The Isaacson Family hails from the Province of Piltene, part of a region of western Latvia historically known as Courland. “You have totake the train to Riga,” a descendent later recalled. “Take it at night, you’d get there the next morning.” Courland was Latvia’s oldest Jewish community.
It’s believed that the first Jews arrived in Piltene around 1571–probably merchants from Prussia–under protection of Duke Magnuss, a Prince of Denmark, who obtained Piltene as a gift from his brother, the King of Denmark. Over the years, the region frequently changed hands: for centuries, Piltene was part of a semi-independent duchy linked to Poland in which German influence prevailed.
Jews became permanent inhabitants of Courland in the 18th century. In 1708, the first synagogue was permitted to be built in Aizpute (Hasenpoth). Skilled Jewish workers and artisans — construction workers, roof-makers, inlay workers, tailors — began arriving from Germany, along with a number of medical doctors who comprised a Jewish intelligentsia, ushering in with them liberal ideas of the Jewish enlightenment (“haskala”). Courland would became part of Russia in 1795. The Russian Emperor Paul, under the pressure of haskala Jews, afforded Jews in Courland legal status as permanent inhabitants while subjected to double taxation.
The origins are lost to history, but sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, Israel Solomon Isaacson (“Itsikson”) and Rocalai (Rachel Leah, born to Isaac and Sarah Isaacson)–whose families lived among the Courland towns of Grobin, Piltene and Hasenpoth–got married, and created a family of five sons, and four daughters: Mote, Ita, Samuel, Dora, Isidor, Hannah, Caseel, Selma, and Robert.
Only bits are known about this Isaacson family’s life in Latvia. They were middle class, by one account, and moved around the province. Solomon Israel may have worked as a tailor, or a merchant, like some Isaacson men before him. The family followed Jewish rituals: Rachel Leah kept two sets of dishes, in observance of kosher practices, although the family didn’t likely attend synagogue often. “We weren’t really brought up strictly,” one grandchild recalled. In the home, they spoke Yiddish, but could write in German.
Exodus to the Rocky Mountains
This family of 11 soon began to disperse across the world.
In 1887, Israel and Rachel Leah’s son Isidor Joseph left for the United States, steaming into Philadelphia on August 1 aboard the S.S. Lord Gough. After a four-day train journey, the 18-year-old arrived at a dry, sunny city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains that for many Eastern European Jews at the time figured as a modern-day land of milk honey, brimming with opportunity: Denver, Colorado.
Denver was a booming city by then, prosperous from mining and manufacturing. Saloons, liquor enterprises, and tobaccos stores lined the city’s streets. A wave of Jewish immigrants, mostly from imperial Russia, assumed a vital role in Denver’s social, and political development. A B’nai B’rith lodge was started there in 1872, and Colorado’s first synagogue, Temple Emanuel, was established in 1874. Jews also settled in smaller towns around the state, including Leadville, Colorado Springs, Trinidad, and Boulder, where they established communities and synagogues.
Many Jews arrived in Colorado through a process known as chain migration: a pioneering son, brother, father first established himself, and then paved a way for the rest of the family. This may have been how Isidor Joseph ended up there, too. Another Isaacson family lived in Denver at the time, according to government records: Isaac and Minnie, and their young sons Sam, Louis, and Harry–most likely cousins. When Isidor first arrived, he worked as a clothing merchant, and in 1896 married a 20-year-old Englishwoman, Rachel, with whom he had three children: Sadie (1899), Josephine (1901), and Ira (1908).
A chain of Isaacsons followed him. Isidor’s 16-year-old brother Samuel arrived in New York via Hamburg on October 22, 1889, aboard the S.S. Moravia, and settled in Denver.
Isidor, Sam and Robert established themselves as successful tobacconists in downtown Denver. “The brothers seem to have control of the cigar business in their three fine stores in the lower part of the city,” writes the 1919 U.S. Tobacco Journal, a trade publication. Two years later, the journal referred to the local following that the Isaacson’s “straightforward methods and good cigars” had gained. It described Isidor’s store, situated across from the newly rebuilt Union Station, as “a splendid cool inviting place for a tired and dusty traveler to step in for a smoke or for a refreshing and inviting drink.”
In 1904 Samuel married Yetta Cramer, a young Latvian woman and dressmaker living in Trinidad, Colorado, and the couple had three children: Freda (1905), Sarah (1907), and Irving (1914). This branch of the Isaacson family would remain in Denver for two more generations: with his passion for skiing, Irv went on to work in the nascent ski industry, building the first lodge at the base of the Winter Park ski area, and selling ski-related crafts and souvenirs.
This narrative was compiled and written by Irving’s grandson, Andy Isaacson, a journalist and photographer whose work appears in the New York Times and many other publications.