Jews in New Mexico
New Mexico poet and writer Joan Logghe always felt that her Jewish faith had
been hidden until she began writing in New Mexico in 1980. Logghe wrote the
following poem which describes living with the “shadowed memory” of a secret
faith, the knowledge of which was often passed down to a single female in the
by Joan Logghe
From Jewish Poetry of New Mexico: Another Desert
Sophía had a secret even Sophía
Didn’t know. Something about
Candles at night, no taste of pork
In her grandmother’s house. Something.
Shadowed memory of her grandmother
In her dark bedroom, her voice nearly
A whisper, “It passes down through the women.”
That and “Tell your daughter.”
Something about the farolitos lined up,
A top to spin. “Our family came from Spain,
Not Mexico, hundreds of years ago, you know.
This is your great-grandfather, Israel.
See how handsome he was.” Sophía recalls it all,
But mixed with other recollections, the smell
of pine at Christmas, candles at mass,
the sight of blood at butchering each fall.
Something about candles to Saint Esther.
It didn’t make sense. “We came here from Spain.
Look hard at this photograph.” Her mother’s voice
In the kitchen light, flour in the air.
She’d tell her daughters something soon.
She’s been meaning to. For hundreds of years.
She’ll tell them soon. She will.
Jewish European Pioneers in New Mexico
“Charles Ilfeld and Max Nordhaus were the most successful German Jewish
merchants in the territory, but it is not likely they were atypical to accept abilities
wherever and in whatever bodily case they could be found…The result was to
encourage social and economic associations that were productive to people in all
walks of life…The same could be said of the Spiegelbergs, Staabs, Jaffas and other
Ilfeld brothers…Ilfeld could command the same loyal response from Stephen
Elkins, senator from West Virginia and former delegate from New Mexico to
Congress, as he did from his trusted agent and friend, Montgomery Bell—most
probably an ex-slave…”
William J. Parish
The German Jew and the Commercial Revolution
in Territorial New Mexico, 1850-1900
Dr. Henry J. Tobias, writing in A History of the Jews in New Mexico uses historical
records to construct the history of Jews in New Mexico, including census data,
family history, and public documents. He shows that by a review of the 1880
census data, Jews were part of the Western migration of the period. By that time
Jews were residing in all states except Oklahoma. California was second to New
York in total Jewish population. Dr. Tobias states that the earliest Ashkenazi Jews,
those who came from Central or Eastern Europe, accompanied the American army.
The claim to having been the first of these Jewish settlers belongs to Solomon
Jacob Spiegelberg who opened a store in Santa Fe in 1846. Under American law,
Jews could live in New Mexico legally for the first time.
The term “pioneer” is defined to encompass the experiences of the early Jewish
immigrants including those who were the first to arrive, those who first moved
into rural areas or lived among Indians, those who were the first to help establish
community institutions, and those who were first to form religious congregations.
Prior to the mid-19th century there is a sparse historical record of Ashkenazi Jews
in New Mexico. Dr. Tobias states that most of the Jews at this time who came to
New Mexico were peddlers or merchants who sold their wares to farmers or
traveled west as adventurers on their way to the California Gold Rush or other
The majority of New Mexico’s first wave of Jewish immigrants originated in the
German states, with the others hailing from eastern Europe and Russia. These
immigrants were a product of a larger emigration to the Americas due to political,
economic, and social events in Europe. Among them were an almost constant state
of war, economic depression, nationalism, social restriction, and anti-Semitism.
With the last failure of liberal revolutions and republican governments in the
1840s, many eastern Europeans left for the United States where they believed the
ideas of the Enlightenment still existed. Some of the early men to enter New
Mexico after Mexican independence in the 1820s and 1830s have been identified as
Jews. They were fur trappers or members of merchant caravans coming to trade in
Mexico. These pioneers did not remain in New Mexico.
Beginning around the mid-19th century, Jewish migration to the New Mexican
Territory was largely composed of German-Jewish immigrants with close familial
relationships. These men opened stores generally on the main plaza in towns
along the commercial routes and served as quartermasters for the United States
Army. They traded and became involved with various Indian tribes. They were
eager to integrate themselves into society. Some of these young men came from
wealthy backgrounds; records reveal that others were street vendors, peddlers,
tradesmen, shoemakers, or unemployed. Not surprisingly, many of them were
related. They may have come from the same region in Germany or were related
through intermarriage. Many were cousins and intermarriage connected the
families as well.
