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When Jewish Colonists Prospected for Utopia in Colorado

Image by Kurt Hoffman

Imagine a windswept mountain town dotted with tar paper shacks. An unscrupulous mine owner twirls his moustache as he surveys the scene. Nearby, a one-eyed farmer and his fallen bride battle the rocky soil of their ramshackle homestead. Half-starved Indians skulk in the town’s shadows. Meanwhile, priceless cargo winds its way by train and wagon through isolated valleys under watchful eyes.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the frontier setting seems familiar. But this is no ordinary horse opera: The main characters are Jewish and the wagonload of precious goods includes a Torah scroll. This is Cotopaxi, Colorado — elevation 6,362 feet — in the 1880s.

Emanuel H. Saltiel, a Sephardic businessman with a checkered career, owned most of Cotopaxi. He first arrived in the West as a prisoner of war. A former Confederate officer, Saltiel became a “galvanized Yankee,” a term applied to captured Southern soldiers who volunteered for the Union in the American Indian Wars. He survived, he wrote, thanks to the “impudence of Satan himself.” Impudence marked his career ever after. As a Union soldier he was accused of mutiny and sedition — a charge that might have ended in execution. Instead, Saltiel was dishonorably discharged and turned out of a frontier fort with only the clothes on his back. But he managed to find his way to civilization and acquired wealth and influence in the rough-and-tumble Colorado Territory. By 1882, Saltiel had reinvented himself as a mining engineer and president of the Cotopaxi Town Company.

In the winter of 1881-1882, Saltiel visited New York on business and there became acquainted with the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was established by a group of prominent American Jews concerned about the welfare of Russian Jews displaced by pogroms. These communal leaders struggled against the flood of disorganized immigration to the New World and sought outlets for pogrom victims beyond the crowded confines of Eastern cities. At the time, agricultural colonization was a popular solution to czarist persecution. In 1882, idealistic Russian Jewish students formed the pioneer Bilu group and moved to Ottoman Palestine. That same year, the Odessa-based Am Olam (“Eternal People”) movement founded a cooperative farming settlement in Oregon.

Also in 1882, Leon Pinsker published “Auto-Emancipation.” Pinsker’s call for a Jewish home in Palestine or North America anticipated Herzl’s political Zionism by more than a decade. Saltiel entered these debates with a practical suggestion to HEAS leaders: Why not settle their fellow “Israelites” on the “rich phosphate soil” of southern Colorado? Saltiel knew the region well, having invested “nearly eighteen years of hard and generally successful work” there. After all, he owned a mining operation in Wet Mountain Valley and most of the land in the boomtown then emerging around the railroad depot he had humbly named “Saltiels.” His proposal for a Colorado Zion made a strong impression upon the animating spirit of HEAS, Michael Heilprin.

Founding Father: Shul Baer Milstein was an early leader of the Cotopaxi colony. Image by Courtesy of the Beck Archives, CJS and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Denver

Heilprin was a 59-year-old man of dignified bearing. His trim white beard, broad forehead, and deep-set eyes lent him the appearance of a dreamer. He retained a youthful idealism even in his waning years, but he was nonetheless a practical individual. Born into a traditional family in czarist Russia, Heilprin had distanced himself from Judaism during his wander years as a supporter of revolution, and later as a scholar and critic. Still, he maintained a fervent faith that the United States could serve as a refuge for beleaguered Jews. One of those unfortunates, Jacob Milstein, found his way to Heilprin’s office around the time Saltiel outlined his program of Western resettlement.

Life had already taken a lot from Jacob Milstein by the time he knocked on Heilprin’s door. He had been born on a Jewish farming commune in Russia, but was later forced to return with his parents to the family seat in Brest-Litovsk (today in Belarus). There he found favor with his well-off uncle, Saul Baer Milstein, who urged him to leave Russia behind and scout for immigration opportunities for his large clan. Alone in America, Jacob Milstein next lost his uncle’s financial support after word got out that he and the patriarch’s eldest daughter, Nettie Milstein, had fallen in love. The 20-year old Nettie Milstein fled her father’s rage for Germany. There she awaited passage across the Atlantic to reunite with her forbidden fiancé. Now without a monthly stipend from his uncle, Jacob Milstein sought employment in a tin factory and hoped to save enough money to buy Nettie Milstein her ticket of passage. And then Jacob Milstein lost an eye in a work accident. While recuperating, he heard of Heilprin’s philanthropy and soon arrived at the basement offices of HEAS, his eyeless socket covered by a black patch.

