Hidden Histories

A Jewish Merchant, Western American Indian Massacres, and their 'Philadelphia Connection' in the 19th Century'

Monday, 6/13/11
Years ago, the prolific writer of Western fiction, the late Louis L'Amour, remarked how he was often asked where he obtained ideas for his numerous publications. He replied they "are out there by the thousands, wonderful stories...Many have never gotten into the histories...but one has only to listen, to look, and to live with awareness...Ours is a rich and wonderful world, and there are stories everywhere. Nobody should ever try to second-guess history, the facts are fantastic enough." (Education of a Wandering Man, NY: Bantam Books, 1989: pp's.29, 141).

L'Amour also stated that many of the above 'stories' included accounts of 'wagon train massacres,' which were indeed frequently found published within our nation's newspapers throughout the 19th-century. These included harrowing tales of conflicts between the Western Indians, civilians, as well as the traditional battles between the regular armed forces of the United States, both within and outside their various frontier forts, posts, and way-stations.

Naturally, when one envisions such dramatic occurrences as the above, as frequently found in stereotypical 'Western' novels or movies, the 'City of Philadelphia' doesn't readily come to mind, being far removed in distance from the Western states at that time.  However, as has been said repeatedly, "truth is stranger than fiction." Thus both fictitious and factual renditions of 'wagon train' and other 'Indian massacres' are surprisingly connected to the 'City of Brotherly Love' during the nineteenth century.

By the thousands, many Pennsylvanians like other Americans migrated as settlers and adventurers to the Western states for decades. One recent published account is that of Henry Jonathan Pickering of Susquehannah County, Pennsylvania, who along with "one hundred Pennsylvania men" journeyed in wagons during the Spring of 1877 to South Dakota, during its famous "Black Hills gold rush." (See, Cindy Haas Griffeth and Bill Haas, "When a Sioux Chief Met Our Grandmother," American Ancestors, Fall, 2010: 38-40).

However, one famous hoax that captured the attention of the nation, concerned the purported "Fort Buford Massacre," first published in one of Philadelphia's most prestigious newspapers, the renown Philadelphia Inquirer, for April 1st, 1867. Whether intentional or not, it has become a true 'April Fool's Joke,' in print, which eventually 'made the circuit' of the country's papers, throughout the month of April and into May of that year.

Purportedly, the commanding officer of the fort, a Capt. William G. Rankin, "his wife and child, and eighty soldiers of his command" in what is now North Dakota, were annihilated during a three-day siege, ending with "the killing of Mrs. Rankin by her husband to prevent her capture..." while he was said to have been tortured to death by the Indian attackers (see the New York Times, April 10, 1867; the sketch on 'Fort Buford' at Wikipedia; as well as Robert G. Athearn's article, "The Fort Buford 'Massacre,' in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol.41, No.4: March, 1955: pp's. 675-684). 

However, by May of 1867, most of the country came to realize that the so-called 'Buford Fort Massacre' had never truly transpired, especially once Rankin himself began sending communications to the contrary, revealing how he was very much alive!

Such published sensationalism in order to sell newspapers to a gullible public is of course nothing new. Plus, considering the primitive communication methods available at the time, it was easy for both reporters and the public-at-large, to believe what one first saw in print, via the telegraph, until further information was obtained by letter or personal eye-witness testimony. Thucydides, the ancient Athenian scholar, stated centuries before Christ that, "Sad to say, most people will believe the first story they hear."

Yet one falsehood does not negate the reality of other reported 'massacres' which did indeed occur during the 19th century throughout the West. One in particular, would actually involve as well, a Philadelphia Jewish resident named Leopold Snowberger.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger, for December 28, 1849, reported the death of a resident of the city, stating how: "On the 23d or 24th of October last, on the Plains, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mr. LEOPOLD SNOWBERGER, of this city, aged 56 years. He being one of the victims so brutally murdered by the savage Indians in company with Mr. J. M. White, a Santa Fe trader-leaving a wife and six small children in this city to mourn his untimely loss."  (not to be confused with the non-Jewish SNOWBERGER family, who came to Pennsylvania during the 18th-century, that were German Lutherans)

'Schedule 3,' of the Federal Mortality or Nonpopulation Census Schedules for Pennsylvania, 1850, "South Mulberry Ward" of Philadelphia, list the death of LEOPOLD SNOWBERGER, age 48, born in Germany, a 'Shirt Manufacturer' by profession, and his ''Cause of Death: Murdered."

The Public Ledger once again, for December 5, 1836, lists the marriage of "Mr. L. Snowberger, of Germany, to Miss BRINAH ABRAHAMS, daughter of Moses Abrahams, of the Northern Liberties," while the Federal Census of 1850: Philadelphia, South Mulberry Ward, (p.270), lists: BRINAH SNOWBERGER, age 24, 'Shirt Manufacturer,' born in PA, with children, ALISIA, ELIZABETH, LOUISA, ALBERT, HENRY, and ELLA, ages ten through one, the "six small children," all born in Pennsylvania as well.

Though Brinah Snowberger appears in various Philadelphia City Directories for years after her husband's death, as a 'Shirt Manufacturer' as well, living at 321 Cherry and later 237 Callowhill Streets, neither she, or her family, nor her husband appear in any probate records such as a Will, Administration, nor in the 'Orphan Court' records of Philadelphia, for 1849 and 1850 respectively.

Many contemporary and secondary accounts exist as to the life of J. M. White, who resided in Indepencence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, who frequently took wagon trains of merchandise to the West, a distance of some 800 miles. In 1849, he'd taken thirteen wagons, his wife, their youngest child, and a few employees, but when about 150 miles from Santa Fe, the party was attacked in an area frequented by marauding Apache, Commanche, and Ute Indian warriors, who regularly preyed upon any wagon-trains traveling within the region.

The party of which Leopold Snowberger was a member, purportedly ten in number, were later found dead and their bodies mutilated, specifically by a band of Jicarilla Apache commanded by a chief called White Wolf.  Mrs. White's body, when found by the military, had been tied to a willow tree, where she'd been shot to death with three arrows by her captors.

Interestingly, ALBERT SNOWBERGER, one of the sons of Leopold and Brinah, born in April of 1845, later served in Co. 'G,' of the 99th Pennsylvania Regiment, during the Civil War, but at the age of 18, died of wounds in January of 1863, received at the 'Battle of Fredericksburg' or Marye's Height, fought on December 13th, 1862 in Virginia. Though dying, he is said to have "waved his cap and urged his comrades on to victory," and breathed his last with his mother by his side, at a hospital in Washington, D.C. He was later interred in the 'Jewish Cemetery' or 'Burying Ground,' on Federal Street above Eleventh, in Philadelphia.

One wonders how Mrs. Snowberger felt, having first lost her husband years before to the Indians thousands of miles away, and now one of her sons, during a so-called 'Civil' conflict. Her family's story and others, await to be told in detail.

These and other such events can be gleaned, from the vast historical resources available, here at 'The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.'