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2 “Our Russian Colonies”

For utopians among the immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and for the Western Jews willing to aid them, an agrarian way of life in the New World meant colonization, establishing cooperative farming enterprises, more often than not in the trans-Mississippi West. Of course, the core of such ventures is a communal thread, a common bond. The bond need not be, though generally is, economic; but more important are the social and spiritual ties. Colonization, wrote the German Zionist and sociologist Arthur Ruppin,

is not only a matter of promoting agricultural development but of creating genuine communities. Its primary object must, therefore, be the creation of such conditions as will enable people to live together with a minimum of friction. Wherever the general social requirements are not properly satisfied, colonization must fail, however well it may have been planned.1

Although Ruppin had in mind the Jewish agricultural efforts in Palestine, not those which took shape in America, as a social scientist he understood that the creation of a community is the essence of colonization anywhere in the world. The nature of the bonds, economic or spiritual, uniting the colonists might vary: “socialistic” colonies, and “individualistic” colonies, “atheistic” colonies, and “orthodox” colonies. But, whatever the bonds, there had to be the common aim of creating a community.

A sine qua non for a successful colony is planning. The frequent failures in Jewish colonization attempts in the United States during the last two decades of the nineteenth century resulted, to no minor degree, from poor business planning. The extent to which these failures stemmed from social inadequacies seems to have been slight.

Jewish Settlements in America: Early Plans

Ararat, New York

The year 1881 has been regarded as the date of the establishment of the first Jewish farm colony in the United States, but an earlier date would be defensible. Probably the first such scheme was the abortive project of the New York Jewish playwright-politico Mordecai Manuel Noah, who in 1825 proclaimed the establishment of Ararat, a Jewish colony on Grand Island in the Niagara River, a largely unpeopled region near Buffalo in northern New York State. Noah wanted Grand Island publicized as a place where refugee Jews could “till the soil, reap the harvest, . . . raise [their] flocks . . . and [enjoy] their religious rights, and . . . every civil immunity.” Noah’s program aroused some controversy. Most of his contemporaries thought the scheme ridiculous. However, Ararat seemed anything but chimerical to one Eliezer Kirschbaum, a Galician Jewish poet and medical student, in whose memory the vicious anti-Jewish riots of post-Napoleonic Central Europe were no doubt quite fresh. Kirschbaum, even before the Ararat proclamation, had published a Hebrew pamphlet praising Noah for his efforts. Redemption was at hand, Kirschbaum believed: the United States government would allow 35,000 Jewish newcomers “to organize a state.” It would be easy to realize the project: what was needed was 6,000 families, half of them “agriculturists”; the others would come on their own, “and thus the Jews will have a state.”2

Zeire Hazon and Sholem, New York

Twelve years after Ararat, in 1837, a group of German Jewish immigrants in New York City organized the Association Zeire Hazon (“Tender Sheep”) whose purpose was “removing West, and settling on some part of the Public Lands, suitable for agricultural purposes.” These German Jewish “tender sheep,” many of them members of New York’s Anshe Chesed Congregation, had as “one of [their] leading objects . . . the formation of a Congregation, wherever they may locate.” Nothing came of this design either, but a year later a number of Anshe Chesed members formed the nucleus of a colony called Sholem in Wawarsing, not far from Ellenville in Ulster County, New York.

In the cases of Ararat and the Zeire Hazon, the plans never got beyond the stage of proclamation. In the case of Wawarsing’s Sholem colony, the story remains something of a mystery “clouded in rock and humus,” but by 1847 the colony had disappeared.3

American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association, New York

In 1855, nearly two decades after Sholem was planted, another group of Jews, all of Central European origin and B’nai B’rith members, issued in New York City “a call to establish a Hebrew Agricultural Society to encourage agriculture amongst the Israelites of America.” No doubt frightened by the anti-immigrant agitation of the “Know-Nothings” and their sympathizers during the troubled decade preceding the Civil War, these proponents of farming claimed that the lack of Jewish agriculturists led to Jews being “looked upon as transitory inhabitants, having neither the desire nor the capacity to settle as permanent citizens.” Moreover, “the exclusive pursuit of commerce” promoted “a course inimical to the wellfare (sic) of our country”: accumulating wealth “without the acquirement of permanent interest in the soil of the land which constitutes the real title to citizenship and to the full enjoyment of civic rights.” Eager “to change this undesirable state of affairs” and

to create a taste for and encourage agriculture amongst our people, a calling so honorable and ensuring the greatest degree of independence and happiness and finally in order to employ the newly arrived emigrants, and the working man generally in want of employment and to give them a chance to gain by honesty and industry a comparatively happy living and to wean them from beggary and from becoming a burden to our charitable institutions,

the New Yorkers proposed the establishment of an American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association. The new society was to purchase land at the earliest opportunity and employ “a competent and reliable manager to superintend [its] whole property.” The people sent there to cultivate the land were to be “of good character” and capable of “diligent and honest labour.” Instruction, both theoretical and practical, in horticulture and agriculture would be offered “those desirous to turn agriculturist.” The apologetic tone of the proposal stirred up considerable controversy, especially in the city’s Jewish periodical The Asmonean. An association actually came into being, but nothing more is known about it.4 Before very long the entire project appears to have been abandoned.

Jewish Farming Settlements in America, 1880–1910

More is known about the Jewish agricultural colonies established a half-century later. One similarity is common to all these East European immigrant colonizing efforts of 1880–1900. All experienced the same vicissitudes: a premature birth, a brief struggle, and an abrupt death. They were conceived in haste and planned in stress. Indeed, their organizers tended to ignore or discount the complexities and dangers, the depressed state, of post-Civil War American farming.5 Notwithstanding the record of failure, their story is a memorable one, expressive in a poignant way of the yearnings to which East European Jewish idealists gave themselves. Some of these idealists, even before the pogroms of 1881, could think of America as a “great and glorious land of liberty, whose broad and trackless acres offer an asylum and a place for . . . courageous souls, willing to toil.” America, “the sacred soil of George Washington,” promised a freedom which would enable Jewish settlers on the “western lands” to “become new created for the great struggle of life.” Sixty years after Noah and Kirschbaum, the dream of a Jewish territory in America was still alive.6

Alliance Israélite Universelle: Its Role

The first of the ventures to settle East European Jews upon American land in the 1880s was undertaken by Herman Rosenthal on behalf of the Franco-Jewish Alliance Israélite Universelle. Rosenthal, who had come to the United States early in 1881, had an unusual personal background. In the Ukrainian city of Kiev, he had been both a successful merchant and a litterateur. Like many a contemporary East European Jewish intellectual, he had been an ardent Russophile, but the threat of an anti-Semitic reaction in Russia even prior to the violence of the 1880s had disenchanted him and made him break away. In 1880, he was an organizer of the Am Olam group,7 whose chief aim was to transplant East European Jews to other lands, either to Ottoman Palestine or to the United States, and to settle them in socialistically planned agricultural colonies, the sort he advocated in his Yiddish journal The Jewish Farmer, published in 1891.

Early in 1881 Rosenthal arrived in America as the advance agent of the Am Olam pioneers group and, while here, induced the AIU to assist the 124 colonists who were following him. The AIU, founded in 1860 to promote educational, industrial, and agricultural work among needy Jews, had engaged in emigration work in 1869–71 and was responsible for the establishment of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school near Jaffa in Ottoman Palestine. The interest of the Franco-Jewish philanthropists in aiding refugees had already been demonstrated by Charles Netter’s work at Brody in Austrian Poland. The AIU was probably the most responsible Jewish agency in existence at the time and met Rosenthal’s appeal without delay, if also without enthusiasm. Some of the philanthropists to whom Rosenthal turned reportedly laughed and said, “Let the Russians become peddlers, they can never be farmers.”

