Jewish Pioneer Families
Jewish “Pioneer” Families refers to those individuals and families who arrived in New Mexico from approximately 1850 (Territorial Days) to the early 1920s, (Post-Statehood). This time period represented the migration journeys and settlement of Jews who arrived not only via the Santa Fe Trail and railroad but also by other overland means from Texas and elsewhere.
During the mid-19th Century German Jews and non-Jews settled in Santa Fe, and they established major business and mercantile centers. By the 1870s, when the railroad came, Las Vegas became the primary focal point of much of the business community in northern New Mexico. Prior to WWI, another major population shift occurred, and Albuquerque became the major business hub. Those individuals and families founded some the biggest businesses and commercial enterprises in the Territory and later State. Not only did these families establish successful businesses but also became prominent community leaders including an early mayor of Albuquerque. In the meantime, Eastern European Jews arrived in New Mexico, and they, too, founded major commercial enterprises. Santa Fe, meanwhile during the early 20th Century, witnessed a revival of Jewish storefront owners on the Santa Fe Plaza and remained major business anchors until the 1980s.
Smaller Jewish communities such as Clayton, Taos, Fort Sumner, Las Cruces, and Carlsbad were established. Many of these early “Pioneers” were Ashkenazi German-speaking Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. Other small Jewish enclaves included Deming, Roswell, Silver City, and Gallup.
To ensure that these histories were preserved, The New Mexico Jewish Pioneer Family project, launched by NMJHS in 2002, was designed to uncover and preserve the valuable history of pioneer Jewish families in New Mexico. It was carried out in partnership with the Department of History and the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico.
The project drew up a list of approximately two dozen families that had considerable impact on the economic, social, and political life of New Mexico. Due to time and money constraints, the project focused on fourteen studies, some of which combined related families. Subsequently, additional funds were secured to undertake an additional study that focused on prominent Albuquerque families, which had not been adequately covered in the earlier studies.
Project volunteers received special training in oral history interview techniques, and they interviewed descendants of these pioneer families. In addition, the descendants provided family photos and documents, which were included in the taped interviews or copied for NMJHS files. Originally, the interviews were videotaped. In 2018 the video tapes were converted to a format that allowed NMJHS to post these interviews on our website thereby providing greater public access to these invaluable histories. Funding for this project was provided by the New Mexico Historical Records and Advisory Board.
To disseminate the information more widely, several scholars were enlisted to write brief histories of the families studied, based on the interviews, books, articles, and additional research. These were published in booklet form between 2005 and 2008 with last pamphlet, “Four Alsatian Families Shape Albuquerque” in 2015.
Currently, these written materials reside in the New Mexico Jewish Historical Collection at the State Records and Archives Center in Santa Fe, which is accessible to scholars and family members. Copies of the interviews have also been deposited at the Southwest Collection at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library.
In 2018, Drs. Noel Pugach and Richard Melzer from the University of New Mexico compiled and edited these fifteen pamphlets to create an Anthology entitled: “Jewish Pioneers in New Mexico History” which is available for purchase through the NMJHS website, www.nmjhs.org or by contacting the NMJHS office at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque, 505-348-4471.
The New Mexico Humanities Council awarded NMJHS a grant to interview four additional families from the Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces communities. NMJHS also provided funding for three more family interviews. All these new interviews are accessible on the NMJHS website.
Preserving the fascinating and significant history of Jews in New Mexico is part of the NMJHS mission. The original project only scratched the surface. In 2018, with the assistance of the New Mexico Humanities Council and NMJHS funds, additional oral histories are in progress and those family interview transcripts may be found on our website. These newly interviewed families represent the business and community leaders and their descendants in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces.