In 1882 a group of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled at the Cotopaxi Colony. The colony was the result of persistent efforts by several prominent American Jews and Jewish organizations to offer a better life for those fleeing the Pale of Settlement in the western region of Imperial Russia and other ghettos in Europe. As an an ethnic enclave in the American West, the Cotopaxi Colony illustrates the difficulties faced by most colonists of remote settlements in the mid-to-late 1800s.
Pale of Settlement
Home for the Cotopaxi colonists had been the Pale of Settlement. Created by Czar Nicholas I in 1835, the Pale was an area bordered by the Baltic Sea to the north, the Russian Empire to the east, the Black Sea to the south, and Austria-Hungary to the west. At its height, Jewish population in the Pale reached almost 5 million people, about 10 percent of the total population. In urban areas Jews were forced into ghettos as a result of segregationist policies. It was a tumultuous time for Jews in the Russian Empire, and many sought change either at home or abroad.
Wet Mountain Valley
In the United States, Michael Heilprin and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) stood at the forefront of a movement advocating individual land ownership for Jews, something expressly forbidden under the laws of the Russian Empire. An impassioned advocate for Jewish immigrants, Heilprin championed their immigration to the United States. HIAS and Heilprin recommended that Jews leave the crowded tenements of New York City and move west, where vast amounts of land and the liberal Homestead Act would allow them to get back to the earth. He was no doubt intrigued when, in 1880, the aid society received a letter from Emanuel Saltiel, who indicated his desire to settle Jewish immigrants on land he owned in the Wet Mountain Valley of Colorado. As a wealthy Denver businessman with extensive property that included mines and milling enterprises, Saltiel seemed to be in an excellent position to help establish an agricultural colony.
Saltiel had studied engineering and metallurgy in Europe, attained his American citizenship serving with the Union Army during the Civil War, and moved west in 1867. In 1878 Saltiel acquired patents on 2,000 acres in Fremont County, west of Cañon City, including mining claims. His main prize was the Cotopaxi Lode, described by the Rocky Mountain News as the “largest zinc (sulphide) mine in the world.” Using influence gained through his business successes in Denver, Saltiel persuaded the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to establish a depot near his newly acquired mines. On December 29, 1880, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Cotopaxi had opened to passenger and freight traffic.
Around the same time that HIAS received Saltiel’s letter of interest, Jacob Millstein (nephew of Shul Baer Milstein, patriarch of the Cotopaxi colonists) visited Heilprin’s office in New York City. Millstein had come to America to look into the Homestead Act. Through this meeting, Heilprin learned that the Russian Jews’ background was very compatible with the venture Saltiel proposed. Along with clerks and businessmen, some of the Russians had extensive farming experience, and many expressed a desire to farm their own land in America. Prior to 1880, Heilprin had experienced much difficulty finding Jews with adequate farming experience, much less the means to leave the tenements of New York City to head west. Saltiel promised Heilprin and HIAS that he would build homes for the immigrants and provide communal barns, farming equipment, seed, wagons, cattle, horses, and one year’s worth of feed. HIAS secured $10,000 in donations, some of which would pay for the immigrants’ transportation. The rest would offset Saltiel’s expenses for the provisions he promised.
Beginnings of the Colony
HIAS immediately dispatched Julius Schwartz, a young Hungarian Jew making his living as a lawyer, to Colorado to confirm Saltiel’s promise. In his report Schwartz assured HIAS that Saltiel’s offer was legitimate. Foreshadowing what lay ahead for the colonists, Schwartz wrote, “Cotopaxi is the headquarters of a rich mining district . . . in a beautiful valley, surrounded by high mountains, most of which contain valuable minerals.” He penned a glowing account of the Wet Mountain Valley, even quoting Cicero: “There is nothing nobler, nothing sweeter, nothing more becoming to a free man than agriculture.” Although Heilprin initially intended to settle Russian Jews on free homestead claims in Oregon, he could not refuse Saltiel’s offer.
Meanwhile, many of Cotopaxi’s future residents left New York in a hurry, before Heilprin had heard back from Schwartz. World events had pressured HIAS into sending the colonists away early—Russian Jews were flocking to New York and the East Coast en masse. Tenement housing was overflowing and living conditions grew worse by the day, with HIAS struggling to keep up.
Arriving in Cotopaxi in the spring of 1882, the colonists found quite a discrepancy between Saltiel’s promises, Schwartz’s descriptions, and the realities of living in the Upper Arkansas Valley. At first the colonists lived in a hotel owned by Saltiel, awaiting transportation to take them eight miles south of town to their new home. Of the twenty houses Saltiel claimed to have built, only twelve existed: eight-foot-square shacks, six feet tall, with flat roofs, no doors, and no windows. Of those twelve houses, only four had stoves. When the colonists complained, Saltiel responded that furniture, lumber, window and doorframes, farm implements, and tools were difficult to come by in the remote Rocky Mountains. He vowed to personally look into the matter upon his next business trip to Denver. Perhaps because Saltiel was the only connection many of the colonists had to the outside world, they trusted him. Saltiel did not return to Cotopaxi until that fall, leaving Schwartz and his partner, A. S. Hart, to manage the colony.