Sicily Island, Louisiana

In the summer of 1881, the central office of the AIU authorized its New York branch to grant the prospective colonists a loan of $2,800. The money was used to purchase a tract of land, approximately 5,000 acres, located on Sicily Island in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, some 400 miles upriver from New Orleans and Baton Rouge. According to a contemporary account, “the land abounded in swamps and marshes and was three days journey from a city with no train service.”8

There are conflicting accounts as to why this particular tract of land was selected. One source claims it had been the voluntary choice of the geographical committee, a committee of the prospective colonists which had corresponded with leading Jews in various parts of the country. Another source would have it that the selection had been forced upon the committee because the sale was to the advantage of a “politician,”9 allegedly the governor of Louisiana,10 though there appears to be little basis to the charge. Governor Samuel D. McEnery is known to have offered the colonists a tract of land, but his offer had been rejected because the land was deemed infertile. The governor, it is true, spoke highly of the land finally selected, and he promised the local New Orleans immigrant aid committee that he would encourage the immigrants and do all in his power to make the colony a success.11 Subsequent events, however, proved that the selection of the land had been injudicious.

Estimates of the extent of the Sicily Island acquisition vary. Leonard Robinson said it amounted to 5,000 acres. The colonists gave it, variously, as 1,000 or 2,400. The HEAS, in its report of 1882, states that 2,800 acres were involved.12 No land office records exist. That the colonists themselves were so uncertain of the land they had purchased suggests the nature of the group that set out on its unique experiment. The “American Chalutzim,” as Leonard Robinson designates them, comprised twenty families and several single men. In Eastern Europe, they had been students, teachers, artists, merchants, craftsmen, and peddlers.13 It is significant that none of them had ever farmed previously and few were accustomed to manual labor. This assorted group, enthusiastic and ignorant, was given a cordial reception by the Jewish community of New Orleans, and after leaving most of the women and children behind in the Louisiana port, forty-two of them went on to their new abode. Upon reaching the site, an old plantation abandoned since Civil War days, they set about organizing themselves.

On November 16, 1881, the chalutzim (“pioneers”) incorporated themselves in Louisiana as the “First Agricultural Colony of Russian Israelites in America.” The object of the association was “the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of its members and families.”14 The newcomers were empowered to found a colony on Sicily Island, “there to purchase lands, apportion the same, erect dwellings, farm houses, [and] a school house for the education of the children”; they were also to “establish a library for the common use of the colony” as well as “supply money, farming utensils, or other articles of husbandry, household furniture and stock,” and “generally do and provide for . . . the furtherance of [the colony’s] aims and purposes . . . whatever shall be necessary.” A governing board of seven members was set up to administer the business and to settle disputes. Article 7 of their constitution reflected an intention of carrying out the socialist ideals of the Am Olam group:

All money belonging to individuals of the colony which had been deposited with the Immigrant Aid Society of New Orleans [the committee of the New Orleans community set up to deal with the problems of the new arrivals] will remain as a general fund for the benefit of the colony; but each member will be entitled to a special credit on the books of the association for the amount deposited less the costs incident to his voyage and support.

According to Article 8, “all supplies sent to the colony by the Immigrant Aid Association shall be charged to the colony and to the members receiving them,” but, Article 9 continued, “any member having to his credit a larger amount than any of his associates shall not for that reason be entitled to draw more supplies than is necessary for his needs, unless by special authorization from the I.A.A. [Immigrant Aid Association] committee of New Orleans.” No member would be “allowed to sell, barter, or offer for sale anything within the boundaries of the colony”; any commercial enterprise would require approval by two-thirds of the colonists, and distilling was to be forbidden.

In order to work more effectively the three tracts of land purchased, the colonists divided themselves into three groups. All resources were pooled. The business and any profits were to be divided on an equal basis. At the outset, individuals were to have no shares of their own; ultimately, when the colony had achieved a strong foundation, each person was to be established on an individual basis.15

The local committee of the AIU dealt with the basic problem of supplies by furnishing the colonists with lumber for their homes as well as horses, farm implements, cattle, and poultry. A German farmer was hired as an agricultural adviser, but since he would come only once or twice a week, his instruction proved of limited value. The colonists, nonetheless, set about clearing the land, which contained excellent timber. They tilled the soil and planted corn, cotton, and vegetables. Ten houses were also put up, but the original plan of erecting forty small houses, each to serve a family or four single men, would never be realized. A general store was opened and stocked with things “necessary and unnecessary.” In all, the picture seemed encouraging. “There is no winter here,” one of the colonists assured correspondents in the Russian capital. “Trees blossom all year around.”

The social aspect of the colony’s life appeared rewarding. Evenings the colonists gathered for discussions and debates in one of the three big houses remaining from the Civil War. One member, Borowick, an opera star in Russia, entertained with song. Another, Herman Rosenthal himself, read his poems to an appreciative audience. The community life was reflected in a weekly news bulletin written in Russian and offering a humorous view of life. For the children, who were gradually brought from New Orleans, a school was organized in Rosenthal’s house, and two of the members who knew English served as teachers. The adults, too, applied themselves to learning the language of their new home, and many a night was spent in study and reading.

The spring of 1882 saw the prospects of success diminish. The colonists began to complain of the heat. Coming from Russia’s colder climate, they were not accustomed to the high Louisiana temperatures. Moreover, snakes and mosquitoes added to the discomforts of life, and malaria struck down a number of children. “Young men of strong physique and possessed of knowledge,” reported one observer, “were shattered like a broken pitcher from the asthmatic sickness” they contracted in the colony. The natural high spirits of the colonists were considerably dampened. The letters they received from their city relatives telling of jobs, homes, and opportunities only added to the discontent. After they had exhausted any comfort they might have derived from one another, they had no one else to turn to. Their neighbors were, in the main, blacks whose pattern of life diverged widely from their own. Rosenthal, too, became disheartened: “A viler spot on God’s earth it would be hard to find,” he wrote in late May.

These factors might not have spelled doom for the colony. What destroyed it was that as farmers the colonists were to achieve no success. Originally cotton and corn were planned as the main cash crops, with small-scale gardening for home use. According to Robinson, a prominent New Orleans Jew had offered to pay $2,000 for the first bale of cotton grown by the Jewish colonists, though the prevailing market price was $40 a bale. The offer was never realized, however, since in the spring of 1882 before a single bale of cotton had been picked a flood washed everything away: houses, cattle, implements, and small crops. The Louisiana colony was quickly abandoned. Even at the end, others had to come to the aid of the colonists. Rosenthal and a friend went to New York to raise funds for the transportation of the pioneers elsewhere. At a meeting in New York City on May 24, 1882, Rosenthal spoke of the colony as “a piece of Jewish history.”16 Thus passed out of existence the first agricultural colony of Russian Jews in the United States. One of the colonists summed up the experiment as “work, mostly useless, hope, despair, love, songs, poetry, happiness and misery—life as we lived it there in Louisiana.”17

Why had the Louisiana enterprise failed? The organization backing the colonists in New York and in New Orleans was highly effective. The New Orleans Jewish community was responsive. The internal organization of the colonists was competent. Herman Rosenthal, their leader, was a capable, self-sacrificing individual. They had not planned to become dependent on a single crop, but rather on a variety of agricultural efforts. The land was cheap. They had immediate lodging. Necessary supplies were furnished at the outset. All these advantages, however, could not offset the basic factors of harsh environmental conditions, heat, floods, and disease, combined with the lack of agricultural experience and the social isolation of the community. Even so, it appears, some of the colonists were not discouraged. Believing a new start could be made elsewhere under more favorable conditions, some went on to Arkansas, others to Dakota, and still others to Kansas.

New Odessa, Oregon

The anti-Semitic storm which broke over Russia in 1881 led to the formation of more Am Olam groups. In September of that year one of them, made up of sixty-five young people, left Odessa and crossed the Austrian frontier to Brody. There they were met by a representative of the AIU who directed them to the next stop on their long journey to the United States. On their arrival in Berlin, the travelers found that certain Orthodox Jewish leaders, forewarned of their nonconformist views on religion, balked at helping them; but using the limited means they possessed, they were able to go on and landed at New York in January 1882. In February 1882 a second group reached New York, and two others soon followed. When the colony of New Odessa was founded in remote Oregon, its membership stemmed almost entirely from these four groups.

