A Lesson in Jewish History from Cotopaxi, Colorado
When Jacob Milstein met Michael Heilprin, it seemed divinely ordained. Heilprin was involved with the Hebrew Emigrant Aide Society (HEAS – later known as HIAS), and Milstein was the American representative of a group of 63 loosely related Jews who wished to leave Russia. Heilprin, for his part, was contacted by Emanuel Saltiel, a Jewish mine owner who offered to sponsor colonists to settle in Cotopaxi, Colorado, and to provide them with housing and initial supplies. HEAS provided $10,000 to the venture and the colonists were to provide funds of their own as well.
When the settlers arrived in Cotopaxi in May 1882, they found that, although they had been promised housing and farm provisions, there were not enough houses nor farming equipment. Their first few weeks were spent fixing the houses, as well as establishing their communal needs. (They received a donated Torah and immediately established a synagogue.)
While some of the settlers had farming experience, they were not prepared for the challenging conditions in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Late in planting, their first corn crop failed and their potatoes were decimated by an early frost. Winter itself was far fiercer than they had expected. In addition to inadequate housing, the colonists had to deal with aggressive bears and the appeals of Ute People, who came begging for food.
The first year, the men accepted jobs in Saltiel’s mines and, as was often the case in this era, were paid in vouchers to Saltiel’s store. Better work, however, came via the railroad. Many of the Cotopaxi Jews chose to work for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Not only were they paid in cash, but the railroad allowed them to observe the Sabbath and work on Sunday.
The colonists’ second planting was destroyed by a late spring snowstorm. Their third crop suffered the same fate, after which the colony was dissolved. Most of the Cotopaxi Jews settled in Denver and helped establish the city’s West Side community.
This Treat was written in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in May.