Jacob Milstein insisted he could provide a core of eager, loosely related Russian Jews to test out Heilprin’s theories of agricultural colonization. HEAS could offer Milstein’s pioneers funding to support an experimental settlement venture. And Saltiel possessed the personal contacts and business savvy to offer both the chance of success in the Wild West. HEAS then contracted with Saltiel to construct houses for the colonists, and to purchase 12 cows, a horse team and wagon, barbed wire, nails, spikes, seeds, two plows, furniture, stove pipes, and other sundries for $8,750 (about $200,000 today).

By April 1882, approximately 50 colonists wound their way west by rail through Kansas City, Pueblo, and along the Arkansas River as it cut through the steep 1,000-foot-high canyon walls of the Royal Gorge. They would have seen an imposing landscape of rocky outcroppings, stunted vegetation, and snow-capped peaks. Jacob and Nettie Milstein were not among these arrivals. The reunited lovers spent their first months together with Jacob’s newly immigrated parents in the gold rush town of Blackhawk, Colorado, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies.

Like Jacob Milstein, some of the Cotopaxi colonists were trained farmers. All were observant Jews. Members of the vanguard included experienced tradesmen: a carpenter, a tailor, a grain merchant, a tavern keeper. Others — a Hebrew teacher and a shochet — possessed skills crucial for a far-flung Jewish community. Oddly, their numbers also included one “circus rider.” The last stop for this mixed multitude was Saltiel’s Cotopaxi and Placer Mining Company depot, a whistle stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

After a journey of nearly 6,000 miles, they were greeted on Tuesday, May 9 at the platform by Saltiel, his Jewish business partner E.S. Hart, HEAS employee Julius Schwarz, and the few residents of Cotopaxi, who were no doubt bemused by the sudden influx of Jewish would-be farmers. Saltiel and Hart owned the town’s hotel and its general store, which advanced credit to the colonists. Hart also served as the contractor for the colony and was charged by Saltiel with building the houses HEAS had commissioned. The young Schwarz, after only 18 months in America, had been sent by HEAS as the colony’s “clerk and interpreter.” Another convoy of settlers arrived on May 11. The next morning a “threatening mob” of immigrants, perhaps alarmed at the sight of the rock-strewn lands they were to farm, surrounded Schwarz. Saltiel called for loaded rifles to protect the greenhorn and soon dispatched the disgruntled Russians with gun-barrel diplomacy.

Over the next few weeks, colonists staked out and plowed land from among the more than 3,000 mountainous acres at their disposal. The series of laws referred to as the Homestead Act offered up to 160 acres of federal land to individuals who could cultivate and occupy at least part of their allotment. But the majority of the settlers applied to Saltiel for 49-year leases to inhabit farm sites he owned within the town limits. Schwarz took over management of the colony and became Saltiel’s confidant, “so much so that… [they] slept in the same bed.” Perhaps this was owing to a critical housing shortage; Saltiel and Hart had failed to construct the promised number of dwellings.

Little Store on the Prairie: Emmanuel Saltiel and E.S. Hart ran a general store in Cotopaxi. Image by Courtesy of the Beck Archives, CJS and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Denver

Despite their own privations, the scrupulously religious colonists converted a cabin behind the general store into a “handsome little synagogue.” Schwarz declared that no work could be done on the Sabbath or holidays under penalty of punishment. So when Jacob and Nettie Milstein joined their fellow colonists in June, the scandal of their civil union upset Cotopaxi. A ceremony was arranged and the couple was wed in accordance with Jewish Law by the colony’s Hebrew teacher. Around the same time, a donated Torah arrived from New York. Before the start of Shabbat on June 23, 1882, the colonists assembled in Hart’s parlor to dedicate the holy scroll. The colony’s elders, each holding a candle, led a procession that included Schwarz cradling the Torah in his arms beneath a chuppah.