The reception these Am Olamites had received in New York was none too cordial. This time it was not religious traditionalists but the conservative and insecure German leaders of the HEAS who looked askance at the plans of the Russian Jews. There were, however, in the New York community two individuals whose sympathies were won over. These two, the liberal publicist and philanthropist Michael Heilprin and the lawyer Dr. Julius B. Goldman, deserve to be remembered as responsible for the unique agricultural experiment of New Odessa.18 Heilprin indeed exerted himself to such an extent that his biographer claims that his work in behalf of the Russian refugees brought on his premature death.19 Abraham Cahan in his memoirs recalled him as the most beloved figure among the immigrant masses of the 1880s. Heilprin had been a follower of the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, and no doubt his experiences in the Hungarian uprising of the late 1840s made him a sympathetic friend to the Jews leaving the czarist empire four decades later. Moreover, Heilprin was a passionate believer in agricultural colonization for Jews. It is understandable that this band of idealists won his devotion.20

Like their predecessors who had undertaken the unfortunate Louisiana venture, this Am Olam group had neither funds nor training. Unlike the Louisiana colonists, however, they set about their Oregon enterprise somewhat more systematically. Some of them saw that the immediate task was to gain experience as farmers, and so they set about acquiring it by actual work on farms on Long Island and in Connecticut and Indiana. One is said to have refused a good city job and to have gone to work on a farm in Vincennes, Indiana, for a pittance. Others, however, felt that obtaining funds was at the moment more essential than agricultural experience. They remained in New York City to take positions that paid more than farm work, but the money they earned was deposited into a general fund. The city members, sixty of them, kept together by organizing what they called “The Commune.” They rented a house on Pell Street, and the manner in which they ran it was a foretaste of the life they expected to lead in the future. Household tasks were divided, earnings were pooled, and at night educational meetings were held to formulate plans for the colony.

Another question to be solved was the selection of land for their colony. Here, possibly due to the guidance of Heilprin, who had by this time succeeded to the secretaryship of the HEAS, sound judgment was exhibited. Two groups of prospective colonists were sent out: one, to the Midwest and to Texas; the other, to the Northwest, to Washington and Oregon. The members of these groups worked on the farms of their particular regions for three months and then sent reports back to their confrères in New York. The Texas group reported the land there was arid. The Washington-Oregon group held that the land in Douglas County, Oregon, was fertile and desirable. It was thereupon agreed that Douglas County was to be the home of the New Odessa colony.

The colony might have died stillborn at this juncture if not for Heilprin’s effort to raise $2,000 of the $4,800 purchase price.21 The land selected 250 miles south of Portland, Oregon, consisted of 760 acres, 150 of them fit for immediate cultivation. The rest was virgin forest containing excellent timber. As the Oregon and California Railroad was under construction nearby, the colonists reasoned they could obtain much-needed capital by cutting wood from the forests and selling it to the railroad for ties. At the same time, for home consumption they could raise wheat, oats, peas, beans, and a variety of vegetables. As the land was rich and well-watered, the physical conditions appeared to be most promising. There was one physical factor whose importance they underestimated: the colony’s distance from markets.22

In July, 1882, twenty-five Am Olamites started for Oregon. On their arrival in Portland, some eight of them proceeded immediately to the site of the colony; the others remained behind to earn money and to learn English. Their plan was for small groups to go from New York to Portland and remain there until called. They were not to be idle, and it was agreed that, whatever their earnings, part would go to support the New Odessa colonists.

From this point on it becomes difficult to reconstruct a detailed story of these pioneers, particularly for the period between July 1882 and the spring of 1883. Occasionally New York’s Jewish Messenger published a fleeting reference to “our Russian colonies.”23 In the spring of 1883, forty to fifty people inhabited the colony.24 They had erected a large two-story frame building. The upper story was used as a dormitory, and the lower consisted of a communal kitchen, dining room, and assembly hall. They had already begun raising wheat, oats, peas, and other crops, but marketing the yield proved a formidable problem, since the cost of transportation was extremely high. It was, not so incidentally, the opinion of Julius Bien, one of the HEAS leaders, that inaccessibility to markets and to avenues of communication had to be counted among the chief reasons for the failure of all the colonization attempts. It undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties faced by the New Odessa colony.25

The colonists, despite all hazards, were able to pay off $1,000 for the land. In two years they grossed an income of between $7,000 and $8,000 for the sale of 4,000 cords of wood to the Oregon and Pacific Railroad. In 1884 it appears the railroad was willing to contract for the delivery of more lumber. The offer was rejected, because to carry it out would have required the erection of an expensive sawmill. Correspondence between the colonists and the MAAS26 was exchanged in reference to this proposal, but the negotiations failed. The reasons given for the failure vary. Some of the colonists resisted committing themselves to the railroad through a contract extending over a term of years. Others doubted that the funds necessary for the sawmill could be raised. There is evidence to support their doubts, for it was at this time, in November 1883, that Heilprin’s Appeal to the Jews appeared. In it he stated that the New Odessa colonists

have done a great deal of hard work, their zeal has not abated, and the future of the colony is promising. It is able to maintain itself in spite of trying privation and scantiness of means. It furnishes the Oregon and Pacific Railroad wood for fuel, and if possessed of the necessary steam-saw machinery, could also supply the railroad with the sleepers required for its extension.27

In view of the title Heilprin gave his tract it might be thought that inadequate finances alone were holding up the construction of the mill. It was, however, not the lack of a sawmill which brought about the end of the New Odessa venture in 1885. Neither want, privation, crop shortage, hostile climate, nor physical exhaustion could be held responsible. Nor was there a threat of foreclosure hanging over them. On the contrary, in 1885 the owners of the land offered to extend the mortgage for fifteen years if necessary, and several local merchants as well as two prominent Portland Jewish businessmen offered the colonists credit in an effort to save the colony. If the physical and financial conditions were reasonably favorable, why then did the colony fail? The answer lies largely in the social and spiritual domain.28

Herman Rosenthal, Am Olam founder. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Julius Goldman, champion of colonies in Oregon and New Jersey. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Abraham Cahan. More than a new kind of life for Jews, he sought “sound socialist ideas.” Drawing by Saul Raskin (1923). (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

William Frey, the Saint of New Odessa. (Courtesy William Frey Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Michael Heilprin, beloved by immigrants, tireless supporter of New Odessa. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

William Frey in his last days, ca. 1888. Pencil sketch by Prince Peter Kropotkin. (Courtesy William Frey Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division. New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

William and Mary Frey, founders of New Odessa. (Courtesy William Frey Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Memento of the Wechsler settlement, Dakota Territory, 1880s, founded by Judah Wechsler, liberal rabbi. (Courtesy YIVO)

Colonist workers at a mine near Cotopaxi Colony, Colorado. (Courtesy AJHS)

The New Odessa colony, like the earlier Louisiana experiment, had been conceived as a communistic effort. But the Sicily Island venture had not aimed to establish a colony in which pure communism, a thoroughgoing collectivism or equalization of wealth and income, would be put into immediate practice. At New Odessa, the Marxist creed of “from everyone according to his ability, and to everyone according to his needs” was applied literally. Pure communism was an immediate objective. There were fixed hours of labor, and specific tasks were assigned on the farm, in the forest, and in the kitchen.

The leading spirit of this undertaking was a non-Jew of upper-class antecedents, William Frey, born Vladimir Konstantinovich Geins, a former officer in the czarist army and professor of mathematics in the military academy at St. Petersburg, the Russian capital. Abraham Cahan wrote of him as a moral giant, the greatest figure among the immigrant masses of the 1880s. Staunch believers in the humanist positivism of the nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, Frey and his wife, Maria Slavinskaya, had come to the United States in 1868 and had spent some ten years in rural communes in Missouri and Kansas. It was Frey who set the tone for this band of pioneering Jews whose rather reluctant leader he now became. Frey professed extreme simplicity in thought and deed, but doubted that the Am Olamites would be able to pattern themselves after him. Would he not be “a living reproach to their consciences”? But the Jewish newcomers were adamant, and Frey, together with Maria, and with his mistress Lydia Eichoff, settled at New Odessa.

