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From the earliest contact between North American Indians and white European settlers, the Europeans held the upper hand. Almost unremittingly, they imposed their idea of private ownership of land on the Native Americans, obtaining it from them by purchase, stealth and slaughter. Virtually every Indian tribe in North America eventually found its contacts with white settlers painful, if not fatal. Few Indians trusted or respected, much less loved, the white men and women they knew.
One exception was Solomon Bibo, a white trader who won the trust and affection of the Acoma Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. In 1888, “Don Solomono,” as he was known to the Acomas, became governor of the Acoma Pueblo, the equivalent of chief of the tribe. Remarkably, the Acomas asked the United States to recognize Bibo as their leader. Even more remarkable is that Bibo was a Jew.
Solomon Bibo was born in Prussia in 1853, the sixth of eleven children. In 1866, two of his brothers ventured to America and settled in New Mexico, which became part of the United States in 1848 after being part of Mexico. Initially, the older Bibo brothers worked for the Spiegelberg family, pioneer Jewish merchants in New Mexico, but moved on to the tiny village of Ceboletta, where they set up a trading post to exchange goods with the Navajos. In 1869, at the age of sixteen, Solomon Bibo left Germany to join his brothers in America. After spending some months on the East Coast learning English, he arrived in Ceboletta.
All three Bibo brothers developed reputations for fairness in their dealings with the local Indian tribes, who used to bring the Bibos the farm produce they grew. In turn, the Bibos, under contract to the U. S. government, supplied the army forts in the area with the produce. The Indians were paid a fair price by the Bibos, the practice of which encouraged the Indians to improve their farming techniques. The Bibos also became deeply involved in mediating the many disputes over land ownership that arose between the Indians and the Mexican residents of the area, who for centuries had coveted the Indians’ lands. They also tried to intercede with local white Americans (Anglos) who tried to purchase Indian lands at below market prices. The Bibos were considered pro-Indian and were not particularly embraced by either the Mexicans or their fellow Anglos.
None of the Bibos became more embraced by the Indians than Solomon was by the Acomas. In 1882, he arrived at the pueblo and set up a trading post. He learned Queresan, the Acoma language, and helped the tribe fight legal battles to maintain their traditional lands. By treaty in 1877, the Acomas had been granted 94,000 acres of land by the U.S. government, far less than the Indians thought they were entitled to according to historical evidence. The Acomas were determined that they should lose no more than had already slipped through their hands.
To accomplish this, in 1884 the tribe decided to offer Bibo a thirty-year lease on all their land in exchange for which he would pay them $12,000 annually, protect their cattle, keep squatters away and mine the coal under the Acoma lands, for which he would pay the tribe a royalty of ten cents per ton for each ton extracted. Pedro Sanchez, the U.S. Indian agent from Santa Fe, learned of the deal and, jealous of the success of the “rico Israelito” (rich Jew), tried to get the federal government to void the lease.
The Bibo family fought back. Simon Bibo petitioned the Board of Indian Commissioners in Washington to the effect that his brother Solomon’s “intentions with the Indians are of the best nature and beneficial to them – because the men, women and children love him as they would a father and he is in the same manner attached to them.” In 1888, convinced finally that Bibo had acted honorably, the Indian agent for New Mexico wrote, “To the people of the pueblo of Acoma, having confidence in the ability, integrity and fidelity of Solomon Bibo… I hereby appoint [him] governor of said pueblo.”
In 1885, Solomon married an Acoma woman, Juana Valle, granddaughter of his predecessor as governor of the Acoma Pueblo. Juana was originally a Catholic but observed the Jewish faith and raised her children as Jews. In 1898, wanting their children to receive a Jewish education, Solomon and Juana relocated to San Francisco, where he invested in real estate and opened a gourmet food shop. Their oldest son was bar mitzvah at San Francisco’s Ohabei Shalome, and the younger attended religious school at Temple Emanuel. Solomon Bibo died in 1934, Juana in 1941. Solomon Bibo, governor of the Acomas, America’s only known Jewish Indian chief, is buried with his wife in the Jewish cemetery in Colma, California.