Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Part I of III

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” We’ve heard those words of Koheleth so often in life that we assume they are an accurate description of reality. Readers of the Jewish Link in particular, well informed as they are of world affairs and up to date on the latest and newest developments, can attest to the truth of King Solomon’s biblical observation. That’s why the story I’m about to tell you will surprise, maybe even amaze, you.

Back in the 1850s, Sam Bennett left his home in Lodz, Poland, for the distant shores of the United States. Back in Europe he was known as Shmuel Benovits, an aspiring rabbinical student, who somehow had also mastered the carpentry trade. Political unrest in Lodz had led to attacks on the Jews of that city and since he had been orphaned at a young age, Shmuel’s uncle and aunt arranged passage for him on a train leaving from Lodz to Warsaw and ultimately onto a ship bound for Philadelphia from Germany. He arrived weeks later in America, speaking the language with difficulty and with just enough money to sustain himself for two weeks. No one was there to greet him, but after inquiry, he was guided to the home of a rabbi in the port area, and so made his first friends in his newly acquired home. In a few weeks’ time he made other friends, got a job helping a master carpenter build wagons, and in every respect started to build his new life.

This was a period of great change in America, and soon talk of the West reached even the sections of Philadelphia in which Sam, or Shmuel, lived. As a single fellow of 20 years, Sam was fascinated by the stories he heard about the West, the hostile and peaceful native tribes, the buffalo, the cavalry and the hordes of settlers who clamored to leave the urban East, where Sam lived, for the wide-open spaces. Soon the call to try his fortunes out West became too great, so Sam gathered up the courage to leave Philadelphia and head to Missouri where he planned to open a trading post where he would sell all kinds of general goods to the new settlers arriving there. It took him three months to get to St. Joseph in Missouri, the jumping-off point for trips across the continent. To Sam’s chagrin, St. Joe, as the town was called, had an abundance of trading posts and general stores and didn’t need Sam’s at all. What was really needed were brave and hardy individuals who could carry supplies out into the wilderness to reach those distant, smaller settlements and army forts that relied on these shipments for their very existence.

Sam decided to save his money and he did so with a passion. In the next six months, by taking on numerous odd jobs, he accumulated a sufficient amount of capital to equip a sturdy wagon, four horses and a supply of sundries to begin his life across the Mississippi as an itinerant peddler. Whether you needed pots, pans, small tools, linens or blankets, Sam the peddler was the man for you. He started out visiting smaller towns and villages in Iowa and Nebraska, always making sure he didn’t venture too far from the larger trading posts where he could replenish his stock of goods and take some time off the road when he tired. As the months and, soon, years passed, Sam found himself traveling between U.S. Army forts and encampments, often befriending cavalrymen and their families as the government expanded the American footprint on the prairies. Of all the sights Sam beheld on his travels, nothing quite compared to the mammoth buffalo herds that regularly migrated from north to south across his path. The herds seemed endless and, in fact, were rumored to contain a million beasts in a single herd. When the buffalo departed, Sam quickly felt the loneliness of the prairie, a sense of the vastness of God’s creation that had few parallels. At such times Sam keenly felt the absence of other humans. In his western wilderness Sam prayed on a daily basis, referencing the almanac he carried in his wagon that told him what day of the week it was and what time of year, and his utilizing the worn prayer book or siddur he always kept nearby.

It was late in the summer of 1858 that Sam found himself as far west as he had ever traveled, in the Texas panhandle near what is today Lawton, Oklahoma, when he had the misfortune of running into a war party of Comanche Indians, themselves traveling farther east than they had ever done before. The Comanche tribe was given their name Comanshi or enemy by the Ute tribe with whom they were not on speaking terms. The Comanches, though not the most numerous tribe of Plains Indians, had no natural friends to speak of. They were known as the most adept horse soldiers in the West but also were regarded as the most capable horse thieves. Add to that their expertise in kidnapping for ransom any poor soul they might locate out on the plains and it is easy to see why Sam was in a great deal of trouble on that day in August when 12 Comanche horsemen entered his camp. Now, Sam had met Indians of a less warlike nature previously at various forts and trading posts over the years. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was fortunate that this particular group of Comanches belonged to the Quahada or “Antelope” group headed by Chief Bad Eagle, a fairly advanced young man who was fluent in several languages including English and Spanish. I forgot to mention that the Comanches were sort of “equal opportunity” kidnappers in that they would take Mexicans, Texans and other Indians captive almost without exception. They would trade them for horses, their most prized possession. As a result of this “trade,” the Comanches, by this time in American history, were rumored to have accumulated close to 250,000 of the finest horses on the continent. Sam’s team of horses was of great interest to the war party as was Sam himself. Accordingly, they promptly sent Sam under guard to their larger encampment some two days away to the northwest. They didn’t physically harm him; no need to lessen his potential ransom value. Also worth noting, the Comanches had never met a Jew before. In that connection, Sam’s meeting with Chief Bad Eagle would have some unusual repercussions as you will see, though it wasn’t obvious at the time.

By Joseph Rotenberg

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