The Am Olamites strove to vindicate his decision. They agreed to “dispense with bosses or employers, renounce personal property, receive no salary, [and] have one purse for all.” Even though the land was fruitful, the idealistic colonists insisted on leading a frugal existence. Their diet was confined to beans, peas, and coarse bread. The cost of feeding one person per day did not exceed five cents. When the food budget rose to eight cents, it was considered gross extravagance. These exponents of the selfless Comtean discipline of the religion of humanity would not live lavishly while millions starved. The New Odessa colonists, said Cahan in later years, had “had the beautiful expectation of providing the egotistic, unhappy world with an inspiring example of how to live in equality and brotherly love.”29

For two years the group apparently worked in harmony and with sizable success. Diversions within the colony were largely intellectual. Nights were given over to discussions, debates—generally about Auguste Comte’s philosophy of positivism and the religion of humanity—and the inevitable self-criticism and mutual criticism often associated with earnest, self-searching intellectuals. These meetings, Cahan reported, were “designed to provide a reciprocal examination of individual morals in order to cleanse the entire colony,” but “people are people, so that often the member at whom the speaker aims his criticism listens not in a brotherly spirit but with a rising anger.” There were also sexual jealousies arising from the paucity of girls which left the “young men . . . moody, jealous, [and] isolated.” Respect for privacy seems to have been conspicuous by its absence.

Since the aristocratic Maria Frey, a musician, entertained with recitals one night a week on a pipe organ which had been presented to the colony, the social life could not have been as forbidding or cheerless as might be thought. Indeed, many an American farmer travelled long distances to spend a social evening at New Odessa, especially for the dances given there at the assembly hall. According to one visitor, an itinerant non-Jewish farm expert, the group never quarreled, was constantly cheerful, and was extremely idealistic. Clearly, the spirit of brotherhood prevailed in the New Odessa colony. “Everyone labored to save the world.” A German-born Reform rabbi, Judah Wechsler, visited New Odessa in the fall of 1884, but was not quite sure what to make of the colonists:

They are good mechanics and do all their own repairing. They even built a small grist mill themselves. They live, eat, and drink together harmoniously like members of a vast family. They have an excellent library. They believe in no religions, keep no Sabbaths, and do nothing that would distinguish them as Jews.30

It is a tribute to this band of idealists that they held together in a voluntary association for two years in such a spirit of harmony, but Frey’s frail health alarmed the colonists. Moreover, as Cahan puts it, “mounting dissatisfactions began to eat at the heart of the commune, devouring it as rust devours iron.” When the break came, as it did in 1884, it came over ideological differences. By this time at least two distinct schools of thought had developed. One banded around the arch-idealist Frey and followed him in his spartan code of simplicity. Few of them, Cahan suggests, may have actually subscribed to Frey’s positivism, but not many had the heart to offend this man whom they revered as a saint, and “besides, he was a gentile and an aristocrat.”

The group which did muster the fortitude to break with Frey was led by Cahan’s friend Paul Kaplan, one of the organizers of the colony, and was composed of those who were “positive but not positivistic.” They were idealists, too, but a shade more earthy. Comprised largely of the younger element, they were interested in marriage and increasingly frustrated by the scarcity of eligible young women. Apparently they were ambitious and wanted to return to their careers. Some felt that the goals of the colony were aimed much too high; that farming and communism were not the only instruments through which real happiness could be obtained.

The chasm between Freyites and non-Freyites proved unbridgeable. In an atmosphere lacking in malice, and in one of profound pain at separation—one of the colonists reported that “the tears fell like rain”—Frey and fifteen of his followers departed New Odessa. He and Maria settled in London, where he died, at the age of forty-nine, in November 1888. Kaplan, however, was unable to improve matters in Oregon, and it was probably not long thereafter that a non-Jewish observer offered readers of the San Francisco Overland Monthly a rather grim picture of the colony, or what was left of it:

Nearly all members eat, and sleep, and stagnate—for [one] can hardly speak of it as living—in a large hall of rough boards and unplaned planks and containing only two apartments, the lower story being the dining room and kitchen in one, and the upper story a large sleeping room without partitions.

This writer, too, like Rabbi Wechsler, noted the group’s atheism, saying that they had no religion, no political organization for management of their affairs, and no defined code of morals other than “to be good.”31

The loss of over one-fourth of the colony’s membership was a serious blow to the enterprise, but it need not have been fatal. It was not their miniscule numbers that hindered the colonists; it was their lack of unity in thought and action. Still, the coup de grâce came from another direction. The community building, which housed the most valuable possession of the group, the library which had so impressed Rabbi Wechsler, was destroyed by fire. The loss of companionship with a lively part of the band was thus intensified by the loss of intellectual contacts with the outside world. To geographical isolation was now added spiritual isolation, a situation which proved intolerable; and the colonists began to disperse. One group of irrepressible idealists went to San Francisco and then on to New York where they revived the collectivist “Commune” experiment, this time a steam laundry on Essex Street. Others realized earlier ambitions: three became doctors; two, lawyers; two, pharmacists; one, a dentist; one, a chemist; one, an engineer; and one, an educator. By 1885, the New Odessa enterprise which had started out with such high hopes had, like Sicily Island in Louisiana, become another false start, or, as Israel Mandelkorn, one of the colonists, would put it, “What began as an experiment ended as an experience.”32

Crémieux, South Dakota

Thus far, in Louisiana and in Oregon, the attempts made to settle the Russian refugees had been on privately owned tracts of land. Shortly after the New Odessa colony was initiated, however, the United States government threw open for settlement a former Indian reservation in the Dakota Territory. Since 1862, indeed, all government land had been placed within the reach of the small cultivator by an extremely liberal land policy. By the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862, a quarter-section, 160 acres of land, was granted free to the head of a family or a person over twenty-one who was a citizen of the United States or who had filed his intention of becoming one, if for five years he resided on the land and cultivated it. If, however, after six months of cultivation, the occupant desired to acquire full title to the land, he might do so by buying it at the low rate of $1.25 an acre. Settling on such government land seemed to Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, editor of Cincinnati’s American Israelite, “the main enterprise” which would enable East European immigrants “to become independent men.” Wise, busily promoting a Cincinnati-sponsored Homestead Act design, the Beersheba colony, in western Kansas, argued that a settler who took advantage of the act could be “sure of success in the end, sure of a living for himself and family, and of perfect independence.”33 It was this prospect of free or cheap land which motivated two pioneer Jewish families to set out from New York City on July 1, 1882, for the town of Mitchell in the Territory of South Dakota. The community which they helped to establish was the transient but memorable colony named in honor of the late president of the AIU, Adolphe Crémieux.34

After the breakup of the Louisiana colony in the spring of 1882, Herman Rosenthal had returned to New York City to arrange for the relocation of his unfortunate comrades. But he was far from abandoning colonization altogether. Rosenthal ascribed the failure of the Sicily Island colony to the region’s oppressive heat and malaria; the next attempt, he felt, should be in a temperate climate, one more like the climate to which the colonists were accustomed in Eastern Europe. The possibility of newly available Homestead land in the Dakotas was a powerful magnet to attract a man of ambition, energy, and ideals like Rosenthal. It was with hopes of taking advantage of the generous policy of a hospitable government that he deter-mined on land near Mitchell in Davison County, South Dakota, as the desirable site for a new colony.

Rosenthal’s scheme of settlement in South Dakota attracted support from the indefatigable Heilprin and the earnest young Benoir Greenberg, the son of a noted architect and bridge-builder in Russia. Greenberg had been brought up in wealth, luxury, and culture, but like other young intellectuals in Russia he had become disillusioned as a result of the pogroms and had turned to the Am Olam organization. The three, Rosenthal, Heilprin, and Greenberg, formed the MAAS, which was later to supersede the HEAS. Both Rosenthal and Greenberg took part in the actual colonization, while Heilprin remained in the East to propagandize for the design. Greenberg’s was one of the two families to arrive in Mitchell. Upon arrival, the two were greeted by a local Jewish businessman named Weil, with whom the families had corresponded, as well as the entire population of Mitchell. Weil provided temporary quarters for the two families, and they spent a week in Mitchell obtaining information for their venture and awaiting the arrival of Rosenthal eight days later.35

The tract of land selected for Crémieux was fertile and virgin, located in prairie country. Word was sent back to New York City that the site had been chosen and families began to come out. After 200 persons had settled in the colony, the area that finally came under the colonists’ control covered fifteen square miles. Each man settling and cultivating the land acquired title in his own name. Thus, in contrast to the Louisiana and Oregon attempts, land was not held in common, though it was still possible for the colonists to work cooperatively, sharing tools, seed, livestock, and, in the end, profits and losses.

