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.