Solomon Bibo: Jew and Indian at Acoma Pueblo

Solomon Bibo: Jew and Indian at Acoma Pueblo
by Gordon Bronitsky, Ph.D.
(a shorter version published in New Mexico Magazine annual Native American issue August, 1990)

Acoma Pueblo is an Indian village in western New Mexico which has been inhabited for a thousand years. Solomon Bibo was a Jew from the town of Brakel, which is now a suburb of Dortmund, Germany. In 1885, Solomon Bibo became the governor of Acoma Pueblo, the only non-Indian ever to serve as a governor of an Indian Pueblo. How did Solomon achieve this distinction? Did he remain Jewish? Before we can answer these questions and understand his amazing and complex story, we need to meet the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and the people of Acoma Pueblo.

Background--The Pueblo World

When the first Spanish explorers came to what is now New Mexico in 1540, they met Indians who lived in multistoried apartment buildings of adobe, farmed crops of corn, beans and squash, and worshipped in underground religious structures, now called kivas. The Spaniards called the villages of these people "Pueblos", to distinguish them from the more nomadic Apache and Navajo Indians of the area. The Pueblo of Acoma is located on a high plateau, or mesa, accessible only by foot-trail until recently. Because of its defensive location, the Pueblo was not conquered by the Spaniards until 1599, and then only after a bloody battle, in which eight hundred Acoma Indians were killed and many of the survivors executed or sold into slavery. As a warning to other Indians, all men over twenty-five years of age were also sentenced to have one foot cut off. A Catholic mission church was soon established and the people of Acoma became Catholics--on the surface. The native religion continued to be practiced in secret but Spanish persecution of the native religion and economic oppression led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which Pueblo Indians throughout New Mexico united and expelled the Spaniards south to El Paso. Although the Spaniards reconquered New Mexico in 1693, they never again punished the Pueblo people for their native religion. The people of Acoma Pueblo, and the other Pueblos, remained Catholic but continued to practice their traditional religion as well.

As with their religion, government at Acoma Pueblo became a blend of Spanish and Indian practices. The traditional government by priests of the native religion continued but the Pueblos added an outer layer of Spanish-derived offices, including the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and others. These officers dealt with the world of the Spaniards, Mexicans, and later the Americans, protecting the sacred inner core of the Pueblo and its religion from prying outsiders.

The traditional way of life at Acoma began to change in the1880s. Anglo-American and Spanish settlers encroached on Acoma land. As the population grew, there were disputes with the neighboring pueblo of Laguna over land. The threat from raiding Navajo Indians disappeared as the Navajo were placed on reservations, so that people could move down from the mesa of Acoma and closer to their fields. In 1880, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad entered New Mexico, bringing a whole host of manufactured goods such as kettles and china dishes. Many Acoma people established small villages close to the railroad.

Background--Germany and the Failure of the Liberal Revolt

The story of Jewish settlement in Germany begins in the 9th Century A.C.E. with the founding of communities in such towns as Mainz on the Rhine and Regensburg on the Danube. Despite Crusades and expulsions, blood libels and pogroms, Jewish life flourished in the small German kingdoms and principalities--there was no united country of Germany until the end of the 19th Century. Like their fellow Jews throughout Europe, Jews in the German states lived in separate enclaves, or ghettos, their movements restricted, their choice of occupations limited. Ironically, it was the hated French enemy, Napoleon, who liberated the Jews of Germany from their ghettos and restricted status when his soldiers conquered much of the region in 1812.

After Napoleon's crushing defeat at Jena, a wave of German nationalism swept through the small German states. Many of the laws which had emancipated the Jews were swept aside. Although Jews continued to be active in commerce and industry, Jews were excluded from civic participation in the extremely conservative governments which arose after Napoleon's defeat. Jews were excluded from army commission and university professorships, and universities restricted the number of Jews who could attend.

In 1848, a national cry for liberalism and German unity swept the land. Seven Jews were invited to the parliament assembled at Frankfurt to draft a national constitution. Numerous others were acclaimed at political congresses and demonstrations elsewhere. Tragically, the liberal intellectuals of 1848 were soon put to flight by the forces of reaction and many were forced into exile. Numerous Germans, both Jewish and Christian, fled the region, many emigrating to the United States.