Lack of trained leadership and ill-advised expenditures militated against the success of the project, but these factors were not irremediable. Scarcely had the colonists succeeded in making their homes habitable, however, when a prairie fire broke out on Yom Kippur, 1882. Every bit of standing hay was destroyed, and the cattle were left utterly without feed. Rather than bewail their loss, the colonists were grateful for their personal rescue and solved the problem of feed by purchasing it from local farmers.

The first winter of 1882–83 in South Dakota was long remembered for its severe cold. The kerosene froze in the lamps, and the water that was drawn turned to ice unless one drank it immediately. Obtaining water was a difficult task even under normal weather conditions, for there were no surface springs and wells had to be dug fifty or sixty feet deep. Only the wealthiest of the group, Rosenthal and Greenberg, could afford the enormous sums of two to three hundred dollars that well-digging entailed. The other settlers had to rely upon a small spring a little over three miles distant. In sub-zero temperatures the intrepid soul who ventured this distance brought back ice. All the colonists were spiritually and physically hardy, for despite the formidably low temperatures and raging blizzards, they came through the first winter without losing a single member. Encouraged no doubt by their apparent triumph over nature, the colonists set to work planting their crops, mainly corn, flax, wheat, and some vegetables, in the spring of 1883. With the autumn harvest, however, the colonists derived little more than the moral satisfaction of knowing that they were capable of functioning as farmers. Unfortunately, their wheat found a depressed market (the period was one which saw the curve of farm prices in steady decline), and the pioneers received little for their exertions. Since flax had brought a better return, the following spring more flax was planted, and of course, the inevitable wheat.

Amidst their planting and reaping, the band of colonists found time for an active social life. The pattern was much like that of New Odessa; there were lectures, discussions, debates, concerts, and dances. The colonists threw themselves with equal enthusiasm into their work and play, and many of the native farmers were drawn to this odd, exciting group. While there was plenty of communal life, there was no organized religious life. The only religion the Crémieux idealists believed in was that of an empirical humanism. Metaphysics was nonsense; synagogue, a rabbi, a shochet (“ritual slaughterer”) would have been superfluous. Apparently, the social life they led was all-sufficient, since there is no indication of ideological strife or dissension among them.

In the autumn of 1884, a hailstorm destroyed the entire flax crop. Hopes for the second year faded, and some of the older men became discouraged. By now all but a few families were heavily in debt. While money was available, the rates of interest were notoriously exorbitant. The mounting burden of indebtedness was disheartening, and, inevitably, in 1884 the exodus began.

Those who hung on saw all their efforts come to naught the following year when the Hessian fly destroyed the wheat, and drought and intense heat killed off most of the livestock. As the supply of food and water dwindled, many of the farmers sold what remained of their stock. It became impossible to meet the interest on the mortgages, and so by the end of 1885 the Crémieux venture, which started out with such promise, had taken its place beside that of the other abandoned colonies.

Bethlehem-Jehudah, South Dakota

Thus far, the two attempts at colonization under the auspices of the Franco-Jewish Alliance, Sicily Island in Louisiana and Crémieux in South Dakota, had been unsuccessful. The AIU’s last venture along these lines was brief and on a less pretentious scale, and it, too, ended in failure.

In 1885, a group of single men had settled near Crémieux on a tract of Davison County land which they called Bethlehem-Jehudah. Here with the support of AIU funds, they attempted to carry on a fully collectivist life. Bethlehem-Jehudah was to demonstrate to anti-Semites the world over that Jews were capable farmers; every colonist was expected to farm, and commercial activity was “absolutely forbidden.” Women, moreover, were to “enjoy equal rights with men.” To a colonist in nearby Crémieux, “these brave youths” at Bethlehem-Jehudah testified that “the great spirit of Israel is still alive.” Unfortunately, however, the colony’s brief year and a half of existence was marked by strife, discontent, and natural disaster.

Rabbi Wechsler, one of the colony’s founders, complained that Bethlehem-Jehudah was “characterized by differences of opinion, quarrels and confusion, without any law or order.” The causes of failure were identical with those of the other colonies: lack of farming experience and lack of trained and practical leadership.36 When this experiment proved abortive, the AIU withdrew as an important factor in Jewish colonization in America.

Am Olam Group Settlement, Arkansas

Throughout these closing decades of the nineteenth century, there was instance after instance of other valiant but short-lived attempts to transform into actuality the dream of the Jew as a farmer. Sicily Island, New Odessa, and Crémieux are only among the more notable. Because they were so transitory and because they were primarily concerned with conquering, literally, a new earth, only a few factual sign-posts survive to guide researchers. The records of organizations, if they exist; the accounts of survivors who can be traced; the letters, if any, which passed between colonists and the outside world; and any personal diaries—these are the chief sources of information. But such documents do not always exist.

The difficulties of reconstructing the early colonization efforts are illustrated by the case of the ill-fated Bethlehem-Jehudah project. They are perhaps even better reflected in the story of a colony in Arkansas. Here, after personal investigation, the lawyer Gabriel Davidson and his collaborator Edward Goodwin were able to trace a handful of the colonists and published an account based on the memories of the few participants they discovered. As far as is known, the experience of the Arkansas colony survives only in the fragile web of reminiscence.37

In the spring of 1883, a band of 150 individuals, East European Jews and former ghetto dwellers, set out for a tract of land near Newport on the White River in eastern Arkansas, about ninety miles northeast of Little Rock. The land had been offered for colonization, by whom is not clear, and a lumber company had agreed to buy staves to be cut by the colonists. There is little else that is known about the group except that its members were attracted by the idea of farm life, were overwhelmed by the beauty of the virgin forest, and wrote home to New York City of the wonders of nature in Arkansas. A second group of thirty belonging to one of the Am Olam societies, three families and the rest single men, felt encouraged to follow them. They had been awaiting an opportunity to go to the land, and thought that now they had been given one.

Like all the previous groups, this second group were inexperienced farmers with slender means, though abundant enthusiasm. They did, however, include within their ranks two men who had returned from Louisiana, Solomon Menaker and one known as Spies. Because of their background these two were chosen to investigate the site. Unfortunately, experience does not always spell wisdom, for the tract of land they selected was near the site upon which the original 150 had settled. It was land so densely forested that not even the natives of the region had penetrated it. Worse still, it was located in a plague-infested area. Agriculture as such was obviously impossible. Menaker and Spies believed, however, that the clearing of this forest, a necessary preliminary step, could be turned to profit and could give the colonists a successful impetus, through the sale of the timber to railroad or lumber companies. “Had the colonists been more adept, they probably would have eked out a modest living. “38 But because of the inexperience of the settlers and the hard labor involved, it took two men working two weeks to cut a thousand staves. Ordinarily such work should have been accomplished in half that time by an average workman.

To add to their burden, the hot season came shortly after their arrival. Temperatures of 105–108 degrees in the shade made work quite impossible. One survivor of the Am Olam group recalls getting up to work at four in the morning, working until eleven, taking a siesta until five, and then, working again from five to nightfall, generally eight-thirty or nine o’clock.39 The torrid weather debilitated East Europeans unused to such heat. Rainstorms broke the heat for a brief space of time, but the rain was so torrential that it proved only an additional affliction. The Mississippi overflowed and prevented the floating of logs to market, thereby cutting off a vital source of revenue. Much worse, the storms brought mosquitoes in their wake and the consequent spread of malaria and yellow fever. As there were only two log shacks in the larger settlement and only a ramshackle bam in the smaller, the women and children occupied the crude houses and the men slept out in the fields. In this way, the latter exposed themselves even more to the danger of insects, snakes, and malaria. In July 1883 when the heat was at its height, 90 percent of the colonists fell ill, and between eighteen and twenty persons died. So, the Arkansas ventures came to the same end as Sicily Island, Crémieux, and New Odessa.

Appeals to the MAAS, the patron organization of the Am Olamites, brought funds, and the survivors among the thirty who had made up the second Arkansas group were transported back to New York. The first and larger group, however, had no organization to fall back upon. If not for the MAAS, which came to their aid as generously as it had to the Am Olamites, they might have perished. By September 1883 the brief and pathetic tale had been told; the Arkansas colony was no more. Once again, the experiment had highlighted the need for informed and efficient direction if there was to be any proper development of a Jewish agricultural movement.

