History of Virginia's Russian Jewish Colony

April 2013
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The Russian Colony of Middlesex County
Virginia's Lost Colony
1882 - 1883

By Joan D. Charles Copyright July 2012

The term colony conjures up scenes of Virginia's Jamestown and the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts in the early 17th century. Earlier, in 1585, was the famous lost colony in North Carolina. After the Revolutionary War, the settling of America moved westward and the term colony disappeared to be replaced by territory. So it was surprising to find that there were colonies still being settled in 19th century Virginia as well as in Kansas, Oregon, Louisiana, North Dakota, New Jersey and numerous other states.

A colony, according to the World Book Dictionary, is a group of people who leave their own land, and go to settle in another land. Middlesex County, Virginia was one of those other lands. October 25, 1882, fourteen exiled Russian Jewish families left Baltimore on the steamboat Mason L. Weems seeking a new life and freedom in America. Seventy-two men, women and children arrived at the wharf at Water View with high hopes of creating a successful agricultural community.

To join together the pieces of the mosaic of this colony one must look at life in Russia as well as conditions in Virginia in the 1880's. To complete the picture one must investigate an enterprising and benevolent Jewish family of Baltimore.

In Russia

March 1, 1881 Czar Alexandria II was assassinated and rumors abound that it was a Jewish conspiracy. Supposedly spontaneous riots, known as pogroms, erupted aimed at the Jewish population. Some historians theorize the pogroms were government inspired, others claim Russian and Greek merchants were envious of successful Jewish businessmen.

In southern Russia, homes and businesses were set afire, Jewish citizens beaten and killed. As a result, Russian officials encouraged emigration. Whatever the reasons for these riots, spontaneous or planned, government instigated or citizen centered, the Jews of Russia were targeted for obliteration.

American newspapers in 1881 ran stories about the persecution of the Jews. The Baltimore Sun of August 12th, recounted the violence in Western Russia. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, of August 13th, reported that 60,000 Jews were preparing to leave Russia for Spain with the blessing of the King of Spain. The Akron, Ohio, Summit County Beacon of August 24th reported that "the [Russian] Minister of the Interior had requested the Governors of Western Provinces to furnish statistics in regard to Jews and their occupations, in order to regulate the abnormal condition of affairs there, where Jews outnumbered Christians and monopolized trade." Perhaps this gives a clue as to the attitude of the Russians towards the prosperous Jewish communities.

By autumn of 1881 preparations were in motion to welcome the exiled Russian Hebrews to America. The Philadelphia Inquirer of November 18th cites 250 Jews from Southern Russia arrived on the steamboat Helvetia of the National Line which also had a contract to deliver 5,000 more to America. In December, the Daily Picayune of New Orleans recounted the arrival of 34 families amounting to 105 men, women, and children of which 30 were able-bodied men. The article goes on to say that in Russia these men were well-to-do tradesmen, lawyers, students, and a few farmers. The refugees had pooled what little money they were able to carry out of the country. They did not consider themselves as beggars and planned to work hard to repay all the funds advanced to them including the passage money. This group would eventually attempt a colony on Sicily Island in Louisiana.

In America

The Civil War in America ended in 1865. No longer did the agrarian society of Virginia have the use of slaves to fulfill the labor needs of plantation owners. Most of the Southern states were under Federal reconstruction rules until 1877. Many of the emancipated slaves preferred to till the soil of their own little farms rather than come under the employment of former masters. Thousands of acres of farmland went uncultivated and the economy of Virginia, as well as other Southern states, was devastated.

January 9, 1866, the Philadelphia Inquirer, chided Virginia by saying "In Virginia there is still much of the ancient aristocracy which cursed her fair soil, and it is not probable that the 'descendents of the cavaliers' will abate a large amount of the prerogative which they claim as appertaining exclusively to themselves. Labor with them means that of the slave, and it is difficult for them to rise above this idea, although their slaves are emancipated."

The Selling of Virginia

However Virginia was not sitting still with her problem of encouraging immigration to fill her abandon lands. On February 5, 1866 the legislature passed "AN ACT To Incorporate the Virginia Land and Aid Immigration Company" which reads in part:

Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Virginia:

To purchase or lease lands in Virginia, to be resold or relet to immigrants; To act as agents for the sale or leasing of lands, in Virginia, to immigrants.

By May of 1866 the Society was advertising in the Richmond Examiner that it was sending a Director abroad to secure tenants and laborers.

The Baltimore Sun ran weekly articles about land sales in Virginia. One such announcement appeared in the May 13, 1869 issue recounted the sale of 500 acres in Orange county with fine improvements, for $8,000 cash, to Joseph K. Dobbins, Esq. of Philadelphia.

Across the continent in California the news spread. August 3, 1869, the Daily Evening Bulletin announced under the title of NEW VIRGINIA, "A number of gentlemen in New Jersey are spoken of as having organized and appointed a Committee to go to Virginia and inspect lands offered to them by General Imboden, the immigration agent of the State." Imboden was an ex-Confederate Army officer from Staunton and a trained lawyer.