An eyewitness recorded the scene the next day: “Since human eyes beheld the Rocky Mountains, it was the first time that the Jewish law was read in their shadow.” The weekly Torah portion that Shabbat was Chukkat, which details the Israelites’ nomadic years in the wilderness and their desperate lack of water. The colonists could surely relate to this ancient tale of wandering in a parched landscape. Several homesteaders had just discovered that their farms lacked irrigation. Water would have to be brought by means of a three-mile-long channel the colonists were instructed to dig from a high mountain lake down to their fields. Making water flow from a stone was only slightly harder.

Some blamed Saltiel, their errant Moses, for the predicament and balked at the labor necessary to eke out a living in the high country. Saltiel, in turn, blamed the colonists. He railed against the “unnecessary time consumed in the preparation for every little religious feast and fast” and accused Schwarz of “pandering to these superstitious ceremonies.” Schwarz, however, defended the refugees as “first-class workers” and not the “lazy mob for which they were taken.” They are a “good class of people,” he added, noting for good measure that they were “very clean” and “consume a great deal of soap.”

Acrimony between Saltiel and Schwarz grew while the colonists struggled to cultivate about 40 acres of land. They planted cabbage, beet, turnip, onions, cucumbers, peas, corn and radish, as well 14,000 pounds of potatoes. But herds of grazing cattle from area ranches devastated their unsecured crops. Saltiel insisted that Schwarz had failed to fence the lands as he had been instructed. He further charged that Schwarz was negligent in his treatment of the colony’s horses, which roamed free until they were “run over by passing trains.” But Schwarz was by this time already supplying Denver and New York with rumors of Saltiel’s misdeeds.

In autumn, the potato harvest was ruined by an early frost. Crop failures and mishaps mounted until desperate colonists abandoned agriculture for work on the nearby railway — or hired themselves out as laborers in Saltiel’s mining operations. To add to their misery, the refugees’ poorly constructed shacks and lack of heating fuel left them vulnerable to brutal winter storms. Women hunted along the tracks of the Denver and Rio Grande for fallen coal to warm their homes. Ute Indians driven off their ancestral land by hostile American policies wandered into Cotopaxi begging food from the colonists, who were themselves short of supplies.

Damning reports of the colonists’ plight reached Denver’s Jewish community. They appointed an independent committee to travel to Cotopaxi and investigate. In February, the three-man mission presented their report. They claimed that the majority of the land Saltiel had touted for its fertility was worthless. Earlier homesteaders had already claimed water rights to the best land and the topography made further irrigation impossible. Houses remained either unbuilt or only roughly timbered. Furthermore, they found that Saltiel had inflated the cost of their construction and they intimated that he had lined his pockets with HEAS funds. They also determined that the long-term leases Saltiel had granted the colonists had never been executed, leaving the settlers subject to his whims. The report bemoaned the miserable state of the refugees and concluded by recommending the “immediate removal of the colony.”

Many of the colonists did indeed abandon Cotopaxi. Others remained in Wet Mountain Valley only to see their efforts fail again the next year. Six stubborn families stayed on to farm for a third season, but by the summer of 1884 the colony was disbanded. Accusations of mismanagement dogged Saltiel, who continued to mine in the Rockies. A few years after the Cotopaxi debacle, he was indicted for forging property deeds. Reports indicate that he ended his days in Wyoming, where he is buried in an unmarked grave.

The vast majority of the colonists remained in the Mountain West. Saul Baer, who initiated his clan’s emigration, prospered in the cattle business in Denver. He eventually forgave his daughter, who with husband Jacob Milstein went on to farm outside of Boulder for decades. Other colonists turned to commerce, and several became pillars of the Orthodox Jewish community that endures to this day in Denver. Historian Jeanne Abrams of the University of Denver and the author of two books on frontier Jewish history maintains that the “courage and perseverance” of the Cotopaxi immigrants “helped shape a group of leaders who [made] significant contributions” to the American West. The wandering Jewish colonists ultimately found what Yiddish speakers called the goldene medina — their golden land — in Denver, about 150 miles from the rich lodes of Cotopaxi.

Adam Rovner’s “In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel” is now available from NYU Press.

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