Cotopaxi, Colorado

Despite the record of consistent failure in the 1880s, at least half-a-dozen further attempts at colonization were made before the decade came to a close. One such venture, inaugurated under the auspices of the HEAS, was the Cotopaxi colony in Colorado. Motivated by the basic ideal of binding the immigrant to his new country and of breaking down the prejudice against Jews in agriculture, the society selected thirteen families, totaling fifty persons, and moved them on May 3, 1882, to Colorado, where they staked out claims on government land.40 It was the intention of the HEAS to give assistance to these farmers and to help each settle on his own individual plot and to engage in individual enterprise. In its individual, rather than collective, enterprise, the Cotopaxi development differed from the communal Louisiana and New Odessa enterprises and the semi-cooperative of Crémieux. The plan anticipated a series of individual Jewish farms situated near each other in a contiguous area.

Fremont County, Colorado, on the railroad line running from Leadville to Denver, was the site selected for this group of Jewish farms. Cotopaxi, about a hundred miles southwest of Denver, was the headquarters of the rich mining district of Colorado and lay in a valley surrounded by high mountains. The Arkansas River flowed through one end of the valley and on the opposite bank were 500 acres of farming land. On this land, Julius Schwarz, a young Hungarian-born lawyer who was first clerk and then general manager of the colony and authorized agent of the HEAS, helped three farmers stake out their claims. (Schwarz was the guiding spirit of the colony. He had been entrusted with the selection of the site, the distribution of the land, and the other matters attendant upon such a new venture.)

These three claims formed the first link in the chain of Russian Jewish farms. A steep mountain range surrounded this area and beyond it lay Wet Mountain Valley, so named because of its frequent rainfall and the natural humidity of the soil. In Wet Mountain Valley, Schwarz helped six other farmers stake out their plots, and 960 more acres now came under Jewish ownership. An additional piece of land was selected as the third settlement a short distance away, and on it five more families were located. In all, the Cotopaxi colonists controlled 1,780 acres of land. By October 1882, when Schwarz wrote his report for the HEAS, nine more plots had been surveyed and staked out, which brought the total land at the disposal of the HEAS to 3,220 acres. Technically, the claims were taken out in the name of the colonists, but because the HEAS subsidized them almost entirely, the Society had power of disposal of the land.

The first colonists arrived on May 9, 1882, and to their surprise found that the land had not been as developed as they had expected. Their initial task, then, was to set up the necessary conditions of existence, homes and other facilities. They immediately began erecting log cabins. Since it was not until the latter part of May that the first settlement was accomplished, Schwarz, in view of the late start, ordered a number of acres to be cultivated in common and the crop raised to be divided according to the size of each family.

To Schwarz’s great satisfaction, the crop yield was excellent. Forty acres of cabbage, potatoes, beets, berries, and turnips were grown, an auspicious start. The colonists plowed the land, built ditches, hewed rocks from the mountains, worked in mines and on the railroad. They were undeterred by distance and walked many miles to chop wood for fences. They turned to these nonagricultural labors mainly because they were a source of ready income.

The people who came to Cotopaxi were of the same character as those who had joined the other agricultural experiments: they were enthusiastic but inexperienced farmers. Socially, however, they differed from the others in that the Coloradans had an active organized religious life, as was evidenced by their Sabbath services, Talmud Torah, and mutual relief society. In addition, they conceived their experiment in the spirit of capitalistic enterprise. Cotopaxi had no socialist program, though, as in all pioneer communities, a measure of joint activity had to be adopted.

The Cotopaxi colonists, unlike the Am Olam communards, had no intention of abandoning the Judaism which they had inherited from their ancestors in Europe. As one visitor, Morris Tuska, an observer sent out by the HEAS, wrote, the “colonists keep their religion in accordance with the ancient customs.” They respected the Sabbath and holiday traditions, possessed a pentateuchal scroll donated by Rev. Dr. Herman Baar, and secured kosher meat from Denver. Others noted the extent to which the colonists troubled themselves to celebrate a ritually proper Passover.41 Even though they were attentive to their religion, they were not inclined to separatism. On the contrary, they maintained friendly relations with their Christian neighbors.

At the end of five months, in October 1882, Schwarz, whom Tuska found to be master of the situation, reported on the experiment. There were then sixty persons at Cotopaxi and of all their efforts, said Schwarz, “I pronounce the agricultural colony in the Rocky Mountains a full and complete success.” Tuska obviously agreed, for he reported to the HEAS leadership in New York that Cotopaxi, under Schwarz’s tutelage, would “render evidence . . . that the Jew can make as good a farmer as any other human being. “42 Such positive estimates of an infant colony are remarkable in many ways, even after discounting the fact that they were written and/or influenced by the one person entrusted with the colony’s development. It is even more remarkable, then, that barely six months later Heilprin in his Appeal to the Jews stated that “the Colorado colony is now breaking up.”43 What occurred between October 1882 and March 1883 can only be grasped by piecing together various items appearing in the editorial and news columns of the Jewish Messenger of New York and other journalistic sources.

In its issue of December 22, 1882, a news article in the Jewish Messenger had carried a glowing account of Cotopaxi.44 But in a letter the following January, Schwarz, no longer manager of the colony, took exception to the article. “The report is highly exaggerated,” he complained. “The colonists have only one team together. They earn only $3–4 a day. Not all have cows, and their houses are not furnished too luxuriously. Most of them have some money.”45 He went on to suggest that they be let alone so that they could come to rely upon themselves. “Only then will this colony prove to be a monument to Jewish charity.”46

From another source, too, came objection to the glowing account of December 22, but this time the writer, far from taking mild exception, bluntly stated that no basis at all existed for painting a picture of prosperity. A Sephardi businessman named Emanuel H. Saltiel was resident-director of Fremont County’s Place Mining Company, a firm upon whose land, it later developed, some of the colonists’ houses had been built. According to a letter written by Saltiel, “the farming experiment in colonies is a lamentable failure and if attempted further in the Far Western Mountain States, will cause both loss of money and great misery.” He went on to say that “the potato crop, the main support [of the colony] was by the advice of Schwarz, left ungathered until severe frost had destroyed it. [The mistake] was due to the ignorance of the colonists of all practical methods for pioneering farming.”


the training and tastes of our Russian co-religionists are against Western farming customs, and if the experiment should ever be repeated here the only persons that will be benefited will be the clerks and managers drawing salaries. $100 given into the hands of the head of each discreet family to start business for himself will be productive of more good than thousands expended on colonization experiments . . . . We will do the best we can with those now here, but to send more would be a cruelty to a helpless people, and a total waste of money.47

From these two contradictory reports, Schwarz’s and Saltiel’s, it is hard for the impartial reader to determine whose account was the more accurate. Saltiel had appeared before the HEAS at New York to sing the praises of Wet Mountain Valley, but it is obvious that he later became unfavorably disposed towards the farmers and their experiment, for in his own words: “when the wives of the families begged me for aid, I hired a few of [the men] to work in the mines, sorting ore. I was reluctant to hire more because some of the men had signed a paper defaming me.” Possibly, as one writer has contended, Saltiel’s sole interest in encouraging the Cotopaxi colony was “to boom the mining district and the town” in which he apparently had sizeable holdings. That town, curiously enough, had at one time been known as Saltiels. Certainly, it is no coincidence that Tuska spoke of Saltiel’s mismanagement and accused Saltiel of having “used . . . for his own purposes” money “put in his hands” to maintain the colony. Indeed, Tuska insisted, Saltiel had “caused the colony much damage, much annoyance, and much disgrace.”48

Saltiel, for his part, contended that Schwarz on his arrival in Colorado had been “entirely ignorant of everything pertaining to either pioneer life or methodical business”; whatever he had learned he had learned from Saltiel himself. As for Tuska, so Saltiel claimed, he had clearly “been some-what imposed upon, otherwise a man of his standing would not have risked a heavy lawsuit for criminal libel.” What had undermined the colony, Saltiel argued, was “nothing more or less than the unnecessary time consumed [by the colonists] in the preparation for every little religious feast or fast, engagement or marriage celebration.” Schwarz, “by pandering to these superstitious ceremonies,” had “obtained a mastery over their minds, and encouraged superstition and bigotry. “49

Whatever the cause, the Cotopaxi colony was in trouble. In the early part of February 1883 several of the colonists had protested about conditions in the colony to Jewish citizens in Denver. The latter appointed a committee of two, the lawyer George H. Kohn and a shoestore owner, L. Witkowski, to investigate conditions. In their report they made a familiar criticism:

As to the land, 2/5 are worthless, because the soil is rocky. With the soil definitely uncultivable the odds were too great . . . . The H.E.A.S. had promised each head of family a house, furniture, seed and 160 acres of land. Only twelve houses were built, insufficient accommodations for seventeen families, and they were constructed at $280 when they could have been built for $100.

