The Spiegelbergs of New Mexico: A Family Story of the Southwestern Frontier

Southwest Jewish History
Volume 1, Number 2, Winter 1992

by Sheri Goldstein Gleicher

corrections submitted by Will Kriegsman were entered to this online version on 10 January 1996.

By 1846, Prussian born Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an old Spanish frontier town nestled in the foothills of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. Though the first Jewish merchant on the Santa Fe trail, Spiegelberg was apparently not the first Jew in Santa Fe. In the 1660s, Santa Fe was the home to several cases of alleged "Judaizing." Like the Crypto-Jews who fled to New Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spiegelberg, came to the New World in the 19th century to escape oppression at home.

As the oldest of 10 children, Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg was the first in his family to leave Germany. He came to the United States in 1842 when he was between 16 and 18 years of age, arriving in Sante Fe a few years before the town was on American soil. Making his living as a peddler, Spiegelberg crossed the Santa Fe trail in an ox train, and became friendly with Colonel Alexander Doniphan who appointed the young man sutler to his troops.

In 1845, Spiegelberg clerked for the Houghton & Leidensdorfer Co. of St. Louis where he learned the mercantile business. He soon became a travelling salesman for the company and had to quickly learn Spanish to conduct business with the Mexican population. As a naturally sharp businessman, Spiegelberg observed the growing commericial needs of the West after the Mexican-American war. U.S. Indian policies created both a military presence in the West and the economic need to supply forts. During the U.S. occupation of New Mexico in 1846, Spiegelberg acted as sutler with the forces of Colonel Sterling Price, but in the same year, he set himself up in Santa Fe in a small mercantile business with a modest $356 investment.

In the Jewish immigrant traditon, Spiegelberg soon began to bring his younger brothers to the opportunities of the New World. One by one, brothers Levi, Elias, Emanuel, Lehman and Willi arrived in Santa Fe after a grueling two to three month trip by railroad, steamboat and mule train. Not too long after his arrival, Elias was killed in his sleep when the earthen ceiling of his adobe home collapsed. One brother, Abraham, and one sister, Eva, remained in Germany (He may have died young.) The other two sister s, Hannchen (Hannah) and Mindelchen (Minna) both came to America, and married Edmund Wise and Albert Grunsfeld, respectively.

Levi, the first to follow Solomon, came in 1848, and along with his older brother formed the partnership of Spiegelberg Brothers. The store on the south side of the plaza across from the adobe Governor's Palace offered groceries and dry goods for sale. By 1850, the brothers were trading beyond the New Mexico Territory and had a wholesale department. Their hard work, high standards and strict integrity quickly resulted in a thriving business, but the younger Spiegelbergs could not take their elders' success for granted. Each of the younger brothers had to prove himself by clerking for several years before becoming a partner.

Life on the frontier was lonely for Jewish men and filled with temptations of gambling and drink. Wanting to settle down, most Jewish men either married local non-Jewish women or had to remain bachelors all their lives. In contrast, when each of the Spiegelberg brothers could afford to do so, he made a trip east or to Germany to find a Jewish wife. In 1874, when little brother Willi met his wife Flora in Germany, he was already making $50,000 a year.

Just as their husbands before them had made the hard trip out to Santa Fe, so too did the Spiegelberg women. Levi's wife Betty arrived in 1860 after taking the railroad to the end of Missouri and then travelling up the steep Santa Fe trail by ox train. The seats had to be generously stuffed with hay to prevent bruising from the less than smooth ride.

The Spiegelbergs were so financially successful that their wives and children were able to live luxuriously. For instance, by 1880, Willi and Flora, had the first house in Santa Fe with running water and gas appliances. The home of Lehman and Carrie boasted fine furniture, a billiard table and piano.

From the beginning, the Spiegelbergs were progressive members of the Santa Fe business community. They maintained buyers in New York City and Europe, and in 1868 delivered a shipment from New York City to Santa Fe in a record 40 days. Catering to the diverse local population, Spiegelberg Brothers advertised in English and Spanish newpapers alike. They made improvements to the building and sidewalk, and, according to the Daily New Mexican, offered "superb show windows" with female models. The same journalist suggested that other merchants should follow the Spiegelbergs' example and clean up and light their window for evening shopping. Spiegelberg Brothers carried a wide variety of goods imported from the East and Europe, selling everything from "a pin to a piano." Due to a lack of currency in the territory, Spiegelberg Brothers offered liberal credit, especially to the Hispanic laborers who were paid less than half the wages of Anglo workers. The Spiegelbergs instituted an efficient and sympathetic purchasing system which allowed Hispanic customers from the surrounding pastoral and agricultural villages to barter fresh produce in exchange for scrip. The produce was then sold to Anglos for cash. During the Civil War, when silver coins were scarce, Spiegelberg Brothers was among the first business out West to be granted the privilege of issuing their own money in amounts of 10, 20 and 50 cents. (This was a not uncommon practice of many of the larger merchants during the period and was entirely at their own discretion. The Zeckendorfs, for example, also issued scrip.)

