After the Civil War, many former soldiers and others went out West to start a new life. They found that there was plenty of land available and that the buffalo, bison and other wildlife could sustain them while they farmed and built settlements. However, there was one problem that confronted them — the Indians.
The Indians had been living off the land for countless years. They saw the white men come and destroy the forests. Herds of buffalo and bison were being slaughtered and the newly built railroads were cutting up their territories. The Indians soon realized that in order to save their lives and their livelihood, they had to fight back. They burned houses and stockades of white settlers and murdered any travelers.
The situation became very serious for the white settlers. Action had to be taken. General George Forsyth was delegated by General Philip Sheridan to hire 50 first class frontiersmen to fight the attacking Indians. One of the first to apply was a young Hungarian-Jew, Zigmund Schlesinger, who had immigrated to America in 1864.
Schlesinger came to New York City and worked at many jobs. He heard about the opportunities that existed in the West and left New York to go to Kansas. In Kansas, he tried his hand at business by baking bread and cake and selling the foods under a canvas tent. The bakery failed as did some other business ventures.
When Schlesinger applied for the frontiersman with Forsyth, they were not anxious to have him. He was small with a high-pitched voice and had very little experience or knowledge of firearms and horsemanship. He was told if they couldn't get 50 men, he would be hired. Schlesinger was lucky. He was hired since a 50th man was not found.
In his diary, Schlesinger wrote of his first day as a member of the scouts in August 1868. After riding all day, Schlesinger recalled how stiff and tired he was when it was over. His riding abilities bore the brunt of ridicule from others. He was also reminded that he was a Jew.
Schlesinger had been involved in many minor encounters with the Indians. The encounter that earned him the respect of the others took place at the Arikaree Fork of the Republican River in 1868. His scouting expedition was set upon by Chief Roman Nose with his band of Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. The scouts were pinned down for 9 days.
Their horses had been killed and they suffered 19 casualties. Schlesinger had been wounded in both legs and the head. Yet, he managed to shoot down any Indian who exposed himself. They held off the Indians until a U.S. Army relief column came to their rescue.
Forsyth wrote a letter to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Texas, lauding the heroism of Schlesinger: "...He was the equal in manly courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command."
Schlesinger took leave of his frontier life on October 21, 1868. He left the company and returned to New York. Eventually, he settled in Cleveland, where he established a successful cigar store business. Active in Jewish organizations, Schlesinger was one of the organizers of the Hebrew Free Loan Association, Vice-President of his temple, and president of the Hebrew Relief Association.
He died in 1928, leaving behind a legacy as a Jewish Indian fighter and as a philanthropist.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.