In further testimony to the inefficient manner in which affairs were conducted, they said, the houses had been built on land owned by Saltiel’s Place Mining Company, “but no leases were ever executed by the Company to the colonists.” Kohn and Witkowski were “at a loss to account for the sum of the $8,750 said to have been expended up to October 23, 1882.” They were sure that “more than twice as much” had been paid than “an honest administration of the fund would warrant.” The report, going on to tell of illness and lack of medical care, concluded by urging that immediate relief—clothing and food—be sent, and that as a final measure the colony be removed at once to a spot more cultivatable.50

The Kohn-Witkowski report, of course, evoked a response from the HEAS. The president of the HEAS, Henry S. Henry, communicated with the two members of the Denver committee and suggested that they had been exploited. As for the colonists, the HEAS notified them that if they wished to remain they would be given seeds, implements, and other necessaries. If they desired to leave, they might do so, as a number of refugees were eager to take their places. But the officers of the HEAS soon revised their estimate as to the success of the colony, for instead of others being sent to replace the discontented colonists, the entire project was quietly abandoned. By the spring of 1883, full disintegration was on, and a year after it had been inaugurated, the Cotopaxi colony wound up its existence.51

In determining the exact causes of failure, one factor stands out: the unwise selection of land. That Schwarz was aware of the difficulties of cultivation is quite clear, yet he pinned his hopes on the will and determination of the pioneers. To mitigate any harsh judgment of Schwarz, the time element must be considered. Once again the pressing need for a quick settlement of the people conditioned the ultimate outcome of the experiment. The lack of experience in the Western type of farming contributed to its failure. One other factor is important: the paternalism to which the colonists were encouraged to accommodate themselves.

A spirit of charity can be fatal to a colonizing enterprise. Today it is recognized that the aim in any communal or cooperative settlement should be the cultivation of a spirit of self-reliance. Indeed, certain quarters among organized American Jews even at that time endorsed this view, yet the exigencies of the moment, the crisis in Eastern Europe and the abhorrence of congestion on the East Coast, caused the harried leaders and patrons of the agricultural movement to pass over the wiser course and to take the path closest at hand.52 All in all, the Cotopaxi colony was another monument to Jewish effort and endurance, not to Jewish agrarian or philanthropic wisdom.

Palestine, Michigan

The period of the 1880s saw two streams of emigration from Eastern Europe: one to North America; the other, much more modest in size, to Ottoman Palestine. Not all who came to America, however, were unmoved by love for or interest in the ancient biblical homeland. There were some who were at least spiritual Zionists. One miniscule group in America tried to combine its religious love for Zion with a desire to root itself in American soil. Its members aspired to create a “new Zion in free America.” Appropriately, their venture was termed “Palestine.” It took place in Michigan in the last decade of the nineteenth century.53

The actors in the drama, another unsuccessful one, were, with one exception, Russian Jews living in Bay City, Michigan. Only one of them had been in the United States more than four years, and all had engaged in peddling. In their work, they had come in contact with farmers. And because their efforts at making a living had met with scant success, they turned their minds to farming. One of them, Hyman Lewenberg, who had been in the United States for eleven years, had read of the efforts at Jewish colonization in the 1880s, and conceived the idea of establishing in Michigan a colony similar to the Colorado design, a community of Jewish farmers. There is no evidence that the venture was to be organized along socialistic or communistic lines. The group was a homogeneous one, but individual farmers were to be settled on individual plots as in Cotopaxi. They, too, were Orthodox Jews, alike in aim, background, and, alas, inexperience.

It was while peddling that Lewenberg had met Langdon Hubbard and his son Frank, bankers and land barons who owned immense stretches of land in Huron and the adjoining counties. They agreed to sell land on easy terms if Lewenberg could get together a sufficiently large group of Jewish purchasers. In July 1891 twelve contiguous parcels of land in Huron County were sold to twelve persons.54 One bought twenty acres, two bought forty acres each, and the rest bought sixty acres each, thus taking up an entire section of land.

The site of the Michigan venture was near the hamlet known by the picturesque name of Bad Axe. Until 1884 this district had been heavily timbered,55 but in the fall of that year forest fires denuded the land of much of its timber. The first task was to provide some means of habitation for the colonists and to clear the ground for fall plowing in preparation for spring planting. In true pioneer spirit, the new farmers set to work with a will. They erected five or six shacks, crude one-room affairs with flimsy partitions to separate the sexes. While clearing and building, the families slept in the open. When the cold weather arrived, some of the colonists were forced to remove their families to Bay City, some 50 miles from Bad Axe, and to resume peddling for the winter. Those who remained behind, nonetheless, clung to the land and even put up more houses for the returning members in the spring.

At this point, two men entered the picture, men whose efforts on behalf of the group were truly responsible for the venture’s ability to endure as long as it did. One was the Detroit clothier Martin Butzel; the other, his close friend whom he interested in the work, the Bohemian immigrant Emanuel Woodic. Butzel was a prominent merchant whose interest had been awakened by the account of the Bad Axe colonists’ sufferings which a Jewish peddler had related.56 President of the Temple Beth-El Hebrew Relief Society in Detroit and a philanthropist, he turned to Woodic for help in the crisis. Woodic, known at the time as the foremost farmer of Macomb County north of Detroit, was an authority on farm problems. He responded positively to Butzel’s request to investigate conditions at Palestine.

Palestine Colony settlers, late 1890s: Noah and Bella Ellias. (Courtesy TB)

Palestine colony, Bad Axe, Michigan: A new Zion in America

The Ellias family home, Bad Axe, early 1900s. Previously the Palestine Colony Synagogue. (Courtesy TB)

Members of the Ellias family ready to work on their land (above and facing). (Courtesy TB)

Colonists in Palestine/Bad Axe: The Kahns and the Malinoffs. (Courtesy TB)


The deserted schoolhouse of the Palestine Colony, still standing 1981. (Courtesy MDS)

Emanuel Woodic, mainstay of Palestine. (Courtesy MDS)

Aaron Barony and family, North Dakota pioneers. From An Album of the Jews in America, by Yuri Suhl. (Courtesy YIVO)

Upon his arrival at the Palestine colony in March 1892, Woodic found a population of fifty-seven: sixteen men, seven women, twenty-six boys, and eight girls. Ten shacks were occupied. Sixteen farms had been taken up, but not more than one or two acres on each farm had been cleared. As for livestock, there was a total of seven horses and two cows. Woodic returned to Detroit with a report of the colony’s meager conditions. A special meeting of the Beth-El Relief Society was called by Butzel, and a supply of clothing, groceries and matzot for the coming Passover holiday was sent to the Palestine colonists. In addition, a fund of $1,200 was raised and given to Woodic to be spent at his discretion. On his return to Palestine after the Passover holiday, Woodic distributed livestock, implements, seed, and other necessaries to each family. Throughout the spring and summer of that year, Woodic stayed on to function as agricultural adviser, communal leader, and arbiter of the many petty disputes that arose. He kept the men constantly clearing the land and taught them the rudiments of sowing, cultivating, and harvesting. Because of the lack of housing facilities, he himself tramped to the colony four miles every day from the village of Bad Axe. He served without compensation.

While Woodic was giving of himself so unselfishly, guiding the Palestine farmers, Butzel was equally occupied in Detroit with securing financial aid for the colony. Through his efforts, Butzel called into service a much larger, international organization established almost simultaneously with the Michigan experiment—the Baron de Hirsch Fund.