Through their commercial activities, the Spiegelbergs brought New Mexico into the economic mainstream by linking local production to export trade, and working with the federal government by supplying military posts and Indian agencies. Unfortunately, they sometimes found the govenment slow in paying its bills. Spiegelberg Brothers soon became one of the largest wholesale operations in the West. By 1872, they expanded their commericial business to include a charter for the Second National Bank of Santa Fe with Lehman as president and Willi as cashier. Through the bank, the Spiegelbergs could control their own currency and better insure their credit. The brothers were also involved in other business ventures which included mining projects, insurance, mail route contracts, land speculation and contruction. In 1886, Spiegelberg Brothers liquidated its retail business, becoming exclusive jobbers and wholesalers.

Just as the Spiegelbergs shared their opportunities with their brothers, they also attracted other Jews to the American Southwest and helped them get started in their own businesses. The Spiegelbergs assisted the Staab brothers who opened their business next door; Solomon Spiegelberg, a possible cousin; cousins Aaron and Louis Zeckendorf who went on to great success in Arizona; nephew Earnest and Albert Grunsfeld, later of Albuquerque; the Seligman brothers, also of Santa Fe; Postmaster Jacob Nussbaum; and Louis Sulzbacher, who became the first American Chief Justice of Puerto Rico. Other members of the growing New Mexican Jewish community included Henry Biernabaum, Harry Lutz, Morris J. Benstein, the Bibo Brothers and Sam Dittendorfer, among others who created their own notable stories. The Spiegelberges assisted a number of German Jews though they often competed against them in business matters as well. Business disputes sometimes led to legal suits, but the burgeoning Jewish community of New Mexico united in spiritual matters.

Though they played a major economic role in the territory, the Jews of New Mexico were too scattered to form a synagogue. While they did not assimilate, the Spiegelbergs adopted Judaic practices to frontier life by faithfully observing the major holidays at the home of one or another of the brothers and their wives. The Spiegelbergs invited others Jews from all over the territory to join in services and holiday feasts and used prayer books and religious objects imported from the East.

In 1872, the Reverend M. H. Fleischer of Denver arrived in Santa Fe and circumcised several U.S. born males of the territory at 'an advanced age." The first Bar Mitzvah in New Mexico took place in 1876, in honor of the Spiegelbergs' nephew Alfred Grunsfeld. Remembering the first Yom Kippur held at Santa Fe, Levi later commented that it was strange to hold the service in such a strongly Catholic area, "where Indian fights, murders, broils, and fandangoes were every-day (sic) occurences." In 1878, a Dallas rabbi and his wife trecked to Santa Fe upon hearing that the Jews there had no spiritual leader, but finding less than a dozen Jewish families they accepted a "generous purse" and went on to Kansas City. Charles Ilfeld, another successful merchant, helped found the first New Mexico synagogue, Congregation Montefiore, in 1886 at Las Vegas.

Understanding discrimination from personal experience, the Spiegelbergs got along particularly well with the Hispanic community. According to Willi's wife Flora, the local people said of the Spiegelbergs, "Los hermanos Jacobus estan la misma gente que nuestro Rentor Jesus Cristos;" (We honor the five Spiegelberg brothers because they are of the same people as our Savior Jesus Christ.) There were a few incidents of anti-Semitism among the white population, but the reality of common needs on the frontier tended to subvert religious and ethnic differences. The Spiegelbergs became particularly close with local Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy after he nursed Levi back to health from dysentary during several weeks on the trail. Willi's educated and refined wife Flora and the bishop were close friends who shared a love of European culture, the French language and gardening. To demonstrate his affection for the Spiegelbergs, the Bishop always brought the family flowers and wine form his own garden to contribute to holiday meals like the Passover seders. In return for his kindness and friendship, the Spiegelbergs donated generously to the building of St. Francis Cathedral and hosted a celebration for Lamy when he bacame archbishop of Arizona and Colorado, as well as New Mexico. All in all, the Hispanic and Anglo residents of Santa Fe put little emphasis on the Spiegelbergs'cultural, ethnic and religious differences. The brothers and their families were respected for maintaining their own beliefs while remaining tolerant of others.

While the Spiegelberg brothers were European gentlemen, they also adjusted to the challenges of the frontier . Besides speaking German, Spanish and English, Willi, for example, spoke four Indian dialects, and was an expert with the lariat and whip. In 1866, while returning from a buying trip in New York with another young merchant, the two learned that the Kiowa Indians were on the warpath, and that mail coaches and mules teams were prohibited for crossing the plains. Determined to deliver their goods, the two young men travelled by night with a buggy and two mules, slept in hiding, refrained from lighting fires and ate cold canned food. One morning, the two woke up to find several bodies scalped and half burned, one of which they recognized as a Mexican freighter whom they knew. Arriving safely in Santa Fe, they reportedly became the first to make such a trip across the plains without a military escort.

