The unknown history of Missoula Jews and the Bitterroot Salish

Griffen Smith reporter

Not many people would associate the Bitterroot Salish Tribe with Jewish people during Missoula’s early days.

That’s why a group of historians and tribal elders have teamed up to reveal the connections between the two groups, and are using the effort as a safe response to extremism coming into the state.

“Missoula developed with contributions from all sorts of folks, but the Jewish story was there and needed to be told,” local historian Bert Chessin said. “We came to discover that after the railroad was built through Missoula in the mid-19th century, Missoula had a thriving business community with many Jewish people.”

The tour at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at the University of Montana takes visitors through the first Jewish settlers in Missoula, who often traded with and lived near the tribes. Jacob Leiser, one of the first Jewish settlers in Montana, walked from California to Missoula in the 1870s.

Chessin’s research found that Leiser had no possessions after swimming across the Columbia River. Indigenous tribes fed him at times. When he got to Missoula, which then had a population of 50, he set up a clothing store, where he often traded with the Bitterroot Salish.

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