Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico 1821–1917

An exhibition at Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors

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The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is a portal to much more than the history of New Mexico. It is the longest occupied public building in the United States and the building itself is the State of New Mexico's premier artifact. It has been home to Spanish, Indian, Territorial and State governors and governments, literally for centuries, and today is the showcase for New Mexico's people —the good, the bad and the beautiful.

Gracing much of the exhibition space for the coming five years is the stunning show "Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico." Room after room, panel after panel, artifact after artifact, visitors will come to know some of New Mexico's finest, through their words and deeds and faces.

Meet Nathan Bibo,
one of the state's best and brightest

"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 refusing to enlist, amongst them my grandfather, Lucas Rosenstein," Bibo is quoted in Reminiscences of Early New Mexico."He preferred to go away and not serve . . . and after an eventful voyage of seventy-five days on the Atlantic arrived in Philadelphia in September 1812. "The reason I [Nathan] 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 my folks . . . It was in 1867 that I left New York City . . . ."

Frederico Vigil

Image: ©2000
Cigar Boxes Patented 1914
Dealing in wool, piñon nuts,
hardware, clothing, groceries and
myriad other daily necessities.
The Charles Ilfeld company
became one of the largest
mercantile firms in New Mexico

And like friends and family, Nathan Bibo headed West. "Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico" concentrates on the immigration of Ashkenazi Jews who originated in the German States, Russia and Eastern Europe and who came to New Mexico with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail and after the United States' invasion and occupation of the territory during the Mexican War in the mid-19th century.

"During the 1870s," said David H Snow, an exhibition curator, "all ten Bibo siblings immigrated to New Mexico, and three of them—Nathan, Solomon and Simon—started their own mercantile businesses, after brief stints as clerks with the Willi and Flora Spiegelberg family, major players in Santa Fe's territorial economy. Willi was instrumental in starting up the Second National Bank of Santa Fe in 1872, and his descendant Susan Warburg and her husband, Felix, were driving forces behind this exhibition."

Graphic designer Susan Hyde Holmes was the creative genius that brought them all to life in this exhibition full of information and emotion.

The Bibos were not the only ones to make New Mexico their home, but they could be considered prototypes for those who followed with similar dreams of success. As family members became established, not only as businessmen but also as members of their communities, others made their way to  New Mexico to work for fathers, uncles, cousins and brothers, before striking out on their own and providing a starting place for more family and more friends. To name a few: Jacob Amberg knew Gustave Elsberg, and the Ilfelds were cousins of both. The Zeckendorf brothers were cousins of the Staabs & Spiegelbergs. Louis Gold's Uncle Joseph "el Polaco" Hersch established the first steam flour mill in the state.

"If they didn't know each other when they first arrived, it's likely that they did within six months or so," said Snow. "In fact, I think that by 1880 maybe 70 percent of the Jews in New Mexico were related by blood or marriage."

Frederico Vigil

Image: ©2000
Tobacco Flask 1901
Possibly used as a container for punche,
a locally-grown tobacco, this rawhide flask
has the name of its owner, H.C. Ilfeld.

Cigarette Paper Bag1870-1872
Described by Willi Spiegelberg as
"handmade bead cigarette paper bag
used by the New Mexican for placing
therein dried corn leaves, 'hojas',
which they used instead of cigarette paper."

"Charles Ilfeld and Max Nordhaus were the most successful German Jewish merchants in Territory, but it is not likely they atypical to accept abilities wherever whatever bodily case could be found," wrote William Parrish The German Jew and the Commercial Revolution in Territorial New Mexico, 1850 - 1900. ". . . [T]he 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 the Ilfeld brothers."

Over the years and through the generations, Jewish Pioneers' ties to New Mexico strengthened as their family roots intertwined with Native American and Hispanic neighbors, and their family trees sprouted branches with the names of Valle and Candelaria next to Bibo, Landavazo next to Barth, Biernbaum next to Sanchez, Torrez next to Appel, Gold next to Chávez, and Abeyta next to Gold.

It was never enough for the Jewish Pioneer to just move in, nor was assimilation ever the intent. A better life for all was always the goal, wherever they settled. Bertha Staab was involved in child welfare work, served on the State Department of Public Welfare under three governors and found homes for unwanted or orphaned children. Everyone's "uncle", Sol Floersheim, gave credit to all homesteaders at his small general store in Ocate until harvest time. Matriarch, rancher and businesswoman Yetta Goldsmith Kohn spent years building up the 4V Ranch that became the basis of the T-4 Cattle Company still in her family today. Captain Louis Felsenthal recruited a company of volunteers, fought a battle at Valverde and protected caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. Samuel Klein, Sigmund Moise, Henry Jaffa, Mike Mandell, Julius Moise, Louis Ravel and Nathan Jaffa all served as their towns' mayors.

The Bibos' frontier affairs and genuine concerns for their Native American and Hispanic neighbors and families are familiar stories told again in this exhibition. In fact, their lives are memorialized by western towns that bear their family name. Theirs is not the only name. Anna Solomon and her family started a business delivering charcoal to the Clifton Mining Company, which belonged to an uncle and cousins in an Arizona settlement now called Solomonville. The name Ilfeld still pops up on New Mexico roads between Santa Fe and Las Vegas.

After New Mexico became the 47th state in the union in 1912, New Mexican Jews began to identify themselves as American rather than as European. They were no longer pioneers, they were longstanding, respected citizens. Members of the Jewish community had helped to found towns and to establish the Historical Society of New Mexico. They had planted trees to beautify their new hometowns, and had served on volunteer fire departments. They had played on community baseball teams and had been welcomed by the Masons into lodges throughout their state.

Meet Alyson Jones and her cousins Johanna and Thomas Silver . . .

. . . direct descendants of Emil and Johanna Uhlfelder who came to New Mexico in 1905 from Arkansas, helped to found Temple Albert in Albuquerque and also opened the White House department store in Santa Fe. As were their parents and grandmother, the kids are students at Wood Gormley Elementary School in Santa Fe. Like them, too, Alyson, Johanna and Thomas are thoroughly New Mexican.

These and other descendants of "Jewish Pioneers in New Mexico" are at the heart of New Mexico society and at the core of its consciousness. Those Jewish Pioneers who passed through our state made a difference. Those who stayed became part of the very fabric that is New Mexico.


Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico is a new long-term exhibition at the
Palace of the Governors remote on Santa Fe Plaza.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 15


Related Pages

How the Santa Fe Art Colony Began article

Early American Modernists in NM article


Collector’s Resources


RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED January 27, 2009

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