Non-Virginians soon realized the value of Virginia land as reported by the Sun on October 22, 1880.

Intelligence has been received in New York that Judge Welford, of the Circuit Court of Richmond, Va., has granted a charter of incorporation to an association of New York capitalists, under the title of "The Old Dominion Land Company." The incorporators are Messrs. C. P. Huntington, Harvey Fisk,, A. S. Hatch, Jas. H. Storrs and J. E. Gates. Mr. Huntington is president of the company ... The capital stock is restricted to $4,000,000. The stated object of the company is to own, mine and develop land in the State of Virginia. Some of the lands belonging to the company are on the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio railway, which begins in Richmond, and has its terminus in Huntington, W.Va., on the Ohio river, but the larger part lies on the peninsula which divides the waters of the York and .James rivers. The land will be divided into small farms and sold or leased to settlers. ...

These efforts evidently paid off. The 1870 census of Middlesex County showed an increase in population of over 14% and an additional increase of over 25% in the next decade. In 1860 there were 4,364 persons and in 1880 the number had risen to 6,252.

Joseph Friedenwald

Joseph Friedenwald was the son of Jonas Friedenwald, a poor German Jewish immigrant of Baltimore. Born in Altenbuseck, Germany on July 24, 1827, Joseph immigrated with his family to the United States in 1838. He was just a boy of ten as he watched his father go from being an umbrella repairer to junk dealer to wealthy hardware wholesaler. Jonas also set an example of the value of benevolence as the founder of several Hebrew charitable and religious organizations. Joseph was the father of fourteen children which included many doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen.

The Civil war divided the nation, cities, religious organizations and families. The Jewish community of Baltimore was well acquainted with this division. The Jewish population almost went into revolt with various Rabbis taking political sides. This rift was manifest in the Friedenwald family as well. Joseph, a staunch Democrat, sided with the Confederacy. His brother, Aaron, as a Republican was a strong Unionist.

Joseph Friedenwald was a remarkable businessman. He was a partner in Weisenfeld & Company, Weisenfeld, Stern & Company, Hecht, Miller & Company, and president of the Permanent Land Company, according to the Baltimore City Directory of 1877. In February of 1882 he was confirmed by the Baltimore City Council as a Director representing the City for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. Following in his father's footsteps, he founded many Jewish benevolent organizations. Unlike his father, he was deep into Baltimore politics and backed several candidates.

The Land

. It is possible Friedenwald visited Virginia in search of land for investment. On August 3, 1882 Joseph Friedenwald purchased 497 acres of Inglewood Farm. Robert Latane Montague, a well known Virginia, had died at this farm in 1880. Friedenwald's purchase was for the whole farm minus 100 acres that went to Montague's widow. It is described as being bordered north by the Rappahannock River; south by Buckingham Farm; east by Harry George Creek; west by the road to Waterview Wharf. Six years earlier on October 25, 1876, Friedenwald with his wife Maria and his son-in-law, David Weisenfeld, purchased a farm known as Buckingham of 286 acres adjacent to Inglewood giving them a total of 783 continuous acres.

The Coming of the Russian Hebrews

The Building of a Community

Less than three months after purchasing Inglewood Farm, Friedenwald sponsored fourteen Russian refugee families according to the Sun of October 25, 1882. He personally escorted them to Middlesex aboard the Mason L. Weems that docked a short distance from the farm. They came with high hopes and supplies from the generous members of the Jewish community of Baltimore. The Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society provided the 72 men, women and children with bed, bedding, clothes and food.

A description in the Daily Picayune of the Russian immigrants settling in Louisiana a year earlier may well have described the Middlesex group:

It was noticed that the men were mostly of medium height and not particularly broad shouldered or chested, and that a number of them wore spectacles and eye glasses. The children are remarkably large, strong and chubby of face, many of them being dressed in the queer brown blouses familiar to the eyes of persons who have traveled through Germany and Northern Europe.

As a general thing they [the women] are of medium size, perhaps a little under the size of American women, and are fine featured, some of them being strikingly handsome. Their costumes were in great variety, varying from the gored skirt and basque of fashionable America to a short, round, full skirt, made of coarse brown woolen stuff, and surmounted by an enormous blouse gathered in at the neck and waist in a style that must be peculiarly Russians. They wear their hair generally braided at the back.

By spring of 1883 the Middlesex colonists seemed well established as noted in these excerpts from the Sun of April 9th which gives a first-hand description of the colony:

... Sixteen of the children have been attending a public school within two miles of this place and some of them show a wonderful proficiency already, not only speaking English, but writing it correctly ... The men have all declared their intention of becoming naturalized. Being orthodox Hebrews their religion is strictly observed and they will only marry with Hebrews. ...

