Synagogue On The Range: The Farming Colony That Brought Jewish Immigrants To Colorado
Cotopaxi, Colorado is an unincorporated town about 25 miles southeast of Salida. Spanning 183 acres with a population of about 47, this small community in the Upper Arkansas River Valley has a general store, a gas station and not much else. But nearly 140 years ago, Cotopaxi wasn't a rest stop, but a destination for 63 Russian Jewish immigrants seeking a new life in the West.
What is the legacy of this Jewish farming community? And why are its details still being debated today? KUNC’s Alana Schreiber spoke to two University of Denver professors, Dr. Jeanne Abrams and Adam Rovner, as well as a descendant of one of the key players of this story, Miles Saltiel. They explore the significance of the Cotopaxi colony, and the impact it had on Colorado for years to come.
This story has been edited for length and clarity.
Adam Rovner: In 1882, following the assassination of the czar, Jews were widely blamed for encouraging revolutionary anti-Western sentiment in Russia. There were a lot of anti-Semitic attacks called pogroms. And so given this kind of repression and violence, Jews start immigrating to the United States in massive numbers.
Jeanne Abrams: In about 1880, there were only about 250,000 Jews in the United States. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was trying to relieve some of the congestion in the big urban centers by sending people across the country.
Alana Schreiber: But in order to get across the country, these Jewish immigrants needed a sponsor.
Rovner: There is this gentleman by the name of Emmanuel Saltiel. He was British, he was Sephardic Jew, and he found his way from England to the United States. He may or may not have been part of the Union Army prior to becoming part of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was captured, he was imprisoned, and he volunteered to serve the union and this freedom from prison. And that's how he made his way down to southern Colorado, where he became part owner of this zinc mine. And he's got this philanthropic project to resettle poor Jews out in the Wild West.
Schreiber: But once they got to Cotopaxi, the settlers were not exactly met with the new houses and fertile land they had been promised.
Rovner: Basically, tar paper shacks and not enough of them. You have soil that's rough and dry and rocky. It's not a place where you can reap a lot of crops.
Schreiber: But despite the challenges, the settlers still found ways to hold on to their Jewish heritage.
Abrams: Their religious life thrived. Before they even sent to HEAS for farm implements, they asked for a Torah scroll. They built their own rudimentary synagogue. But when they brought that Torah scroll in, it was with great joy and a great celebration.
Schreiber: Still, they had to make money. And since the land wasn't ripe for farming, their options were limited.
Rovner: They were reduced to working for Saltiel in his mine. But he also had this company store, and the people had no money, the immigrants. So they were indebted to the company store. They were essentially kind of like indentured servants.
Schreiber: After two years of living in harrowing conditions by June of 1884, the Cotopaxi colony formally dissolved. The Jewish immigrants mainly resettled in Denver and other nearby cities. And as for Emmanuel Saltiel, he died penniless, his legacy largely vilified.
Rovner: I believe that he had a sincere desire to help out these miserable people, his Jewish brethren. But on the other hand, he was probably misguided at the very least. If he wasn't an out criminal, he was certainly a little bit of a con. The story of Saltiel has kind of got a second life because of a distant relative of his, Miles Saltiel.
Schreiber: Miles Saltiel. He is a former investment banker, born and raised in England, and he stumbled across the story of Cotopaxi completely by coincidence. During the summer of 1970, he was on a U.S. road trip when he stopped at a diner in Walsenburg, Colorado.
Miles Saltiel: And one of my traveling companions said to me, “Hey, Miles, your name comes up in this story in the Pueblo Star Journal.” And that was the story about a namesake, Emmanuel Saltiel. The road trip came to an end, I went back to Great Britain, and I asked my family, how is this bloke related to me?
Schreiber: In fact, the bloke was related to him, although very distantly. But when Miles returned to Colorado in the '90s to help with a film on Cotopaxi, he was bothered by his ancestor's depiction.
Saltiel: That was a pretty uncomfortable experience for me. I was drawn into the company of people who just basically regarded Emmanuel Saltiel as a bad hat. And I didn't have any real basis to challenge it. And I also felt that there were holes in the story.
Schreiber: It's not that Miles believed Emmanuel was some kind of hero, but he did think there wasn't enough evidence to decisively condemn him. So he confronted this Wild West problem with a Wild West solution: bounties for historical documents.
Saltiel: For example, people spoke of a petition against Saltiel. Now, Saltiel himself refers to this petition, a false defaming petition, he says. I'd like to see that petition. I'd like to see what these guys were complaining about.
Schreiber: But despite putting up bounties in 2015 for a total of $25,000, no one came forward.
Saltiel: Nobody's got in touch with me, nobody at all. And I think if there was something that might have been there, it should have happened. On the other hand, it's a few years later. Let's try again. Hey, gang, the bounties are there.
Schreiber: As long as these documents are missing and the bounties are out, Saltiel's legacy is bound to be contested. But regardless, there is one thing that pretty much everyone can agree upon. The Cotopaxi colony was so much more than a farming failure.
Abrams: I like to look at Cotopaxi ultimately as a success story. They were certainly challenged in Cotopaxi in terms of the physical circumstances and the harsh winters. But what it did do was help really hone their leadership skills. So most of them did indeed stay in Colorado and many of them went on to become successful leaders.
Rovner: Denver was founded in 1864 on the back of a gold rush. The Jewish community was here from the beginning of that city. There's probably not a city in the United States that, from its founding, had such an impact made by Jewish Americans and Jewish immigrant Americans. But a lot of people don't realize that because Colorado is not perceived as being a center for Jewish history, but it really is.
Schreiber: And when it comes to acknowledging the true significance of the colony, even Miles agrees.
Saltiel: There was a period where it was a bit of a stone in my shoe. I felt, poor old Emmanuel, he wasn't getting a fair crack of the whip. If there's something I could do to help the poor old chap out, I'd like to do that. But I absolutely don't want to take away from the heroism of the colonists on that plateau. That's the pioneering story. And it's a great story. And what their descendants made of their lives is what one hopes for out of the American dream.
Schreiber: But if you happen to have one of the Cotopaxi historical documents, you know who to call, because you might just collect a bounty.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for June 8. You can find the full episode here.