The Bibo Family in Germany and America

Solomon was born in 1853 to Isak and Bl├╝mchen Bibo in Brakel, Westphalia, Prussia,where his father was a cantor. His older brothers Nathan and Simon, had left for America during the chaotic aftermath of the suppression of the liberal government. Following his brothers' lead, Solomon arrived in New York on October 16, 1869, and journeyed from there to Santa Fe, where he joined his brothers in their mercantile business. They had established themselves in the early 1860s in New Mexico, first using capital provided by the Spiegelberg family, a pioneer Jewish family in the state. Jacob Solomon Spiegelberg had accompanied Kearny's army expedition to New Mexico in 1848, and established a general merchandising firm in Santa Fe the same year. Soon his brothers and a nephew joined Jacob Spiegelberg and a New Mexico mercantile dynasty was established. One of the brothers, Willi, was later elected mayor of Santa Fe in 1886. Thanks in part to Spiegelberg capital, the Bibos moved quickly to establish their own independent firm, with stores at Laguna, Fort Wingate, Cebolleta, Bernalillo, and Grants. As did most traders, Solomon spoke several languages in the course of his business--Acoma, Laguna, Navajo, Zuni, Spanish, German, Yiddish and English. With his brothers, he spoke German and English.

In the course of his business, Solomon evidently learned of the unhappiness of the people of Acoma Pueblo with the federal survey of the Acoma Pueblo Grant in 1876 and 1877. Solomon and his brother Simon wrote several letters to the Department of Interior, as a result of which the survey was investigated by the Department in 1881.

The investigation did not support the Acoma claim, and the Government issued a patent to the Acomas based on the survey of 1877, forestalling further claims. Much of the disputed land went to Laguna Pueblo at the instigation of Walter and Robert Marmon, government surveyors, Presbyterian missionaries and traders who had married into the Laguna tribe. Naturally, the Acomas were not happy.

On December 12, 1882, Solomon Bibo applied to the Indian Commissioner for a license to trade with Indians of Pueblo of Acoma and established the first trading post at Old Acoma high atop its protective mesa. He had a considerable influence with the people of Acoma, in part because he had married an Acoma woman named Juana Valle, granddaughter of a former Acoma governor. There was no rabbi available in the territory of New Mexico at that time and two marriage ceremonies took place, an Indian one before a Catholic priest on May 1, 1885 at Acoma and a civil one before a justice of the peace on August 30. His marriage to an Acoma woman made Solomon a member of the Acoma tribe. He and his bride lived at Acoma and then at some nearby villages, finally moving to San Francisco after the turn of the century.

The Leasing Controversy

Solomon Bibo and his brother Simon, who had a trading post nearby at the town of Grants, soon monopolized much of Acoma economy. In fact, on April 7, 1884, the Acomas leased the entire grant area of their reservation to Solomon Bibo. The lease infuriated the Indian Agent in charge of Acoma, Pedro Sanchez, who threatened to revoke Solomon Bibo's license to trade with Acomas. Sanchez then turned to the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, claiming that the lease opened the area to all speculators, and would lead to destitution. Sanchez held a meeting at McCarty's with Governor Del Vallo. At Sanchez' request, Robert and Walter Marmon were also present. The two Marmons, who were eager to lease Acoma land for themselves, served as witness to the governor's claim that Bibo had obtained the lease from the Acoma governor without consent of the people.

In further support of his accusations Pedro Sanchez held a meeting with 60 Acomas and asked them if they had agreed to Bibo lease. All the Acomas replied in the negative except for the Governor of Acoma Pueblo, Del Vallo. Del Vallo said:

"When Bibo spoke to me about leasing land, he spoke to me about that portion of land that we have near the Gallo Spring [He] told me he wanted that tract to pasture the cattle that would be left him after delivering the ones that some of the Acoma Indians had given him on shares, and under that understanding did I sign that paper."

The Governor further claimed that he had understood that the lease would be for three years rather than 30, and that he would not have signed if it he had known of the 30 year provision. As a result, Sanchez demanded that Bibo cancel the lease and Bibo refused. Sanchez urged the commissioner to take measures to "protect this poor Pueblo".

When it became apparent that the people of Acoma might lose Bibo, a trader they respected, the Acomas held general meeting at the village of McCarty's on July 21, 1884 and petitioned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to continue Bibo's license. They further declared they sustained and protected 'in every particular' the lease which Sanchez claimed had been taken by fraud from Acoma. The petition had almost 100 signatures, including Governor del Vallo's.

Sanchez continued to try and get rid of Solomon Bibo. He licensed another trader and wrote to Governor del Vallo about Bibo's intent to defraud. Sanchez warned him to "look out for that Solomon Bibo and his band" and further warned it would be the Acoma's fault if "you allow yourselves to be cheated by those who come among you, clad of sheep but rapacious wolves"

On July 30, Solomon Bibo was notified his license was revoked and that he must remove all his goods by August 20, 1884. Sanchez then turned for further redress to the US District Attorney.

