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Seligman Brothers—Pioneer Jewish Entrepreneurs of Santa Fe and the New Mexico Territory
By Arthur (Seligman) Scott
In 1849, only three years after the Army of the West occupied and claimed for the United States present-day New Mexico from Mexico, my great uncle, nineteen-year-old Sigmund Seligman immigrated from Gau-Algesheim in Germany and traveled west on the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe. In 1852 he entered into an import, retail, and wholesale mercantile business with another German Jew, Charles P. Cleaver. The business, known as Seligman and Cleaver, was located on the Santa Fe plaza at the corner of what is now San Francisco Street and Shelby (Old Santa Fe Trail) Streets. The store is shown in the oldest known photograph of Santa Fe, taken in 1855.
Their business of importing goods from the east by wagon via the Santa Fe Trail for sale in northern New Mexico, which operated under the name Seligman & Cleaver, flourished until Cleaver resigned to study law in 1861 or 62. Sigmund had been joined in the business some years earlier by his younger brother, Bernard (b. 1837). Upon Cleaver's resignation, Bernard became a full partner, and the firm became known as S. Seligman and Bro.
Cleaver went on to become a sheriff in New Mexico, a U.S. Marshal, attorney general of the territory, and finally a territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress. According to the Jewish Museum of the Southwest, he converted to Catholicism and renounced his German heritage, claiming to be Spanish. The museum also reports that Cleaver donated $1,000 toward the building of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, the third largest donation received.
The youngest of the Seligman brothers, Adolph (b. 1847), also joined the firm after Bernard. The 2 January 1873 Daily New Mexican announced: "By reference to our advertising column it will be seen that the firm of S. Seligman & Bro. is dissolved, Bernard Seligman withdrawing, and a new one formed under the style of Seligman Bros. & Co."
Bernard was appointed a captain and quartermaster in the Union army during the Civil War. When the Texas Confederate army lost its their supplies during the battle at Glorieta and was forced into retreat, the Jewish merchants in Santa Fe reportedly refused to sell supplies to the Rebels. They had to purchase supplies for the retreat, using Confederate money, from some of the Hispanic merchants. Bernard took an interest in politics and served in both houses of the territorial legislature. He was also appointed territorial treasurer from 1886 to 1891.
Examples of these times, are the following statements concerning the wife of Bernard, my great grandmother, in Ralph Emerson Twitchell's Old Santa Fe: "Mrs. Seligman was a woman of rare beauty, great intelligence, and charming personality. She was one of the eight women not of Spanish decent comprising the early society of Santa Fe during and subsequent to the Civil War."
Bernard and Frances had two sons, Arthur and James, and a daughter, Eva, born in Santa Fe. Arthur, who served as governor of New Mexico from 1931 to 1933, was born in residential quarters in the rear of Seligman Brothers on the plaza in 1871. I assume his brother and sister were also born on the plaza. Arthur was educated in Santa Fe and later attended business school and college Philadelphia. When he graduated from college, he joined the Seligman Bros. firm as a bookkeeper.
The firm moved to the Spiegelberg block on the plaza in 1890 and dropped all but dry goods and traded only "dry goods, carpet, clothing, millinery, and ready to wear of both sexes." In addition to retail, the firm did a good wholesale business to surrounding country stores. For the first thirty-six years of this business, all goods brought from the east had to be hauled over the Santa Fe Trail by wagon. My grandfather, Arthur, made three trips over the trail as an infant with his mother.
Sigmund Seligman died unexpectedly in 1876, while on business at Ft. Craig, New Mexico. His position in the firm was taken over by Adolph who retired in 1902 after thirty years with the firm. The firm was then re-incorporated as Seligman Brothers Company. Officers and stockholders of the new corporation were: Bernard Seligman, Frances Seligman (mother), James L Seligman (son) and Arthur Seligman (son). Bernard had lived in New York as a buyer for the old firm and continued in that position.
In 1915 Seligman Brothers Company moved back to its original location, in a newly rebuilt building, on the corner of Shelby and San Francisco Streets at the "End Of The Santa Fe Trail," as newspaper advertisements of the time exclaimed. A story in the 29 March 1915 New Mexican detailing the firm's history, stated that
In the early years of its existence the old firm was engaged in general merchandise business and bought and sold everything needed by the Indian, Spanish and American settlers of that period. There was much bartering with the Indians and early settlers as there was comparatively little actual money in the country and goods of all kinds were traded for skins, blankets, produce of all kinds, whatever the people had to offer and which could be turned into money in the markets of the east by the venturesome traders.
