The dead outnumber the living four to one in Cotopaxi. The town, on the Arkansas River 165 miles south-southwest of Denver, was once a rail stop and today serves as a center for the ranching families in the area. It has a post office, a rafting-tour outfit, a gas station, a small grocery and a few other businesses.
These gravestones are the last vestige of an agricultural colony that was once here; composed entirely of Jewish immigrants from Russia, it started hopefully in the spring of 1882 but sputtered to extinction two years later.
Why the community failed had seemed a question long settled by history. But now a relative of the presumed culprit is out to clear his ancestor’s name. He’s putting up $25,000 in cash bounties — and the clock is running, with May 31 the deadline for proof of Emanuel Saltiel’s innocence.
“It’s an Old West solution, definitely,” says Miles Saltiel, a retired investment-bank director and securities analyst, via Skype from London. “Like nailing a ‘Wanted’ poster to a tree.”
But what Miles Saltiel sees as a quest for redemption is considered a whitewash by others. “His goal is to clarify Saltiel’s name,” says Jennifer Moore Lowe, who’s lived in the Cotopaxi area for 42 years and has done extensive research on the colony. “Mine is to get the facts, plain and simple.”
Miles Saltiel first encountered Emanuel Saltiel back in 1970.
“I had just graduated from Oxford,” he wrote in a 2006 memoir for his extended family’s Shealtiel Gazette, “and I celebrated by joining with four pals to rent a Chevrolet Impala in New Haven (the New York rentals were out of cars for the Labour Day weekend) and driving to Los Angeles. Two days in, we stopped for early supper in Walsenberg [sic], Colorado. One of my companions picked up the local paper and laughingly passed me the front page of the holiday supplement. It told of an Emanuel Saltiel, who promoted a failed colony for Russian Jews in 1882 to 1884 on a plateau above Cotopaxi, Colorado. The story said he was a pretty bad lot, luring immigrants out for a pool of sweated labor for his zinc mine.”
Intrigued, “I ended up taking the newspaper with me,” Miles says today. “It didn’t make any sense to us. Saltiel is not a common name, and here was one who was a horrible person who behaved very, very badly. It remained a mystery for a long time, a rather unpleasant mystery.”
After reading the newspaper story, Miles did some genealogical research, but it came to a dead end. Then, in the early 1990s, more family genealogical research revealed a link to the Saltiel family branch that included Emanuel; Miles is a distant cousin. In 1997, an Israeli TV special randomly selected and traced the Saltiel history back 1,000 years; Miles went to Colorado to film a portion concerning Emanuel. Once again, he was bothered by the nagging thought that Emanuel Saltiel was misrepresented.
In 2003, after visiting Cotopaxi from Europe, more members of the Saltiel family suggested that Miles create a more “balanced” account of what happened at the colony. In 2005, the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society published Saltiel’s first piece on the topic, “The Jewish Agricultural Colony at Cotopaxi, Colorado: Rebalancing the Record.” Since then, a profusion of claims, counterclaims and suppositions have muddied the narrative.
Two miles east of Cotopaxi, a state historical marker offers what had previously been the generally accepted version of what happened to the colony:
“Forced from their homes by tsarist oppression, sixty-three Russian Jews arrived in Cotopaxi (about three miles west of here) in April 1882. Their sponsor, local mine magnate Emanuel Saltiel, had promised each a house, good farmland, and enough seed and equipment to plant crops. But the homes (only twelve in all) were scanty eight-by-eight-foot shacks, and the land was several miles distant, poorly watered, and littered with stone. After a disastrous harvest, many of the colonists spent the winter working for Saltiel, who needed cheap mine laborers (and may have intended all along to use the immigrants for that purpose). Eventually they found work with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and compassionate neighbors helped the colonists through the freezing winter. A failed crop the following year doomed the Cotopaxi Jewish colony. However, most of the twenty-two original families remained in Colorado, founding vibrant Jewish communities throughout the state.”
“SALTIEL IS NOT A COMMON NAME, AND HERE WAS ONE WHO WAS A HORRIBLE PERSON WHO BEHAVED VERY, VERY BADLY.”
That version vexes Miles Saltiel, who takes issue with it on his meticulously researched and ever-expanding website dedicated to unearthing a more balanced account. On cotopaxicolony.com, he questions assertions and sources, shares primary documents discovered in research he commissioned, and even offers a speculative economic model of what happened. And he takes issue with those who he feels have perpetuated untruths about Emanuel Saltiel.
One of these is the University of Denver’s Adam Rovner, an associate professor of English and Jewish literature and author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel, whose January 6, 2015, article on Cotopaxi in the national American Jewish newspaper The Forward irked both Jennifer Lowe and Miles Saltiel — Miles so much so that he was spurred to offer bounties for missing documents mentioned in the Cotopaxi narrative: correspondence, bills, petitions and reports, twelve sets of items ranging in discovery value from $250 to $2,500 — $25,000 in total for astute researchers. The documents are to be submitted to Rovner.