The fund aimed “to extend loans to immigrants from Russia and Roumania, to actual agriculturists and settlers within the United States on real or chattel security,” and also “to furnish instruction in agricultural work and in improved methods of farming.”57 The trustees regarded Butzel’s request for aid as legitimate and, upon motion of the famous New York banker-philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff, granted Butzel $3,000.

In September 1892 Butzel went to the Palestine colony and personally supervised the distribution of this money.

In his report to the Baron de Hirsch Fund on the use of its appropriation, Butzel gave an account of the pioneers:

These people, both men and women . . . through industry early and late, in all kinds of weather, seem to have accomplished all that could be expected in such a short time and have given striking proof of their sincere intention and earnestness to become farmers in fact. . . . Notwithstanding their present poverty, scanty food and poor habitation which would discourage others, these families seem willing to make sacrifices of all personal comforts and stick to farming.58

In further testimony to their earnestness, an exhibit of their farm products was held at Temple Beth-El in Detroit during the Sukkot holiday in the fall of 1892. It was probably the first exhibition to be held in the United States of farm products raised by Jews. As a memento, a small parcel of two potatoes was sent to each of the trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.

The years 1893–94 marked the height of the agricultural activity of the colonists. In 1894, for the first time, the farmers, who had gained a few additional recruits, earned enough for their maintenance and were able to make partial payments on their annual interest. Such payments were the measure of their success. The colonists had in the meantime built a synagogue and a religious school and brought a shochet from Saginaw to see to their need for kosher meat. For a while, they even had a voluntary cantor-teacher, the Rev. Charles Goodwin, of Bay City.

In the autumn of 1895, a critical period began. It was marked by a continuing struggle to hold the lands. The colonists defaulted on their contracts with the Hubbard Company for merchandise worth over $1,300. The company pressed for a lien on the crops and movable property. Butzel came forward to plead for the colonists. “Just now when favorable indications seem to appear,” were the Hubbards going to “drive them from house and home just for the reason that each one of the family heads owes less than $100 for interest past due?” He appealed for an extension: “I hope and trust that you will not only grant this request but give them aid, comfort, and advice [which] would give all parties peace of mind, [and] satisfy the teaching of the Saviour and the God of Israel alike.” Initially, his pleas were ineffective, but ultimately, as a result of his protests, the company dropped its eviction suits and new contracts were drawn up. These contracts were signed with the individual purchasers, but an agreement was inserted whereby, in the event of default, the land was to be surrendered without legal process.

For a time things ran smoothly, but in 1897 the crops failed due to poor management. With ruin facing the colonists, they sent a letter to the Baron de Hirsch Fund, suggesting that the fund might buy the land outright from the Hubbard Company. The fund replied to this proposal by sending an agent to investigate. The agent was impressed by what he saw and in his report spoke of the determination of the Palestine colonists, their hardships, and the respect they had won from their neighbors.

Some of them had to sleep on the bare ground, in weather and storm, with the animals of the field as their companions but they braved it all with the ultimate expectation of possessing what they then began to toil for. It should not be difficult to convince you how almost insurmountable were the obstacles they had to contend with and it is surprising that they did not lose heart. That they were industrious beyond measure none can gainsay as their own shoulders served as animals which they had not the means to purchase, and their Christian neighbors testify to their pluck, energy and determination.

The report notwithstanding, the trustees decided against the purchase on the grounds that “further nursing would only prolong the agony.”59 They were able, however, to modify the contracts to insure the colonists’ ability to hold onto the land in the future. As a further measure of protection, quit-claim deeds were made over to Henry Rice, a trustee of the fund, conveying the purchasers’ rights under their contracts. Even so, at best these measures were only palliatives. In January 1898 the Hubbard Company again notified Butzel that, because payments on the purchaser contracts had not been met and because taxes and drain assessments had piled up, eviction notices would be served. A third appeal to the fund followed, and full settlement of $825 out of the $1,552.17 debt owed the Hubbard Company was made. In January 1899 the colonists again defaulted on the principal payments due, and in the fall of that year disintegration began. In 1900, only eight families remained. These left soon afterward, and eventually all but three parcels of land reverted to the Hubbard Company. Lewenberg appealed to the Baron de Hirsch Fund for release of the quitclaim deed so that he could realize something on his land through sale. Moses Heidenrich did the same and moved to the village of Bad Axe where he remained until his death. The departure of these latter two marked the end of the Palestine venture.

The story of the venture has itself revealed the diverse causes of failure. Despite all the aid received, the odds were simply too great. Even before the colony had gotten underway, the protectionism of American economic policy plunged the country into the disastrous financial panic of 1893, spelling ruin for America’s agricultural and industrial classes alike. And the Palestine colonists’ inexperience as farmers contributed a sizable share to the doom of their valiant attempt. One primary cause, however, was the time period. After 1900, when the country’s agricultural depression lifted somewhat and the situation of farmers began to improve, Michigan became the home of many a thriving Jewish farmer. The success of these later ventures, however, to no degree diminishes the grit and exertion of the pioneers of Huron County’s Palestine Colony.60

Painted Woods and lola, North Dakota

A North Dakota colony, Painted Woods—in which New Odessa’s visitor, Rabbi Wechsler, took a substantial interest—was attempted near Bismarck in Burleigh County but saw a succession of natural disasters write finis to an experiment which lasted from 1882 to 1887.61 Some of the Painted Woods colonists went further north to Ramsey County and there, near Garske, founded lola, according to J. M. Isler “one of the oldest Jewish farming settlements in the Northwest.”62 But Iola was not a colony in the sense that Palestine and Painted Woods had been. It was a neighborhood which had many Jewish farmers. In Iola, individual farmers established separate farms through individual effort, and when in distress, received generous aid from the Baron de Hirsch Fund.

Chananel, North Dakota

Not far from Iola, in Ramsey County, another North Dakota colony, Chananel, was organized around the time Painted Woods was abandoned. One Benzion Greenberg was involved in the Chananel undertaking. He was still there along with some twenty Jewish families in April 1897 when he addressed a letter to Philip Cowen, editor of the American Hebrew:

I came to North Dakota in the spring of 1888. When I left Michigan I had a couple hundred dollars, but the expense for myself and family from Michigan to North Dakota took all of it. When I landed at the depot at Devil’s Lake [in Ramsey County] I had $2.50 left in my pocket. I took a pre-emption claim and I started farming. The first year we had a very fine crop, but a few days before harvesting a frost, and we lost all our crop. Of course we had hard times. We were assisted with provisions to live through. The next two years we lost our crop by drought, and the year ’91 we had an abundant crop, the biggest that North Dakota ever had, but the winter set in so early that we could not thresh, and I lost $1,500. of grain that rotted in the shacks. A great many of our farmers lost their crops the same way, so you can see how much we had to stand. In the winter of ’91 I lost six horses and four head of homed cattle, and now I have five good horses and harness, nine head of horned cattle, and all the farm implements; that is, plows, harrows, mower and rack, two self binders, a good lumber wagon, a pair of sleighs, a good frame house 18 by 24 [feet] with additional summer kitchen, a stable, and plenty of grain and all kinds of poultry, chicken, geese and turkeys, and all I owe on it is between $250 and $300. We make a fine living, and if we had taken assistance from anybody I do not believe we would have remained on the farm. But now I hope, if we get a couple of good crops, we will be well-to-do and I own 160 acres of land free from all incumbrance.

Greenberg, however, may not have remained permanently in North Dakota. Cowen observes that in later years he came to New York and interested himself there in the work of the HIAS which had been founded in 1888.63

No mention has been made of the colonization ventures in Utah, California, and Nevada, or of the one undertaken in 1882 by a group of philanthropic Baltimore, Maryland, Jews to establish nine families at Waterview on the Rappahannock River in Middlesex County, Virginia, or of “the forgotten colony” founded some twenty years later in Aiken County, South Carolina.64 To cite these other instances of unsuccessful colonization is repetitious, since the motives, nature, and fate of the efforts omitted and of those described parallel each other. Yet the picture of unrelieved gloom was soon to be superseded by one of qualified success.

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