Generally, an older sibling established a business and sent for a younger brother or
cousin. Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg arrived in New Mexico before 1848. His
brothers, Levi and Elias, arrived in 1848 and 1850, respectively. The Beuthner
brothers of Taos, the Zeckendorfs of Albuquerque, the Seligmans and Staabs of
Santa Fe, and the Biernbaum brothers of Mora also arrived during this period.
These were largely young men of 18 or 19 years of age when they immigrated.
Dr. Tobias indicates that the 1850 census lists the majority of Jewish males as
merchants or clerks.
An example of the familial and interpersonal connections of these pioneers,
according to an exhibit brochure written by the Museum of New Mexico of the
Palace of Governors, began with Jacob Amberg who began prospecting silver
claims in Piños Altos by Silver City and became one of the first Jewish merchants
in Westport, Kansas, along with Gustave Elsberg in 1855. A year later Amberg and
Elsberg moved down the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe. The firm financed Adolph
Letcher in a business venture in Taos where 18-year-old Charles Ilfeld first worked
as a clerk. Arriving in Santa Fe in 1865, Charles Ilfeld came to the United States to
escape Prussian conscription. He arrived with $5 in his pocket. Eventually Ilfeld
became a partner and bought Letcher out, creating the Charles Ilfeld Company in
Las Vegas. The Ilfelds were cousins of Elsberg and Amberg. Dealing in wool,
piñon nuts, hardware, clothing, groceries, and many other daily necessities, the
Charles Ilfeld Company became one of the largest mercantile firms in New
Mexico. The extended Ilfeld family maintained an active religious and social
prominence into the 20th century. Charles Ilfeld was admired not only for his
commercial success but also for his interest and generous support of the Jewish
and non-Jewish communities of New Mexico.
Following the United States’ victory in the war of 1846-48, the presence of
American troops created a need for a continuous flow of supplies and created
more opportunities for merchants. By 1860, the state’s Jewish population had
doubled to 34, with approximately two-thirds living in the Santa Fe area.
Dr. Tobias discovered one record showing that in 1856 there were four New
Mexican subscriptions to a Philadelphia periodical devoted to Jewish life. A story
published in the 1880s describes New Mexico’s first religious service, an 1860 Yom
Kippur or Day of Atonement service in Santa Fe. Those attending included the two
Spiegelberg families, the Staab brothers, the Dittenhoffers, the Golds, Joseph
Hersch, Louis Felsenthal, Aaron Zeckendorf, Herman Elsberg, Herman Ilfeld, and
Philip Schwartzkopf. This was the first known public religious ceremony in the
state’s Jewish community.
By 1860 at least 32 of the 786 non-Mexican foreign-born whites in New Mexico
were German Jews. In 1880, there were 220 Jews in New Mexico. In the relative
isolation of the state, the Jews did not hide their religious practices, nor did they
adhere strictly to the Jewish laws. Some married non-Jewish Mexican women as
few Jewish women crossed the Santa Fe Trail. Most Jewish men, however, either
returned to Germany or to the East Coast to find wives.
Rose (Resnick) and Sam Danoff
Married in 1914, these well known merchants came to New Mexico by way of
Vilna, then Philadelphia and Grand Rapids. Their first established business was
licensed in 1915 as an Indian trading place for the Zuni Reservation. They learned
their customers’ languages and earned their trust. Eventually Sam purchased a dry
goods store in Gallup and moved his family there in 1920. At their retirement in
1946, Rose and Sam moved to Albuquerque.
Bertha (Frese) Gusdorf
In 1936, the German-born widow of Alexander Gusdorf became New Mexico’s
first woman bank president. In addition, the Taos resident dealt in property and
These astute businessmen (Morris and Simon) were active and influential in the
social, civic, and political life in Clayton, New Mexico, in the early to mid-1900s.
Their children and grandchildren continue the family legacy by funding
scholarships, research, the arts, the historical museum in Clayton, and the Latin
American Reading Room in the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library.