The firm remained in this location until it finally closed its doors sometime after 1926. Newspaper advertisements go at least into 1926. A story in the 10 October 1926 New Mexican related that W. G. Haughton of Madrid had driven his cart into the window of Seligman Brothers. An employee, seventy-six-year-old Macedonio Rivera, was cut by the flying glass but not seriously injured. Haughton was fined $12.75 and agreed to pay to replace the plate-glass windows. This incident establishes that the firm was in existence for well over seventy-five years of continuous business.
Twitchell (1925) reported that "since which time with all the mutations and vicissitudes of time and commercial activities, the firm has continued and is today the only survivor of the great mercantile organizations of the earliest days of the Santa Fe Trail." He goes on to give an example of the success of this firm, stating that they loaded eighty-three wagons at the Missouri River with high-class merchandise. Each wagon carried three tons or more. The freight bill alone was $30,000. The merchandise was sold after reaching New Mexico within three weeks. And that the "records of this business over three quarters of a century show an aggregate of $15, 000,000," which, when converted from 1925 to 2014 dollars would equal $202,000,000.
Adolph reentered the retail business in 1913. A 1963 "Fifty Years Ago" column in The New Mexican states:
Adolph Seligman the veteran and well known merchant will open a shoe store on the premises formally occupied by him as a wholesale liquor dealer. He will also carry a fine line of gents furnishings.
Advertisements in the 1920s also show Adolph doing business as "Adolph Seligman," which made Adolph a competitor of Seligman Brothers in the clothing business.
In addition to the mercantile business in the strict sense, the Seligman's were involved in various other enterprises. During the early days, the firm had a contract with the U.S. Army to haul grain to the Indians. Both Bernard and Arthur were active in civic affairs and in politics at city, county, and territorial/state levels. Both Arthur and James served as postmasters of Santa Fe and as officers of New Mexico exhibits at various expositions and world's fairs. The early firm was involved in banking, and Arthur much later became president of the First National Bank. Arthur served as treasurer for the La Fonda restoration committee, which was responsible for rebuilding the hotel in 1926. They also had mining interests. In 1890 Arthur and Adolph joined Captain John Grey and Dr. Joseph Richards in incorporating the Chester mine located one and a half miles northeast of Cerrillos. Four shafts had been completed by 1898. The newspaper reported that "The last fifty six sacks of ore taken from this mine yielded the owners $1700 per ton at Denver." The corporation was "stocked" for $250,000. Officers were Adolph Seligman, president; Joseph Richards, vice president; John Grey, secretary; and Arthur Seligman, treasurer.
Arthur Seligman was elected governor of New Mexico in 1931. In the 1 January 1931 New Mexican, he reflected on his inauguration.
There is one thing lacking-one regret that has been ever-present throughout the day. I am sorry that my father and mother could not have lived to have witnessed the events today and to have shared with me the happiness that I enjoy.
The article goes on, speaking of his parents:
It is one of the traditions of the Spanish-American people of New Mexico that "Don Bernardo" and his "esposa" were two of the finest friends of the "native" people. The older generations of Spanish-Americans speak of them with a friendliness and sincerity that borders on reverence.
For them--the Don and Dona Seligman of the past generation--the new governor of New Mexico yearned, as the state they had loved and helped to build paid him the highest honor within its gift.
Anderson, George B. History of New Mexico: Its Resources and People, Volume 2. Los Angeles: Pacific States Publishing, 1907.
Jaehn, Tomas. Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.
Jewish Museum of The Southwest (website).
Daily New Mexican, 2 January 1873; 10 October 1876.
Santa Fe New Mexican, 29 March 1915, 10 October 1926, 1 January 1931, 14 March 1999.
Santa Fe Daily Herald, 18 October 1888.
Scott, Arthur, "History of The Seligman Property on the Plaza and Other Downtown Locations," vocesdesantafe.org.
Simmons, Marc, Wagon Tracks (newsletter of The Old Santa Fe Trail Association), Vol.3, No. 1 (November 1988).
Stamatov, Suzanne, "Arthur Seligman," newmexicohistory.org.
Tobias, Henry. A History Of Jews In New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Twichell, Ralph Emerson. Old Santa Fe. 1925. Sunstone Press, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2007.