trade licence era on the mainland, the HBC had operated a handful of forts, often separated by hundreds of miles and supported by hunting, trapping, and trading. Beaver and other animal pelts remained the basis of the economy.
This all changed with the discovery of gold. Historian Frederick Howay noted that within a short time, a central authority was required to form a civil government, maintain law and order, raise and collect revenue, build roads and bridges, and provide for “all the thousand-and-one things which are necessary to change a wilderness into the abode of civilized and law-abiding people.” A detachment of the Royal Engineers arrived in 1858.
The Crown also unilaterally assumed authority over the Nlaka’pamux people. Governor Douglas was concerned about the vast numbers of miners from almost every country in Europe, as well as from the United States, crossing into what was now a crown colony. He was also concerned about the threat of violent interactions between the miners and the Nlaka’pamux people, then known as the Thompson Indians, whose traditional land was under occupation by the gold seekers and whose livelihood was irreparably disrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of thirty thousand miners.
My great great grandfather Chief Oshamôt?Tiamah (Osamote) had been one of those involved in a short violent skirmish called the Canyon War in August 1858, when American miners attempted to impose their vigilante behaviour and territorial ambitions on the Nlaka’pamux people. More Nlaka’pamux died than miners; it was less a war than a dangerous skirmish; cooler heads on both sides prevailed, and things settled down.
It was these same Nlaka’pamux people who had helped Simon Fraser navigate the Canyon, fifty years earlier. Fraser was the first explorer of “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous rivers,” primarily to find supply routes for the Hudson Bay posts.
Louis Oppenheim’s activities can be traced through the newspapers, various government records, and family memories. He and Samuel were at Hope, a major gold rush settlement and also a former HBC post, in the summer or fall of 1858.
In January of 1860, in the dead of winter, Samuel was among over fifty petitioners who urged Governor Douglas to prevent the monopoly which they feared would follow the granting of a single lease “of nearly a mile of mining ground on Cornish Bar” to a single company. They considered this gold-mining section of the Fraser River bank to be the most productive near Hope. Without the single lease, this stretch of the river could support 50-100 miners, who would be good customers for the merchants in the community.
In March 1860, Louis participated in a Grand Jury for the District of Hope, a role in which he made at least the passing acquaintance of Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, the first Chief Justice of British Columbia. The jury was empanelled to prepare a report for Begbie on the conditions of the local jail, on the need for a bridge across the Coquehalla [sic] River, and on a backlog of legal transfers of land titles.
Louis practiced an ecumenical benevolence while living in Hope, as his daughter Rose (“Gramma,” my grandmother), wrote: “We never failed to go to evensong in Hope Anglican Church, as we know that it is a duty of the clergy to say morning and evening prayers every day. I played the hymns for his service on a little golden oak stopless organ and my mother told me once that my father, when he was in business in Hope and before he moved to Yale, had donated this organ to the Hope Church.”
The two Oppenheim brothers soon relocated to Yale to be at the head of the steamboat navigation on the Fraser River, and for ready access to Cariboo Wagon Road, which started at Yale. Yale was the great transshipment point or entrepot between steamers from Victoria and New Westminster and wagon trains heading overland to the rich Cariboo gold fields and Barkerville.
Louis and Samuel Oppenheim were at Yale during the Yale Convention of September 1868. This meeting of twenty-six elected delegates from various districts in British Columbia was called “for the purpose of accelerating the admission of this Colony into the Dominion of Canada, upon equitable and beneficial terms; and, also, to devise means to secure Representative Institutions with Responsible Government for this Colony….”
Even though British Columbia would not join the Dominion until 1871, the delegates gave three cheers for the Queen, and three for the Dominion. The Oppenheims would have known the four delegates from Yale: the two owners and editors of the B.C. Examiner, a clerk with F.J. Barnard stagecoach, and the local baker. They and the Oppenheims were listed together among forty businessmen in the 1868 town directory.
Owing, perhaps, to the gradual and inevitable decline of gold returns on the Fraser River and along the entire length of the Cariboo Road, Louis and Samuel Oppenheim dissolved their business partnership in Yale on 1 March 1872, as the Daily Colonist reported:
“The Partnership hitherto existing between Louis Oppenheim and Samuel Oppenheim in the business at Fort Yale, B.C., known as the firm of L. & S. Oppenheim, is dissolved by mutual consent. The debts for or against the partnership will be paid and received by Louis Oppenheim.”
Samuel Oppenheim must have known he was ill, and it seems likely that he travelled back to San Francisco for medical attention or to be near his youngest brother, Raphael, and his sister-in-law Louisa, who had remained in Sacramento with their three children. Samuel died within three months, on 28 May 1872, aged 54, and is buried in the Sherif Israel cemetery near San Francisco, now known as the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, with a headstone bearing Hebrew script on the top half.
I have often wondered how my sixty-year-old great-grandfather met his teenaged wife, Nukwa (Hannah), of the Nlaka’pamux people from Spuzzum. Her father, Chief Oshamôt?Tiamah (Osamote), involved in the Canyon War in 1858, was also one of the chiefs present when the new Governor Seymour invited Aboriginal Chiefs and their people to celebrate The Queen’s Birthday on 24 May 1864. Thirty-five hundred First Nations people attended the gathering at Queens’s Park, New Westminster.
