Jewish Civil War Nurse and Philanthropist
Rosanna Dyer was born February 26, 1809 in Germany. Her parents, Isabella and John M. Dyer, moved the family to Baltimore when Rosanna was very young. Her family was very active in the Baltimore Jewish community, and were part of the group that built Baltimore’s first synagogue.
At age 16, Rosanna married Joseph Osterman, a Dutch-born merchant and silversmith. In 1838, after experiencing some financial reversals, the Ostermans moved to Galveston to establish a business in the new Republic of Texas.
Rosanna and Joseph Osterman were pioneer citizens of Galveston, Texas. They opened a mercantile store that traded with all parts of Texas and abroad. They were so successful that by 1842 they were able to retire.
The Ostermans are credited with having built the first two-story residence in Galveston; this home, at the corner of Broadway and Twenty-fourth streets, became the headquarters of the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1921.
During the yellow fever epidemics that occurred between 1854 and 1866, Rosanna was a volunteer nurse, and used her home as a temporary hospital and cared for the sick and dying.
When the Civil War broke out, military forces blockaded Galveston, and business came to a standstill. Most residents evacuated to the mainland, but Rosanna – by then a childless widow – stayed in Galveston and opened her home as a hospital to the wounded, sick, and dying, first to Union and then to Confederate soldiers.
Rosanna also acted as a courier of military information to Confederate officials in Houston. Her military intelligence helped the Confederates retake Galveston on New Year’s Day in 1863.
On February 2, 1866, Rosanna Dyer Osterman drowned after the explosion of the Steamship W. R. Carter on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi. She was 57 years old. She was buried in the Portuguese Cemetery in New Orleans.
The Galveston News paid her this tribute: “The history of Rosanna Osterman is more eloquently written in the untold charities that have been dispensed by her liberal hands than by any eulogy man can bestow.” Her work made her distinguished for “unselfish devotion to the suffering and the sick.”
Rosanna Osterman left an estate valued at over $204,000. In her will, she left a fortune to medical facilities throughout the United States. Several gifts of $3000 each went to Jewish hospitals in New York, New Orleans, and Cincinnati.
Her funds formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society in Galveston that fed, clothed, and sheltered the impoverished, nursed the sick, and performed merciful deeds for the needy of all faiths. The gift was timely, because fifteen months later a yellow fever epidemic’s large toll included forty members of the Jewish community.
Her bequest also left funds for the founding of a nondenominational Widow’s and Orphan’s Home in Galveston, funds to a Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia, $5000 to build a brick synagogue in Galveston, $2500 to build a synagogue in Houston, $1000 to the first “Jewish Benevolent Society” in Houston, and funds to similar charities in New Orleans and Philadelphia. Her gifts also included $1000 to the Galveston Sailors’ Home.
Rosanna Dyer Osterman gave of herself to help others. She was a Jewish woman who was proud of her heritage, a model to encourage women to help our country and others. She became the first major female Jewish philanthropist in America bequeathing money to Reform congregations in Galveston and Houston besides numerous other causes.