“He had contacted me due to the story, very upset by the representation of his forebearer,” Rovner remembers. “I explained that I told the story based on the record I had. That started our relationship. He knows that I am a skeptical person; he has nominated me as someone who is impartial, who is willing to be honest. He wants to correct the record, and now it’s this involved historical debate and personality battle between him and Jen. She blames [Emanuel Saltiel] for duping the poor Jews. I think she has some points and so does he. Even though he’s biased, I very much applaud his search — it’s a real historian’s impulse.”
The colonists were part of a movement in Russia’s Pale of Settlement to escape pogroms triggered by anti-Semitic “May laws” in 1881. They were considered the am olam, “the eternal people,” who would found socialist agricultural communes in America — an impulse that would later fuel the kibbutz movement in Israel. The United States was die goldene medina, the golden land where dreams could come true; the immigrants together would livnot u’lehibanot, “build and be built,” creating not just a livelihood, but a righteous society as well.
One of the sponsors of this movement was Emanuel Saltiel, who went to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society in New York and proposed settling a colony at Cotopaxi, where he had mining interests. (Twenty-five Jewish colonies were established in the United States during this period; none of them succeeded.) The Society gave Saltiel $10,000 — equivalent to more than $232,000 today — to defray the costs. Sixty-three colonists, many from interrelated families, arrived at Cotopaxi on May 8, 1882. Their arrival was witnessed by the 200-odd residents of the railroad town at the time; at its peak, the colony’s population reached 77.
On their way to the colony site, the immigrants let their oxen loose to graze the first night and lost them — forcing them to pull their wagons themselves the next day. Only one of the colonists had farming experience. The others included grain merchants, a Hebrew teacher, a tailor, a tavern keeper and even a “circus rider.”
Once they reached the colony, things got even more difficult.
The relationship between the colonists and Saltiel was rocky from the start. Colonists were alarmed at the crude state of the homes that Saltiel had built for them; many of the tools and supplies that he’d promised weren’t present. And even with all the necessary equipment, farming anything in the dry scrublands of Colorado at 6,280 feet above sea level was a challenge. Hungry bears wandered through the settlement, forcing the immigrants to build bonfires at night to keep them at bay. Native Americans came by, looking for donations of food. Early frosts repeatedly doomed crops.
Cotopaxi “was the worst place for farming, poor lands, lots of big rocks and no water, and the few crops we were able to raise by a miracle were mostly eaten by cattle belonging to neighboring settlers,” colonist Ed (Yudel) Grimes wrote.
The blame game began. Saltiel accused the settlers of being too dedicated to religious observances to work effectively. An agent of the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, Julius Schwarz, came to Cotopaxi to serve as its clerk and a manager for a few months; he clashed with Saltiel as well. An investigator from HEAS, Morris Tuska, came down on Schwarz’s side (then again, he also turned out to be Schwarz’s uncle). “The facts are that Mr. Saltiel used the money put in his hand for his own purpose, and left several bills unpaid, which he said were paid by him,” Tuska reported to his superiors.
The rituals of life and death continued. Those first graves were dug for the three young colonists who succumbed to the hardships. A Torah requested by the colony arrived, donated by the New York Orphan Asylum. And a makeshift synagogue in Cotopaxi was dedicated on June 23, 1883, as reported in the Jewish Messenger:
“At 5:30 precisely the procession was formed as follows: First marched the elders of the colonists, each with a candle in his hands, then came a chuppa, the four poles carried by four single men, and later came the women and children of the colonists. The Procession entered the synagogue and several Psalms were sung, the Russians chanting those peculiar melodies which so deeply move the Jewish heart. The young secretary opened the Ark, and after chanting several hymns placed the Torah in its place.... En Kelohenu was sung. Later they danced in their peculiar Russian manner and the silent moon sent its silvery rays upon the dancing and singing Russians.”
Two marriages took place there, a welcome change from the children’s deaths of the previous year.
“THE REMAINS OF THE COLONY ARE ON OUR FAMILY RANCH. THAT'S KIND OF HOW I GOT STARTED DOWN MY HISTORICAL-FICTION JOURNEY.”
But the situation continued to deteriorate, culminating in an incident described by colonist Bezald Prezant to historian Dorothy Roberts in 1941: “Mr. Prezant, when he could no longer endure the suffering of the people, went to Mr. Saltiel, took him by the hand, and, with tears running down his cheeks, begging him to aid the cold and hungry women and children, and give the colonists their rightful share of the money entrusted to him for their needs. Saltiel only shrugged and walked away.”
Colonists charged that Saltiel had brought them to Cotopaxi just so they could work for slave wages at his mine when his colony failed. And they did pick up some work at the mines, but they also did contract work for the Rio Grande.
