Edward S. Salomon: Washington Territory’s First Jewish Governor

Washington Territory and Washington State has seen many men—and two women—serve as governor. Only one so far has been Jewish. This was Edward S. Salomon, governor of Washington Territory from 1870 to 1872. His governorship was only a small part of an active life full of public service.

heritage bank LogoSalomon was governor during a period of transition for Washington. The Territory, founded in 1853, was growing but still years away from statehood. Many of the newcomers to the territory were immigrants, including Salomon himself, a Jewish immigrant from what is now Germany.

Edward Selig Salomon was born on December 25, 1836 in the Duchy of Schleswig, then part of Denmark. The Duchy went through deep political changes over Salomon’s lifetime and later became part of the German Empire.

The 1845 Danish census of Schleswig, available on Ancestry shows nine-year old “Selig” living with his parents Salomon Michael and Caroline Salomon and his many siblings. His father was listed as a clothing dealer.

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Edward Salomon was Governor of Washington Territory from 1870 to 1872. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, Susan Parish Photograph Collection, 1889-1990

Edward Salomon immigrated to the United States at 17, after attending the equivalent of high school. He settled in Chicago, where he began a career in law, politics and business. Salomon served as alderman for Chicago’s sixth ward from 1861to 1863. He married Sophia Greenhut (1841-1893) in Peoria, Illinois in 1860. She was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). They had six children, Benjamin, Maximilian “Max,” Carrie (Stern), Minnie, Anna (Harris) and Emil.

In 1861 Salomon enlisted in the 24th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Then as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Illinois Infantry he took command of the regiment during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg after his commander was wounded. Major General Carl Schurz later described him as “the only soldier at Gettysburg who did not dodge when Lee’s guns thundered; he stood up, smoked his cigar and faced the cannon balls with the sang froid of a Saladin …”

Salomon took command of the regiment, leading them during the Atlanta Campaign before being reassigned to deliver messages. He rejoined the regiment in December 1864 and was later promoted to brigadier general for his “distinguished gallantry and meritorious service.”

After the war, Edward Salomon returned to Chicago where he served as Cook County Clerk from 1865 to November 1869. He was then appointed governor of Washington Territory by President Ulysses S. Grant, replacing Alvan Flanders. As a territory, Washington could not elect its own governors. The men appointed by the President were usually eastern politicians with no connection to the Pacific Northwest.

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Salomon was lauded as a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

Moving to Olympia with his family, Salomon took office on March 4, 1870. Salomon’s administration proved to be a quiet one. His term did see the beginning of construction of a branch line of the Northern Pacific railroad up from the Columbia River to Puget Sound. Also, conflicting claims over the San Juan Islands by Great Britain and the United States were finally settled in 1872 through the arbitration of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany.

Joining Salomon in Olympia was his mother-in-law Mina Greenhut Schaffer (1816-1872). When she died, a number of people in town lowered their flags to half-mast. Salomon himself also became part of the Olympia community. He was a Mason, serving as Worshipful Master of the Olympia Lodge No. 1 Free, and was also a member of the Accepted Masons 32nd degree.

As one of only several Jewish families in Olympia at the time, Salomon helped hold High Holiday services at someone’s house and gave the Yom Kippur sermon (Temple Beth Hatfiloh was not founded until 1937). After Salomon left office, he helped the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Puget Sound purchase a burial plot in 1874. The plot is located within Masonic Memorial Park in Tumwater.

Salomon was caught up in the scandals of the Grant administration, largely centered on the corruption of some of his appointees and cabinet members, and resigned from office. (There is no evidence that Salomon was corrupt). The territorial legislature was sad to see him go and passed a resolution of thanks for his service to Washington. He left office on April 26, 1872.

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Houses on the east side of Main Street (now Capitol Way), Olympia on March 3, 1876. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

The Salomon family moved to San Francisco. His son Max became a physician at the German Hospital of San Francisco. Active with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Salomon was elected Department Commander of California in 1887. He also was President of the Volunteer Officers’ Retired List and served eight years as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy Republican League of San Francisco. He served in the California Legislature from 1889 to 1890 and was appointed Assistant District Attorney for San Francisco in 1898.

Edward Salomon remained active until his death on July 18, 1913. A popular speaker across California, the San Francisco Call memorialized him two days later as “always a jovial, bluff fellow whom no one would think of calling old. His speeches-or talks they were-were always replete with droll stories founded on his experiences.” His last public appearance had been as an orator at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg at Lakeside Park in Oakland on Independence Day.

Edward Salomon remains the only Jewish governor of Washington to date. His life demonstrates the important role that Jewish-Americans have played in the history of the United States—and in Olympia.

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