The colonists immediately established a synagogue in an abandoned cabin behind the general store in Cotopaxi. They requested a Torah, and the New York Hebrew Orphan Asylum donated one to the new synagogue that June. The New York Jewish Messenger reported, “The holy law arrived in Cotopaxi on the twentieth of June, and the twenty-third, Friday, was chosen solemnly to dedicate the Sephar Thora.” The elated colonists reportedly spent the entire night singing hymns and dancing. Over the next three years, Rabbi David Korpitzky would perform three funerals. Two infants as well as Korpitzky’s own son, who died in an accident, were buried in the village cemetery—separated from the other graves by a simple wooden fence. He conducted two weddings within the walls of the makeshift synagogue, including the marriage of Jacob and Nettie Millstein.
As for the land, there was little to celebrate. Colonist Ed Grimes later said, “Cotopaxi was the poorest place in the world for farming. Poor land, lots of big rocks, no water, and the few crops we were able to raise, by a miracle, were mostly eaten by cattle belonging to neighboring settlers.” Two Denver men, George Kohn and Louis Witkowski, later echoed Grimes’s complaints. Commissioned in January 1883 by the Denver Jewish community to report on the colonists’ conditions, Kohn and Witkowski wrote that one of the colonists “planted four bags of potatoes, gathered as a return of fifteen bags of a poorer quality than what he planted, and this with the most favorable wet season that Colorado had for twenty years.” They found that of the nearly 1,800 acres Saltiel had set aside, a mere few hundred were actually farmable, and nearby farmers had already claimed much of that land.
With winter approaching, the colonists began to suspect that Saltiel did not intend to fulfill his obligations. After their attempts to raise crops failed, many of the colonists took to working in the Cotopaxi lode, four miles distant. Saltiel ran a mining operation typical of the times, meaning that he paid his workers next to nothing while forcing them to spend what money they did have in company-owned stores, thereby returning any paltry earnings directly to Saltiel’s pocket. Historian Phil Goodstein explained that, “soon the colonists realized that Saltiel did not have their interests in heart, but rather wished to exploit them. Tensions grew rapidly.” In the late 1870s and early 1880s, widespread discoveries of mineral lodes in Leadville and elsewhere, coupled with the booming railroad industry, generated a severe labor shortage in Fremont County. Saltiel advertised employment opportunities as far away as Denver, but to no avail.
As winter set in on the isolated mountain valley, temperatures dropped. Having arrived with few supplies and no money, and lacking adequate refuge, the colonists could not protect themselves from the harsh weather. While visiting Colorado in 1882, P. H. Nussbaum of Pennsylvania went to Cotopaxi “with a view of personally investigating how our brethren were faring in their newly-made homes.” The following March, he wrote a letter to the editor of the American Israelite, an English-Jewish weekly. He described the homes as “comfortable enough for eight or nine months of the year, but in the dead of winter no one cook stove can keep them warm, and they have no other . . . what can they do but beg or wait until everything is exhausted and then starve to death with their families.” Many of the colonists endured freezing temperatures daily while working outside. Fed up, one of the elder Russians went to speak with Saltiel, imploring him to help the destitute colonists and to give some of the money, with which the aid society had entrusted him, back to the colonists. Saltiel refused.
End of the Colony
Denver Jews sent supplies and money to the colonists upon learning of their suffering. Sympathetic engineers from the Denver & Rio Grande threw wood and coal from the trains as they passed through Cotopaxi, hoping that the colonists would gather the scraps to warm their homes. A neighboring German colony offered solace in the form of milk, meat, and other supplies, as well as familiar company.
By the third year of the colony’s existence, only six families stayed on through another brutal winter. When a blizzard once again destroyed their crops, the immigrants gave up on the Upper Arkansas Valley forever. The Cotopaxi colony formally dissolved in June 1884. HIAS offered each family $100 for their move back to Denver, and the few remaining colonists also sought out fifty-dollar family deeds that were supposedly filed back in New York. But the county clerk in Cañon City could not find any record of the deeds, so the immigrants were deemed “squatters” on Emanuel Saltiel’s land while nearby homesteads sat empty. The Russian Jews’ dreams of self-sufficiency in the Rocky Mountains seemed over. Despite the colony’s failure, only two of the sixty-three Russian Jews who survived the Cotopaxi experience did not permanently settle in the West: Sholemm Shradsky accompanied his father back to Russia so the elder Shradsky could be buried next to his wife. The families that stayed became the nucleus of several smaller Jewish enclaves in Longmont, Pueblo, Rocky Ford, Montrose, and Grand Junction.
Adapted from Andy Stine, “Suffering from Want: The Jewish Colony at Cotopaxi,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 23, no. 4 (2003).