Adventures in the American Southwest


By Noel Pugach

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

They lived the adventure, excitement and dangers of the Southwest frontier. Outside of Pueblo, Colo., 5-year-old Clara Goldsmith was kidnapped by Indians and traded back to her anxious father, Henry, for some calico, flour and hickory; teenage Levi Herzstein was gunned down in 1896 by Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum, New Mexico’s most notorious outlaw at the time; young Charles Solomon was stuffed by his father, Isadore, into a crate to hide him from a band of marauding Apaches. Charles was so frightened that he could not speak for days, and stuttered thereafter.

Such was the life of Jewish pioneers in New Mexico and in the surrounding territory. Of course, the dangers of that era passed in time. Alongside them, Jews engaged in the more prosaic but long-lasting struggle to earn a living, raise families, and attend to their social and religious needs. While some failed and retreated to other parts of the United States, a large number were economically successful and planted deep roots in New Mexico’s soil. Their business enterprises — ranging from mercantile establishments and the wool trade to mining and ranching — made important contributions to the region’s economy. Their community involvement laid the foundation for the creation of many Jewish and general institutions.

The outline of this chapter in American Jewish history has been known for many years. But a fuller and more complex picture of this fascinating story, together with an array of new characters, is now available as a result of the New Mexico Jewish History Society’s Jewish Pioneer Video History Project. Under my direction and that of Avista Video’s president, Lisa Witt, a team of historians and volunteers conducted video interviews of descendants of New Mexico pioneer Jews, did additional research and wrote brief essays on 13 families. The project yielded a number of significant and interesting conclusions about the Jews who settled in New Mexico between the 1840s and the 1920s. Although a number came from Eastern Europe, particularly after 1880s, the great majority emigrated from German-speaking countries.

Compared with Jews who settled east of the Mississippi, the immigrants drawn to New Mexico (and other parts of the West) tended to be risk-takers and adventurers. Without being reckless, these young men — indeed, many were teenagers — seemed to thrive on the challenges, dangers and isolation of the New Mexico frontier. They saw opportunity, but they also were attracted by the greater personal freedom they found in the territory. Many rode their own horses, their children raised in the saddle. Frieda Freudenthal Mashbir — whose father, Lewin Freudenthal, made at least three attempts to live in New Mexico while struggling to observe the dietary laws — reminisced that her times in the Southwest were among the happiest moments of her life (until she married and had a son) because of the freedom she enjoyed.

Virtually all these Jews moved from rural villages and pre-capitalist economies in Germany and settled in a similar environment in New Mexico. (On the other hand, Jews from larger European cities tended to gravitate to urban centers in the United States.) Yet, they quickly grasped the development of modern capitalism and introduced new commercial forms, techniques, and economic specialization to New Mexico. While the Spiegelbergs, Staabs and Amberg-Elsbergs quickly added wholesale functions to their retail establishments, Charles Ilfeld made the full transition to mercantile capitalism in New Mexico only 25 years later. In tiny Clayton, Simon Herzstein opened a ready-to-wear store in 1915 that carried only the best name-brands: Justin boots, Florsheim shoes, Stetson hats, Levi’s jeans and Hart Schaffner & Marx suits. His clientele came from all over the Southwestern plains. Jewish merchants also introduced regular buying trips to the East Coast, particularly to New York.

A sizable number of Jewish immigrants engaged in ranching and in raising sheep, often as an offshoot of their mercantile businesses but also as standalone enterprises. In either case, their livestock operations occupied a significant place in the region’s economy. Hugo Loewenstern specialized in raising Herefords, and his customers came from a large swath of the West.

Furthermore, Jewish settlers adapted very well to the culture and society of New Mexico. They spoke Spanish (often before they became fluent in English), and some learned Indian languages. They integrated completely into their local communities and were highly respected. Some assimilated totally, while many struggled to retain Jewish practices and traditions. And most led happy lives in New Mexico, their descendants reporting that they rarely thought of leaving the Land of Enchantment.

Much more information has been accumulated and is being analyzed. The interviews, on CDs and hard-copy formats, and a great deal of historical material will soon be available to researchers at the State Archives in Santa Fe and in Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And yet, we may have only scratched the surface.

Noel Pugach is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.