The Story of Yetta Kohn
Yetta Goldsmith was born in Bavaria in March 1843 and immigrated with her
family to the United States as a young girl. By 1857 she had married Samuel Kohn
from Pilsen and was living in Leavenworth, Kansas. Yetta and Samuel traveled the
Santa Fe Trail to Las Vegas in the mid 1860s. They opened Kohn’s Store where they
sold wood, hides, flour, and grain. The store was located on the same block as
businesses owned by Marcus Brunswick and Charles Ilfeld.
Samuel died in 1878, leaving Yetta with four children to raise and the store to run.
She continued to run the business and four years later moved her family to La
Cinta near today’s Conchas Dam. There she opened another general store, became
the village’s postmistress, and ran a ferry across the Canadian River. With her
profits she bought parcels of land which eventually became a thriving ranch. At
one point she and her partners owned 3,858 head of cattle.
Yetta and her family next moved to Montoya where they purchased a store, a
bank, and acquired land through the Homestead Act. Her son Charles attended
New Mexico’s Constitutional Convention. Her ranch became the basis of the T-4
Cattle Company which remains in the family today.
Moise Bros. Co.
Founded in Santa Rosa at the turn of the 20th century by Julius and Sigmund
Moise, this was a general store which quickly became a substantial enterprise.
Eventually, the company expanded into commercial cattle ranching.
Ravel Brothers Inc. Farm and Feed Store
In 1930 and 1931, the brothers relocated —Arthur from Columbus and Louis from
El Paso—to Albuquerque, by then the largest city in New Mexico, where they reestablished
their business enterprise. Arthur managed the store while Louis
traveled the state to sell their agricultural products. They and their families were
deeply involved in the Jewish community in Albuquerque, particularly
Congregation B’nai Israel.
Seligman Family Enterprises
The Bernalillo Mercantile Company, or “the Merc,” became the principal Seligman
family business and one the state’s most influential mercantile enterprises. The
Seligmans formed lasting relationships with Pueblo and Hispanic communities,
and their children have contributed significantly in fields of law and medicine.
Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg
It was in 1944 that this oldest son arrived in New York where he learned some
English before heading for the American West. He established the first Jewish
family enterprise and the first major economic empire in the territory.
Subsequently he brought four brothers and many relatives who collectively and
individually pursued mining, real estate, and banking.
The Taichert Family
Joseph Taichert started a small tailor shop in Las Vegas. Eventually, his brother
Milton came to New Mexico to help him manage Taichert Haberdashery. Soon
Joseph decided to enter the fur trading business, and his enterprise grew and
flourished. During World War II, it was one of the main suppliers of wool used in
uniforms for the military.
One of the last representatives of this Las Vegas family, the late Marvin Taichert is
remembered for helping the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society establish its
archives and his dedication to the care and preservation of the Congregation
Montefiore cemetery. The Taichert family played a crucial role in the founding of
Congregation Montefiore, the first synagogue in New Mexico, established in 1883.
It closed in the 1950s. The son of pioneer merchant Milton Taichert, Marvin died in
The Story of “Don Solomono”
Ten members of the Bibo family immigrated to New Mexico during the second
half of the 19th century. They were the children of a cantor or musical director of a
synagogue in Brakel, Westphalia, Germany. Nathan, Solomon, and Simon started a
mercantile business after briefly working for established firms of the Santa Fe
Spiegelbergs and the Albuquerque Zeckendorfs in the late 1860s. The brothers
were contractors to the military posts of western New Mexico providing general
merchandise in the vicinity of Laguna Pueblo. Simon and Solomon married local
women. The Bibo family is memorialized by two communities still bearing the
family name: one between Paguate and Seboyeta in New Mexico and the other
along old Route 66 in Arizona.