"I have the honor to request that you take the necessary steps for and on behalf of the Pueblo of Acoma to compel Solomon Bibo to vacate the lease and for the removal of said Bibo, his property, and employees from the lands of the said pueblo."

But Bibo did not leave. Instead, the Acomas and his brother Simon Bibo, also a trader, contacted the US commissioner on his behalf to explain their side of the lease problem. They stated that Solomon's offer was made to counteract one the Marmon brothers of Laguna had made the preceding year. The Marmons had wanted to lease the grant for ten years--for a fee of ten cows. Solomon Bibo told the Indians that one cow a year was too little. Instead, if they wanted to rent their land, he proposed an alternative lease arrangement which would allow the Acomas to retain all their own rights for grazing and cultivating. At one time, Agent Sanchez had thought the lease to Bibo was a good idea but had changed his mind. Furthermore, the Marmons of Laguna wanted Solomon Bibo removed because Bibo had told the Lagunas they must give back some lands belonging to Acoma.Solomon Bibo also presented a different version of the meeting with Sanchez at McCarty's Station. According to him, only about thirty Indians (not sixty) had gathered there and that there was no interpreter but only the governor's son, who told the Agent he perfectly understood the situation and was well pleased with the Bibo lease. In response, Solomon Bibo reported, Sanchez said.

"What!!! You have no right to say so--sit down!! This man Solomon Bibo has sold you, sold your land, and sold your children's land and if you do not take that lease back immediately the government will punish you severely."

This so frightened Governor del Vallo that he was ready to do anything for Sanchez. The agent then produced a paper drawn up at Laguna, repudiating the Bibo contract, for the governor to sign.

Simon Bibo reported the leading men of Acoma later united to submit a petition repudiating Sanchez, saying they could do without him. As for removing Solomon Bibo, Simon Bibo believed that no ordinary authority could stop Solomon from trading with Acomas as long as they wanted him.

"His intentions with these Indians are of the best nature and beneficial to them--because the men, women, and children love him as they would love a father and he is in the same manner attached to them."

Simon Bibo further noted that Solomon Bibo had persuaded them to settle a pueblo in a more convenient location, had persuaded them to send their children to school and was introducing new methods of agriculture and machinery.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, decided that the lease should not be allowed. The license for the competing trader was approved, but Sanchez was replaced the following year. In 1885, the Acomas elected Solomon Bibo as their governor. Because the selection of the governor by the traditional religious leadership of the Pueblo is deeply bound up in the innermost religious core of the Pueblo, we shall probably never know the exact reasons for the choice of Solomon Bibo as Governor of Acoma Pueblo, but it is clear he had gained a supportive following.

His years as governor were busy ones. His greatest achievements lay in opening up new educational opportunities for the people of Acoma. In1885, he supervised the installation of first schoolteacher at Acoma and allowed a house of his to be used as the school for the first year; later a government school opened in a building owned by Bibo at McCarty's Station.

However, school was quite controversial. A major goal of Indian education at the time was to "kill the savage and spare the child", eliminating all the Indian habits which stood in the way of developing the child's potential to fit into the dominant white society. At first, this was accomplished by sending children off to boarding schools away from the reservation, such as the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but soon schools were built on reservations. In all schools, children were forbidden to speak their native language at school, and violators were severely punished. Children who wore their hair long in the traditional style had it cut short. The wearing of traditional clothing was similarly forbidden.

As a result, many Acomas accused the schools of destroying the old ways. In turn, Acoma children who had been educated began to refuse to return to Acoma. Those who returned often refused to participate in the native religious ceremonies or to wear native clothes again. In response, the traditional religious leadership often attempted to make the schoolboys (as they were called) wear Indian clothes and join in dances and ceremonies.

In 1889, Solomon Bibo, by then no longer governor, wrote to Captain Pratt, Superintendent of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and accused the incumbent governor and "a little gang of his tribe" of tying up Acoma men and boys and giving them a general horsewhipping during the September 2 feast day, a punishment for not staying out of school, having cut off their hair, and refusing to wear Indian dress. The traditional religious leadership was clearly trying to reassert their authority in the face of new inroads.

As a result of this report, the Indian Commissioner directed the arrest of the governor who was put in jail in Albuquerque to await a district court hearing. In the meanwhile, the agency appointed a "progressive" Acoma as interim governor until elections were held in 1890. Nonetheless, tensions continued between the traditionals and the United States government. Problems were compounded by the fact that many of the returning students had learned trades for which there was no employment at Acoma, such as tailoring, printing, or painting, part of the vocational education program in which students learned trades by caring for their own dormitories at boarding schools, doing the school laundry and so on.