Louis and Nukwa (Hannah) were together for twenty years, until his death in 1890.
They named their first son Philip, born in 1872, after Louis’s father in Prussia.
Then came Rachael, Esther, Rosy, Helen, Dorothea, David, and Nathan.
All eight children survived to middle age, and some lived into their nineties.
Dedicated to ensuring all of his children were educated, Louis considered several options, as Gramma recalled. “My father was just then thinking of sending my two older sisters and myself to California to be educated there.”
It didn’t come to pass. Instead, Gramma and her two younger sisters, Helen and Dorothea, were transferred from the public school to All Hallows School of the West, run by three Anglican nuns. Gramma had lasting memories of the school and a deep adoration for these women.
These women had travelled from All Hallows Convent in Norfolk, England, in 1884 to start a school for “Indian” girls, but they found themselves accepting the mixed-race children of Louis Oppenheim and others; as well as the white daughters of Anglican clergy and other prominent families. It was then operated as a segregated school.
When Louis Oppenheim died in April of 1890, the Vancouver Daily World noted:
The respect which the electors of Yale entertained for Mr. Oppenheim was shown by the fact that at that time of his decease he was a member of the Board of School Trustees, a position he had held for some 12 years. He always took a great interest in the public school, and his children were among the most punctual and regular attendants.
When my great-grandfather Louis Oppenheim died, the handwritten death certificate recorded “Hebrew” as his religion. Gramma and her siblings, however, were all baptized Anglican. In fact, I grew up thinking we were English.
There was no synagogue in Yale, where Louis met my great-grandmother, had a family, and finally settled. The nearest at the time was the Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria, built in 1863. I searched for his possible connection with the synagogue and I was fortunate to find, on the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. website, a digitized list of donors to the Congregation Emanu-El building fund in 1862. In the third column, about thirty names down, I found his signature, “L. Oppenheim.” He had pledged $10.
When Louis knew he was dying, he requested a Masonic service. His obituary describes his funeral:
“[Which] took place on Thursday afternoon, May 1st, when a large number of friends assembled at the residence of the deceased. A procession formed and the family and friends of the deceased followed his body to its last resting place, Yale Cemetery, where the Church of England burial service was read.”
After successfully operating mercantile stores for many years, and becoming a respected member of the Yale community, my great-grandfather died, according to his death certificate, “of natural causes and old age.” The certificate also records that he “died in destitute circumstances.”
I found this painful the first time I read it, standing at the desk of the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, but I have since learnt that it was through no fault of his own that he left his 34-year-old widow, Nukwa (Hannah), and their eight children with nothing.
As his obituary explains:
After quitting the business he visited relatives in California. Before returning home he left with his friends $15,000 for investment, believing he could invest his money better in California than in British Columbia. In this he was, however, unfortunately for himself and family, mistaken, for we are informed that those with whom he had deposited his fortune, speculated with it during the Stock Exchange excitement in California and Nevada, and he was left dependent upon the kindness and beneficence of the friends he had made in this country.
Louis Oppenheim is buried in the Yale Cemetery, but no one knows precisely where. What was most likely a simple wooden marker for his grave is long gone.
His photograph, which made me want to know his story, character, and values, now evokes even more meaning for me.
I can now say some things about him with certainty:
He was an adventurer. He left his childhood home in Prussia with two brothers and travelled thousands of miles to make a new life for himself in the frontiers of California and then British Columbia.
As he followed his ambitions, his life intersected with pivotal historical events.
He was tenacious and resilient. He started over several times in new communities and eventually made a meaningful marriage with a prominent Nlaka’pamux family.
He believed in education. He ensured the education of his own children and others, and supported their school.
He was benevolent. He did not just try to better his own life, but to better the life of his children and the amenities of his community.
And while I did not have the opportunity to know him, I did know one of his daughters, my Gramma Rosy Oppenheim, who helped raise me and who preserved his photograph. My archival research has consequently affirmed and upheld the high regard with which Gramma held him.
This is Bonnie Campbell’s first published writing, and it is only a fraction of the family history she is working on. Besides writing articles for newspapers and magazines, she is currently working on a manuscript titled, I Thought We Were English. Bonnie Campbell reports: “I am writing about two remarkable people from two remarkable cultures: a Jewish merchant from Prussia and a Nlaka’pamux girl from the Fraser River Canyon. I am also writing about one of their eight children, my grandmother Rosy Oppenheim. My family story intersects with the life and times of the California gold rush; the origins of the mainland colony of British Columbia; the retention of Jewish values in the mining communities of western North America; the impact of colonization on Nlaka’pamux culture and people; the intricacies of cedar root basketry; the survival by resilient women of personal upheavals and hardships; the history and legacy of the Anglican All Hallows School at Yale; the passage of precious legacies down through generations; and how a Gramma can make a difference. My writing and research arose because of the boundless encouragement of Jean Barman, professor emeritus at UBC. I encourage all families to examine their past and preserve their valuable stories for their descendants.” Bonnie Campbell graduated from the University of Victoria and retired from a career as an investment professional. She also held volunteer positions as an Honorary Governor with the Victoria Foundation; a board member with the Juan de Fuca Hospital Foundation and Victoria Hospice; and a trustee for the Victoria Opera Foundation. She lives in Victoria with her husband and two Cairn terriers, plays ukulele, and dabbles in Mahjong and painting.
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