In a 2005 piece, Miles says his ancestor “planned an act of high-profile benefaction. It is far more in accordance with Jewish business conduct that a prosperous entrepreneur at the heart of a local Jewish community should seek prestige from public works than he should court public disdain by abusing his coreligionists.”
But some colonists definitely felt abused, and said so when they were interviewed at a self-named “survivors’ dinner” by the Denver Jewish News on April 6, 1925. That a get-together thirty years after the failure of the colony would be termed something that grim is telling.
Miles Saltiel is determined to find out the truth about his ancestor, and that means locating historical material that hasn’t already been studied. “We’re into the law of diminishing returns now,” he says. “I’ve plucked all the low-hanging fruit, as it were. Perhaps other people are going to reach things I can’t.” And perhaps money will help people reach those things.
“I think it’s a great idea,” says DU’s Rovner. “Those outstanding documents could shed further light on the character of the people involved. Those documents, if they exist, are moldering somewhere. This is a great way to motivate and incentivize people.”
Offering money for material is hardly unprecedented, according to Denver historian Phil Goodstein.
“There’s nothing new about that,” he says. “Actually, museums use bounties to gain acquisitions — they just use a different word for it.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning University of Colorado Boulder history professor Elizabeth Fenn isn’t as accepting of the practice. “In principle, paid document discovery may not seem problematic,” she says. “But in practice, we know from archaeological precedent that it can lead to all kinds of unethical behavior. I would proceed with caution as a consequence.”
The bounty also concerns Cotopaxi resident Nancy Oswald. She writes historical fiction and nonfiction for young readers, and her first novel, 2006’s Nothing but Stones, is a fictionalized version of the Cotopaxi colony story — without any Emanuel Saltiel figure. “I like it to be as accurate I can,” she says, “and I don’t know if there are any documents out there that would turn that story around. With money being offered, I get a little nervous someone might want to rework the material.”
Rovner has an answer for that: “Someone could forge them, and that’s why I have been nominated to verify their authenticity.”
Oswald has good reason to be concerned. “The remains of the colony are on our family ranch,” she explains. “That’s kind of how I got started down my historical-fiction journey. I don’t understand Miles Saltiel’s motivation for wanting to change the story. I think [Emanuel] Saltiel kind of got named as the bad guy. The anecdotes I read didn’t paint him as a nice guy. He promised some things that he didn’t come through on, but there were other factors which Saltiel didn’t have any control over.”
Oswald and Lowe aren’t the only locals who’ve researched the colony. Lowe’s brother, Nelson Moore, was the one who cleared away the overgrowth from the Cotopaxi graves and marked their outlines with stones from Saltiel’s mine. He has a website dedicated to the topic: cotopaxi-colony.com.
Moore’s site, started in 2001, is notably hostile to both Emanuel and Miles. “No smooth talking is going to get in the way of history on this site,” it pronounces, referring to Miles Saltiel’s website as “last and least.” It contains a plethora of information, including theological speculation on the page “Cotopaxi, Colorado: A Road Marker for the Return to Jerusalem?” and mentions that a “bombshell” (yet to be disclosed) of info comes from physical evidence.
“I ran into the website put together by Nelson Moore, and that gave me something to sink my teeth into,” says Miles. “I thought, this just doesn’t hold water.”
On her own website, kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/cotopaxi, Lowe also describes unreleased Cotopaxi material, “about fifty documents that have been pulled from the clerk and recorder’s office in Cañon City that need to be transcribed and uploaded,” as well as “another thirty or so newspaper articles.”
“I bumped into Jen at the DU archives maybe a month ago, and she insisted she had documents that no one else had seen but that she refused to publish,” says Rovner. “I don’t know of a truly legitimate historical researcher who would not reveal documents to other researchers for review. The more that comes to light, the more we know — or think we know.”
For her part, Lowe says she intends to share the new information when she presents on “Mayhem and Meshuganah for Jewish Settlers in Cotopaxi, Colorado” on August 10 at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Seattle.
Miles thinks he knows what might be motivating the brother-and-sister researchers: He suggests that Nelson Moore could be related by marriage to the colonists through his wife, Cruz Moore.
Responds Lowe, “We are not related to any of the colonists by marriage or blood, nor do we descend from anyone related to the colonists.”
But Miles Saltiel has a backup explanation for why Lowe and Moore could be pursuing their research. “It answers itself; it’s self-serving,” he says. “Why would people be interested in a story about someone else’s villainy? Well, it’s always easier to believe in a conspiracy than in a cock-up. We explain the past to ourselves in stories, and the simpler the story, the easier. If the story is about a bad man that they got out from under, you can capture that fairly straightforwardly. It’s the American story: We came out here poor, bootstrapped and did it ourselves. They want there to be a villain rather than say, ‘People made mistakes.’”