There is a fine wharf adjoining the property, at which the boats of the Weems Line stop three times a week each way. ... The colonists have been furnished with all kinds of garden seeds, and in addition to other crops expect to put twenty acres in tobacco. Last fall forty acres were seeded to wheat and forty acres in rye, which now looks promising. Fifty acres have been seeded with oats, with clover sown, and 150 acres of corn land is prepared for that crop. The colonists have eleven horses and five cows presented by kindly Virginia neighbors, but no sheep or hogs. The stock of farming implements is meager as yet on account of the very considerable expense incurred in other purchases ... Among those who have shown special interest in the success of the colonists are Dr. W. K. Gatewood [physician of West Point], P. T. Woodward, clerk of the court, A. B. Evans, [commissioner in Chancery for the Circuit Court of Middlesex], Robert H. McCann [probably McKann, owner of Providence Farm at Waterview], Rev. J. W. Ryland, [of Heritage Baptist Church], Rev. W. A. Street [of Glebe Landing Baptist Church]

... A large blacksmith shop is the first building reached. Its workmanlike construction, though it was done with insufficient tools, was a matter of comment. ... The entrance to the farm was through a combination gate, surmounted with an ornamental arch hewed from one piece of timber. On the top of the arch is a metal flag made in the shop with 1883 cut in it. The latch of the main gate is a ram's head. The dwelling houses, ten in number, are comfortable weather-boarded log cabins, one and a-half stories high, 16 by 20 feet. They are in a straight line, facing the river, about 60 yards apart. The interior of these dwellings is neat, bright and attractive. The inside walls are were lathed diagonally, and the women worked up the clay with their feet with which to plaster them. After treading it until it was of the proper consistency they made it into balls and put it on with their hands. On the inside of each door is inscribed in Hebrew on parchment a part of the written law of these people, as directed in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 9. ... The bread of the entire colony is baked in an oven in the open air, of singular construction. The foundation is made of wood, with clay stamped firmly over it. Over this is an arch made of twigs covered with straw and over the straw a heavy layer of clay was placed. Fire was made in it, the twigs and straw burnt, the clay arch remaining solid and firm. ...

The most notable thing in the colony is a bath-house, 24 by 30 feet, two stories high, made of skinned pine logs. So deftly are these logs fitted that the house is nearly airtight and quite attractive in appearance. It has a frame roof, quite ornamental. One-half of the ground floor is planked over, and the other half is dug out to make a reservoir for the water. A stream flows into this with sufficient force to give a constant change of water. Such a bath-house as this is necessitated by the religious tenets of the Hebrews.

The article goes on to name three of the residents: Juda Frankel, the blacksmith; Mortecai Frankel, son of the blacksmith, who was born while in the colony; and Jacob Benowitz, the brilliant twenty-two year old son of a lawyer. There were two other children born at the colony with one of the boys being named Jonas in honor of Joseph Friedenwald's father. It also states that several Virginians have attended their religious ceremonies including the circumcision and christening of Mortecai Frankel.

Reports in the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer in June and August did not give any hint at there being problems or dissatisfaction with the colony.

Failure of the Colony

November 27, 1883 came the news in the New York Times that the colony had broken up. Only two families remained to take care for the livestock. The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Baltimore would be returning one family to Russia at their request. The Society found positions for the men in Baltimore and some of the women were to be taught to use the sewing machine.

Other Russian Hebrew agricultural colonies before and after the Middlesex attempt had failed for various reasons. The Louisiana colony on Sicily Island lasted only a year, suffering many deaths from swamp fever and was eventually washed away in a flood. An 1882 colony in Cimarron, Kansas had only a brief existence probably due to poor farming land. Theories range from a lack of women to lack of leadership for the failure of the New Odessa colony in Oregon. A colony in Charles County, Maryland mirrored the fate of the Middlesex colony. Within a year and a half it had broken up and the residents returned to Baltimore to find work in cigar factories.

The one success story comes from Alliance, New Jersey where a substantial colony thrived into the twentieth century. Unlike other colonies it was not founded as strictly a farming community. The population was larger and included artisans.

What caused the failure of the Virginia colony was probably poor soil that had not been improved and the lack of farming experience by the colonists. It was reported that their first crop was a failure. Weather may have been a factor with portions of Virginia suffering drought in 1883. Colonists may have been unprepared for the strenuous work of building a community and farming. Taken from the horrors of riots in their homeland and being separated from a more urban environment, the colonists may have suffered psychologically.

What became of the residents of this 19th century colony is hard to determine. There is no 1890 census to check. Whether all or any of the immigrants made permanent homes in Baltimore is not known. Did the descendents conquer the overwhelming trials of leaving their homeland under great duress? What happened to little Mordecai Frankel and the brilliant Jacob Benowitz?

The shadow of the ten cottages or remnants of the bake oven and bath house may still lay beneath the soil of Middlesex county to be found by some future archeologists. Perhaps the flag forged by the blacksmith Frankel will be unearthed or the ram's head latches will send them to the Deed Books of the Middlesex Courthouse in search of Virginia's lost colony.


from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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