A question people frequently ask when they come to the Temple Israel Museum is: “Why did Jews come to Leadville?” Jews migrated to the West and to Leadville, Colorado for many of the same reasons other people did, no matter their cultures or economic statuses. They came to improve their social and economic status, to find adventure, even to reinvent themselves. Leadville’s mining economy exploded in the late 1870s from the discovery of silver, resulting in an influx of migrants to this small mountain town. At its peak, the population of Leadville grew to approximately 30,000 residents, with about 300 of those (about 1%) being Jews.
As Europe industrialized in the 19th century and as some of the countries became increasingly repressive, many Jews emigrated for areas that were more hospitable. In Europe, Jews were commonly employed as seamstresses, tailors, and peddlers—work that was becoming obsolete in the new industrialized world. The United States, and particularly in the western United States, proved to be ideal for engaging in traditional Jewish occupations. In the U.S., one could rise from itinerant peddler to merchant in a single generation. While the image of the Jewish merchant has become stereotypical, many Jews found that the role of merchant in the American West provided families with economic stability and opportunities for civic leadership.