The Spiegelbergs cared deeply about their community and were active in civic affairs. The forward looking Lehman and Willi helped in the "Santa Fe Tertio-Millenial Anniversary Celebration and Grand Mining and Industrial Expo." All five brothers joined the Masonic order and Levi was among the incorporators of the local chapter. Lehman served as treasurer of the German Aid Society. Willi became the most politically active of the brothers. After serving as president of the Santa Fe Board of Trade, he became a probate judge, in 1880. At the time, this was largely a ceremonial post and the occupant discharged the ceremonial duties of the Mayor. The position of Mayor, however, was not established until many years later.

There is an often repeated story, probably attributable to Flora, that President Cleveland asked Willi to serve as territorial govenor in 1895. Though they steered clear of political factions and intrigue, the Spiegelbergs did have some positive political contacts. When Govenor Lew Wallace was appointed ambassador to Turkey, he asked Willi if he could do anything for him. Willi asked Wallace to look after the Jews who were suffering or in trouble. While in Turkey, Wallace learned of a caravan of Jewish merchants imprisoned in Persia and used his influence to free them. Wallace also gave them money to return home.

During the Civil War, General Sibley and his Confederate army occupied Santa Fe for thirty days. The general planned to use New Mexican merchants to supply his army but found resistance among the Jewish businessmen. The Confederates took $50,000 in merchandise which was never repaid. On one occasion, a drunken soldier demanded that Levi provide him with clothing. While Levi was getting the items the belligerant Confederate wanted, the soldier drew his gun, pointed it at Levi's head and yelled, "Be quick or I'll blow your brains out!" Fortunately, quick-thinking and nimble Willi was nearby. He knocked the soldier's arm up; the bullet hit the ceiling, saving Levi's life.

During the war, Willi took on patrol and scouting duties for the Union, while Levi was once captured by Confederate soldiers while en route to Chihuahua, Mexico, with merchandise. He was accused as a spy but was soon recognized and released. Spiegelberg wives were also imperiled by the soldiers who warned all Santa Fe women to remain indoors lest they be vulnerabe to attack. Levi's pretty young wife, Betty had already caught the Confederates' eyes. Three of the Spiegelberg brothers slept armed in an adjoining room to protect her from a serious threat of abduction.

During the occupation, the Spiegelbergs took in a wounded Black slave girl who had been kidnapped by General Sibley's soldiers and abused by them. The Spiegelbergs bought her freedom and the freedom of a Black man similarly abducted. The family also adopted an Indian girl and boy brought to Santa Fe by the Confederates. Each of the new additions to the extended Spiegelberg family was sent to school. The frightening military occupation was soon ended when the Confederates were driven out of New Mexico by the New Mexico Militia and the Colorado volunteers.

As prominent citizens, the Spiegelbergs had the opportunity to serve as hosts to local elites, government officials and American leaders. In 1880 they entertained President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. Other famous guests included Generals William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses Grant and Philip S. Sheridan. Flora speculated that during his visit with the Spiegelbergs General Sherman first coined the phrase War is hell. The famed agnostic Robert Ingersoll was also counted among the Spiegelberg guests, and Willi considered Kit Carson and Indian Chief Manuelito among his friends.

One by one the Spiegelberg brothers made a fortune and then left Santa Fe for New York City. Solomon left in 1854 because of a health problem, but the others relocated at the urging of their wives. In 1888, Willi, Flora, and their two daughters left Santa Fe, followed by Lehman and his family who left a year or two later. Though the Jewish population of New Mexico was growing, it was still too small to ensure a Jewish life for the children. The Spiegelberg women realized that for the sake of the Jewish people and heritage, their families would have to relocate to a Jewish environment where their children could marry Jews. While their husbands built the business which gave their wives and children a good life, it was the Spiegelberg women who could take the credit for ensuring their children's continuation of Judaic culture and faith.

As astute businessmen, each of the brothers branched into successful new ventures and civic projects in New York. Levi became a leader in Manhattan's reform Temple Emanu-El, the religious hub of wealthy reform German Jewish society. The brothers finally liquidated the Second National Bank of Santa Fe in 1893. The brothers had left Santa Fe and the mercantile business by 1890 and slowly withdrew from all of their business interests. Copies of the Stock Certificates issued by the bank show the payment of substantial amounts to the shareholders upon termination of the Bank's Charter. Like other German Jewish merchants of the West, the Spiegelbergs became a major catalyst for economic growth on the frontier. Beginning with Solomon's lone efforts and modest investment, Spiegelberg Brothers quickly grew into a mercantile empire. The brothers each made a fortune, but they also gave generously to the community through charity and civic efforts. Perhaps more important was the sense of home and the range of opportunities which the Spiegelbergs provided for their people.