In order to distance themselves from the increasingly difficult situation at Acoma, Solomon Bibo and his family moved away from Acoma some time after 1900, first making a home at the nearby community of San Rafael, New Mexico. By 1920, the family was in San Francisco, California, where some of their children attended school However, his years as a "progressive' had earned Solomon enemies as well as friends at Acoma. In 1920, they received a letter from the Governor of Acoma, Frank Ortiz, claiming that Solomon was no longer a resident of the Acoma community and hence no longer entitled to grazing or other privileges on the Acoma grant. Some Acomas disagreed and insisted Bibo had the right to a sheep grazing permit. Solomon appealed his exclusion to Governor Ortiz and the Superintendent of the Southern Pueblos Agency on the fact his wife was an Acoma, that he had a house on the reservation and farmlands, and had served as governor for four separate terms.

The Governor took the matter to the pueblo attorney for a legal opinion, noting that, since his departure from Acoma, Solomon Bibo had not helped the people in any way or participated in the affairs of the Pueblo. The attorney stated the governor and the council had the right to exclude the family from tribal membership. Traditional Acoma practice dictated that all lands belong to the cacique (the traditional religious leader and head of the Pueblo) to be allotted to men who ask for it. When the land is no longer used, the cacique can then reassign it to someone else. At a meeting called to discuss this issue, the officers, principal men and people of Acoma voted not to allow him to return and further stated he had no right to return. In any event, the relationships between the Bibos and Acoma have remained confused to this day.

Despite Bibo's Catholic marriage ceremony, reports from friends such as Charles Lummis, a pioneer historian, indicate he continued to value his Judaism; in fact, one reason for the move to San Francisco was to provide a better education for his children, both Jewish and secular and the family joined Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco. Lummis further reported that his wife Juana adapted well to the world of her husband; in fact, an interview with two of the children of Solomon and Juana Bibo indicates that it was Juana who first went to San Francisco and settled there in 1898, when she became aware of the possibilities of business development in the Bay area. She learned to speak English and became a good businesswoman in her own right, helping with her husband's business. According to their friend, historian Charles Lummis, their marriage was so beautiful an example and so rare an inspiration.

The marriage was a happy and long one, despite their differences in temperament. Solomon was mercurial and volatile, Juana was calm and imperturbable; together they prospered. One of his major investments, a select grocery firm known as Bibo, Newman & Eichenberg, was located at Polk and California Streets, now the site of the famous Blum's Candy Store. In San Francisco, Solomon regularly attended High Holy Day services, and most of the couple's friends were Jewish. At least one son, Carl, was bar mitzvah, at the Bush Street Temple, Congregation Ohabai Shalom.

The depression ruined the Bibo stores in New Mexico, and wiped out most of Solomon's considerable stock investments. In 1933, a heavy early snowfall in the mountains the Bibos used for summer pasture wiped out his flocks of sheep, some 20,000 in all. As a result, the only part of the estate remaining at the death of Solomon Bibo was his San Francisco properties. Solomon and Juana remained together until Solomon died in 1934; Juana died seven years later in 1941. Both Solomon, the German Jewish merchant and Indian Governor and Juana, his Acoma wife, were cremated and interred in the cemetery of Temple Emanu-El in Colma, California.

Some of their children returned in later years to New Mexico and many of the descendants of Solomon Bibo and his brothers still reside in New Mexico. The small town of Bibo, New Mexico, near Paguate on the Laguna Reservation, was named after Solomon's brother, Simon, the merchant at Grants. Members of his wife's family continue to live at Acoma, remembering the stories they have heard about their aunt who married the Jewish trader from Germany who became their governor. Jews, Hispanics and Indians all carry the Bibo name, descendants of this unique Jewish pioneer.

References Cited

American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Box No. 2802. Joint interview with Mr. LeRoy Bibo and Mrs. Max Weiss, children of Solomon Bibo, at Charter Oak, California, February 21, 1969, conducted by Dr. N.B. Stern.

American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Microfilm Nos. 1692-1694. "Over the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary and On to the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico and to the coast Range in California by the Golden Gate."

Minge, Ward Alan. Acoma, Pueblo in the Sky. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

National Archives, Record Group 75, Letters Sent, 1884, #8717.

National Archives, Record Group 75, Letters Received, 1884, #13722.

Rochlin, Harriet and Fred. Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1984.

Additional References

Fierman, Floyd S. Guts and Ruts, The Jewish Pioneer on the Trail in the American Southwest. New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1985.

Parish, William. The German Jew and the Commercial Revolution in Territorial New Mexico, 1850-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico. Sixth Annual Research Lecture, 1959.

This article appears with the permission of the author, Gordon Bronitsky, PhD