Staying Jewish on the Arizona Frontier

The Drachman family played a very important role in the foundation of Jewish life on the Arizona frontier.

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In 1852, a boat landed in New York carrying among its many passengers the members of two Polish-Jewish families who were destined to change the history of Arizona. One family’s name is well known: the Goldwaters. The other family, the Drachmans, is less well known, but in the early years of Arizona Jewish history, no less important.

When he was only ten years old and living in a Pietrokov near Lodz, Poland, Philip Drachman’s parents decided that he and his younger brother Samuel would someday flee to America rather than, at age 13, be drafted into the Czar’s army. According to a family memoir, the boys’ parents removed floorboards from a room in their home and started digging a cellar in which Philip and then Samuel were hidden. "At night," the account goes, "they would carry the soil out of the house and spread it over the ground so it would not be noticed. This went on for months and months."

When Russian army officials came to find Philip, they were told that he had run away. Actually, he was in the cellar, where he lived for several months while his parents made arrangements to secret the two brothers to America. The memoir concludes, "Philip had health problems most of his adult life, and he felt they stemmed from the months he had spent in the damp hole underneath his home. It was said that he first came to Arizona for the warm, dry climate. Thus he may have been Tucson’s first health seeker!"

At age 16, Philip Drachman and his brother Samuel, age 13, arrived in New York after living for a time in England. Samuel moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Philip chose to pioneer the virtually undeveloped Arizona Territory. Philip became a naturalized American citizen in 1860 and by 1864 a successful landowner, cattle rancher, and retail merchant. In 1867, he persuaded his brother Samuel to abandon the civility of Charleston for the desert starkness and economic opportunity of Tucson.

(Image below: Saltiel’s Store, an early Jewish store on the frontier. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

Saltiel’s Store, an early Jewish store on the frontier.
Arizona had few marriageable Jewish women, so Philip made the arduous journey to New York to find a Jewish bride. He won the heart of Rosa Katzenstein, who agreed to marry him and move to Tucson. After a New York wedding, the couple traveled to California by taking a boat to Panama, wagons across the Isthmus and another boat to San Francisco. From there, they traveled to Los Angeles and San Bernardino, California, for a visit with Philip’s sister before setting out for Tucson. Years later, Rosa Katzenstein Drachman wrote a memoir of her journey:

We started for Tucson on October 21, 1868. We traveled in a four-horse ambulance, which was a relic of the Civil War. We had provisions and camped out . . . the first night we camped out I could not sleep on account of the howling of the coyotes. . . .Our bedding was spread on the ground and that is the way we slept. . . . We traveled at the rate of twenty-five miles per day and camped near stagecoach stations where I saw the roughest and worst class of men. As we traveled we passed many graves of poor people who had been murdered by the Indians or the desperate characters.. We were detained by many mishaps to our team. . . There was nothing but cactus, sand and brush and occasionally an immense freight team. . . We reached Tucson on November 15, 1868 after a long and tiresome journey.

Philip and Rosa had ten children. Unfortunately, in 1889, when the youngest was only a year old, Philip died of pneumonia at the age of 56, leaving Rosa to raise the children alone. Philip Drachman had been a respected and popular man, having been elected to the Territorial Legislature and having founded the B’nai B’rith Lodge of Tucson. Another successful Arizona Jewish pioneer, William Zeckendorf, conducted his graveside funeral, the largest in Tucson to that time.

Philip’s brother Samuel Drachman carried on the family tradition of mercantile success and Jewish observance. To find a Jewish wife, Sam traveled to San Bernardino, where his sister had identified a prospective bride. According to historians Abe and Mildred Chanin, Sam Drachman "did more in Arizona’s territorial days than anyone to keep Judaism alive in the desert Southwest." He was one of first 17 contributors to form Tucson’s Jewish Cemetery Association and, in 1910, he helped build Arizona’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-el of Tucson. Sam served as the congregation’s first president. Most impressively, Sam traveled throughout the Arizona Territory and even into Texas to preside at Jewish weddings.

Ironically, despite their Jewish commitment, the Drachman’s have left few descendants still practicing their Judaism. However, thousands of recent Jewish settlers in Arizona, a state with a rapidly increasing Jewish population, have benefited from Jewish community institutions planted by the first generation of Drachmans.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.