Nathan Bibo, writing in Reminiscences of Early New Mexico explains his reasons for
coming to New Mexico:
“The reason I left Germany for the United States ought to be mentioned here: to
commemorate my ancestors who implanted the longing for this country in me and
“In the year of 1812, when Napoleon Bonaparte enlisted nearly all Europe then
under his control, to furnish their contingent for him to invade Russia, a number
of young fellows in Borgentreich, Westphalia, Prussia, were requested to enlist and
amongst them was my grandfather, Lucas Rosenstein…
“He preferred to go away, and not serve the French authorities, and he, with a
number of young friends, all of whom had served the Prussian government, left for
Holland and at Antwerp took passage in a sailing vessel, and after an eventful
voyage of seventy-five days on the Atlantic arrived in Philadelphia in September,
1812. He returned to Prussia in 1820.
“Whenever in vacation time I visited my grandparents, I loved to hear his stories
of the early family life, and the equal rights and liberty of the people and their
reverence for the father of our country, George Washington.
“Whenever he spoke of him he uncovered his head, and also with grateful
remembrance spoke of the kindness and hospitality of the Quakers and other early
settlers in Pennsylvania.”
In general, Europeans imposed their concepts of land ownership on Native
Americans, taking their lands by “purchase, stealth and war,” according to the
website of the American Jewish Historical Society, which indicates that “Virtually
every Indian tribe in North America found its contacts with white settlers painful,
if not fatal, and few Indians trusted or respected, much less loved, the white men
and women they knew.”
A marked exception to this generalization was Solomon Bibo, who won the trust
and affection of the Acoma Pueblo Indians and became governor of the Acoma
Pueblo in 1888. “Don Solomono,” as he was affectionately known to the Acomas
was the equivalent of the chief of the tribe, and they asked the United States
government to recognize Bibo as their leader.
Solomon Bibo was born in Prussia in 1853, the sixth of 11 children. In 1866 two of
Solomon’s brothers immigrated to America and settled in New Mexico. In 1869 at
the age of 16 Solomon Bibo left Germany for America. After spending some time
on the East coast learning English, he joined his brother in the tiny village of
Seboyeta where they had set up a trading post to exchange goods with the
All three Bibo brothers developed reputations for fairness in their dealings with
the local Indian tribes who would bring the Bibos the farm produce that they
grew. In turn, the Bibo’s, under contract to the United States government, supplied
the army forts in the area with this produce. The Bibos paid the Indians a fair
price, which encouraged the Indians to improve their farming techniques. The
Bibos also became involved in mediating the many disputes over land ownership
arising between the Indians and the Mexican residents of the area. They also
interceded when local Whites tried to purchase Indian lands at below market
prices. The Bibos were considered pro-Indian and not particularly liked by either
Mexicans or Whites.
Solomon was especially revered by the Acomas. He learned Keresan, the Acoma
language, and helped the tribe fight its legal battles to restore its traditional lands.
By treaty in 1877, the Acomas had been granted 94,000 acres of land by the United
States government, far less than they thought they were historically entitled. In
1884 the tribe decided to offer Bibo a 30 year lease to all their land in exchange for
which he would pay them $12,000, protect their cattle, keep squatters away, and
mine the coal under the Acoma lands. In return he would pay the tribe a royalty of
ten cents per ton of coal for each ton extracted.
Pedro Sanchez, a United States Indian agent from Santa Fe, learned of the deal and
tried to get the federal government to void the lease. Simon Bibo petitioned the
Board of Indian Commissioners in Washington stating that his brother Solomon’s
“intentions with the Indians are of the best nature and beneficial to them—because
the men, women and children love him as they would a father and he is in the
same manner attached to them.” In 1888 the Indian agent for New Mexico wrote,
“To the people of the pueblo of Acoma, having confidence in the ability, integrity
and fidelity of Solomon Bibo . . . I hereby appoint [him] governor of said pueblo.”
Appointed governor of the Acoma Pueblo in 1888, Solomon Bibo held the post for
In 1885, Solomon married his Acoma wife, Juana Valle, who was the
granddaughter of his predecessor as governor. Juana was originally a Catholic but
observed the Jewish faith and raised her children as Jews. In 1898 Solomon and
Juana relocated to San Francisco as they wanted their children to receive a Jewish
education. Solomon invested in real estate and opened a fancy food shop. Their
oldest son was bar mitzvahed at a San Francisco synagogue and the youngest son
attended a religious school. Solomon Bibo died in 1934; Juana died in 1941. Bibo,
America’s only known Jewish Indian chief, is buried with his wife in the Jewish
cemetery in Colma outside of San Francisco.