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Frontier Merchants


Frontier Merchants Stanley, Jerry.  1998.  Frontier merchants: Lionel and Barron Jacobs and the Jewish pioneers who settled the West.  New York:  Crown Publishers.  ISBN:  0517800195.

Stanley begins this book with a short yet informative introduction that gives young readers an overview of the gold rush in the Old West.  This background information reminds readers about the players in this drama that they already know, such as the prospectors, Indians, and women in search of husbands.  Stanley then informs readers that another crucial character in the Old West has often been overlooked.  He invites his readers to "Imagine him on almost any frontier wearing a businessman's hat, a pocket watch, and a suit in need of cleaning.  There he was, bouncing up and down in a wagon carrying canned goods, coffee, whiskey, and flour and choking on the dust kicked up by his team of mules.  He never received the fame of the mountain man or the Indian fighter, but in his own way he was a hero in the settlement of the West, for without him settlement wouldn't have been possible." (Stanley, pp.2-3)  The book then begins to focus on Lionel and Barron Jacobs, adventurous Jewish brothers who, in partnership with their father, set out to become frontier merchants in Tucson in 1867.  They started out with a dry goods store and eventually opened the first successful bank in Tucson, AZ.

Stanley uses the life of two brothers and a short time frame in the history of an Old West town to paint a very thorough picture of life in those times.  Along with the gritty and tough story of this town, this story also touches on issues that face every generation, such as race, religion, and entrepreneurship. In a very straightforward style, the reader sees the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Old West.  The story of how the bank was started is a good example of this.  "But when we approached Mr. Safford and Mr. Toole and made our proposal," Barron wrote, "it was made clear to us that the venture was purely a white concern, excluding Jews and Mexicans."  (Stanley, p.76)  But when the bank does get underway, it does turn out to be a diverse partnership.  "They were joined by four close friends who had been customers for years and who also had an eye for profit.  They were E. B. Gage, owner of the Grand Central Mine in Tombstone; Pinckney Tully, a Hispanic and co-owner of Tully & Ochoa, the third-largest merchandising firm in Tucson; Phillip Smith, ownder of the Vulture Mine in central Arizona; and A. Lazard, the Jewish lawyer who had sold his store to the brothers in 1872."  (Stanley, p.77)

Using both primary and secondary sources, Barron Jacobs' many letters to his father in San Francisco form the backbone for the story, and black and white pictures courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society and extensive secondary research round out Stanley's portrait of this frontier town.  His bibliographic note (Stanley, p.95) is well organized into sections that correspond to the different facets of the book, such as resources on the role of Jews in gold rush California, information on transportation of goods and people in the West, and information on Jewish merchants and bankers in the West.  The final paragraph thanks both the University of Arizona and the Arizona Historical Society for access to Barron Jacob's original letters.

Bush calls Stanley's narrative "brisk yet rich in detail in theme."  Certainly, the story moves quickly, and this makes for a quick and interesting read.  This book would also work well as a resource in a history or sociology class. 

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