Miles continues: “I can’t stop people thinking what they want to think. If the descendants of the settlers wish to believe that Saltiel was a villain, I can’t stop them. That is beyond me. But what I can do is put a hurdle between a good-faith student of the story and what seem to be quite reckless mistakes that were made because they simply wouldn’t know what the story is really about. Hey, if the documents prove that Emanuel was an absolute bastard, so be it. I just want to know what really happened. I would love to bring to an end in a seemly way and an amicable way the antagonism between the descendants and myself.”
But does that antagonism still exist? Another historian who’s researched the Cotopaxi story extensively is University of Denver professor Jeanne Abrams, the director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society as well as a congregant at Zera Abraham, the Denver Orthodox shul that’s still going strong after it was founded by Cotopaxi refugees in 1887. “I can’t speak for [the Cotopaxi descendants], but no one [from the congregation] seems upset or concerned about this story to me,” she says. “What happened, happened; we’re never going to know the real story.”
Denver attorney Walter “Bud” Slatkin is also a descendant. “I don’t think there’s any animosity there, any more than in the past,” he says. “I don’t know anything about it except for what I’ve read. They [his ancestors] didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t a fun experience.”
Prominent Denver realtor and developer Evan Makovsky, a descendant of colonists, says he doesn’t have “anything of substance to add.”
But Miles Saltiel points out that the subject is kept alive in Colorado. “The students of Cotopaxi senior year study this story as part of their local history program,” he says. “The Cotopaxi library has it as well. I can’t oblige them to set out my point of view. The University of Denver, and a couple of campuses of the University of Colorado, study it as part of their history programs. It’s a very dramatic story that has been used to encourage their students to become historians.”
“It’s amazing that this story happened so long ago and it’s still stirring passions,” adds Rovner. “To me, part of the interest of history is that the past isn’t past — it’s here. These things are still happening — immigration, refugees. This has generated so much interest; I didn’t expect it.”
“In history, you’re always going to have conflict,” Oswald says. “There will always be different historical viewpoints. History sometimes changes.”
Says Abrams: “History and what historians reflect on are as much about their contemporary world as the time they are talking about.”
The Cotopaxi Jews were rescued from their failed colony, and most were brought to Denver, with the charitable assistance of the Jewish community here. “Some of them,” historian Doris Roberts writes, who “were provided with pushcarts by a Mr. Miller, went industriously around the city collecting discarded clothing and furniture, anything, in fact, which could be turned into cash. Gradually, they prospered.”
Not all of them prospered, though. On July 10, 1895, former colonist Jacob Millstein, listed as a “junk dealer,” was indicted for falsifying “certain figures of certificates of weight of junk supplied to the Omaha and Grant smelter.” He left town.
Other descendants moved on with their lives, becoming an integral part of the region’s Jewish culture. Names like Quiat, Milstein, Shames, Altman, Shuteran, Krupitsky, Reizel and Kiesler entered the city directories.
“It’s a miracle that they survived at all,” Lowe says. “They made it out of Russia, where if they’d stayed they’d all have died. Their relatives who stayed were wiped out in the Holocaust. I just really hate to hear that they ‘failed’ at farming, because they didn’t fail at farming; it failed them.”
Writes Oswald, “There has been much debate about why the Jewish colony at Cotopaxi did not succeed. Poor timing, poor preparation, poor weather, poor funding, the cultural and language barrier, and the role played by Emanuel Saltiel have all been questioned. If any one of these things had been different, would the colony have been a success?”
Adds Abrams: “The tremendous hardships in Cotopaxi made them all stronger. They went on to resettle and really become community leaders. If I were to remove my historian hat and think about this in a spiritual sense, I would call what happened bashert — destiny.”
“IT'S A MIRACLE THEY SURVIVED AT ALL. THEY MADE IT OUT OF RUSSIA, WHERE IF THEY'D STAYED THEY'D ALL HAVE DIED.”
Emanuel Saltiel continued to live and work in Denver. He was arrested as an accessory to a forgery scam in 1897 but never tried; he died in Wyoming three years later.
This exchange from the May 22, 1889, edition of the Rocky Mountain News, offers some insight into Saltiel’s attitude about the colonists. Saltiel was a prospective juror in a manslaughter case, quizzed by defense attorney J. Warner Mills:
Mills: “You are a Jew, Mr. Saltiel.”
Saltiel: “Yes, sir. I am one of the only two ancient Jews in Denver.”
Mills: “Come now, Mr. Saltiel.”
Saltiel: “Yes, this is true, the others are mongrels.”
Five years ago, the Jewish colony of Cotopaxi was remembered with restorative efforts: A fence was put around the graves and a historical marker erected by the Jewish American Society for Historical Preservation and members of the Cotopaxi community — one that makes no mention of Saltiel, only of the “insurmountable challenges” that the settlers faced.