Thursday, November 5, 2015

America as a Religious Refuge - Jews in 17C America


Early American Jews were unremarkable in many ways. They looked & behaved like other colonists: they wore the same clothes, lived in the same types of homes, worried about their children, & worked to earn a living, just like their neighbors. Their religion & their history were the only differences. Their beliefs had gotten them expelled from England in 1290 & cast out from Spain in 1492.  By the settlement of the British American colonies in the early 17C, Jews had been banned from all English lands for centuries. Oliver Cromwell (British Protector from 1649 through 1660, through his son Richard) lifted this prohibition. 

"From the time of its discovery, America has been a haven for Europe's oppressed & persecuted. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, the Spanish Inquisition reached its apogee. Spain expelled its Jews, &, five years later, Portugal followed suit. The remnants of Iberian Jewry found refuge in the cities & towns of Europe, North Africa, & the Near East, &, in the first half of the 17C, some of their descendants established communities in Dutch-ruled Brazil...

"References to Columbus's voyages & to his "discoveries" are recorded in a number of early Hebrew printed books as well as in other works by Jews related to navigation & exploration. For Jews forced to practice their faith in secret, the New World offered the prospect of practicing Judaism in the open. Other Jews saw in the newly discovered lands possibilities for economic opportunity & adventure, while some, like 16C scholar & geographer Abraham Farissol, may have seen the discovery of the New World as a harbinger of the messianic era...

"Printed by Stephen Daye in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book is the 1st book printed in the English settlements of America. Its preface included 5 Hebrew words, including the Hebrew words for psalms, hymns, & spiritual songs. This marks the 1st appearance of Hebrew in a work printed in what is now the United States.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Page 2 - 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Stephen Daye, 1640." (see note)

The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was determined by the Bible. For example, at the 1st assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport emphasized the primacy of the Bible as the legal & moral foundation of the colony: "Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction & government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God & men as well as in the government of families & commonwealth as in matters of the Church... the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation." Subsequently, the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code - the Code of 1655 - which contained some 79 statutes, half of which included biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641 adopted the so-called Capital Laws of New England based almost entirely on Mosaic law.

In 1654, Portugal recaptured Brazil & expelled its Jewish settlers. Most returned to Holland or moved to Protestant-ruled colonies in the Caribbean. A group of twenty-three Jewish refugees, including women & children, arrived in New Amsterdam hoping to settle & build a new home for themselves. In the years that followed, the growing Jewish community pressed the authorities to extend to them rights offered to other settlers, including the right to trade & travel, to stand guard, to own property, to establish a cemetery, to erect a house of worship, & to participate fully in the political process.


For some decades Jews had flourished in Dutch-held areas of Brazil; but a Portuguese conquest of the area in 1654, confronted them with the prospect of the Inquisition, which had already burned a Brazilian Jew at the stake in 1647.  A shipload of 23 Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil arrived in New Amsterdam (soon to become New York) in 1654. By the next year, this small community had established religious services in the city.

Luis de Carabajal y Cueva 1539-1595
, a Spanish conquistador was 1st set foot in what is now Texas in 1570.  In Spain, his parents were forced to convert to Christianity. He roamed the Atlantic in charge of a fleet;  he governed the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon; he helped bring other Jews to North America. At the end of his life, he was living in Mexico, supposedly as a good Christian, when the Inquisition intervened. Carabajal & his entire family were charged with "Judizing," jailed & tortured. He died in prison; his relatives were burned at the stake.

Joachim Gans, was the 1st Jew recorded in English America.  Gans was born in Prague around the middle of the 16C. He arrived in England in 1581, where he introduced a new quicker & cheaper method of smelting ores. In 1585, he took part in Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition to establish an English settlement in what they called "the Newfoundland of Virginia." Gans was the chief metallurgist at this First English Settlement in America. "Gans was to find and test the metals that were to make everyone's fortune," wrote Ivor Noël Hume, an American historian of early Chesapeake settlements.

Elias Legarde was a Sephardic Jew who arrived at James City, Virginia, on the Abigail in 1621. According to one historian, Elias was from Languedoc, France and was hired to go to the Colony to teach people how to grow grapes for wine. Elias Legarde was living in Buckroe in Elizabeth City in February of 1624. Elias was employed by Anthonie Bonall. Anthonie Bonall was a French silk maker and vigneron (cultivates vineyards for winemaking), one of the men from Languedoc sent to the colony by John Bonall, keeper of the silkworms of King James I.  In 1628 Elias leased 100 acres on the west side of Harris Creek in Elizabeth City, Virginia. 


Josef Mosse and Rebecca Isaake are documented in Elizabeth City in 1624. John Levy patented 200 acres of land on the main branch of Powell’s Creek, Virginia, around 1648, Albino Lupo who traded with his brother, Amaso de Tores, in London. Two brothers named Silvedo and Manuel Rodriguez are documented to be in Lancaster County, Virginia, around 1650. None of the Jews in Virginia were forced to leave under any conditions.



Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jew from Holland who is believed to have settled in the city of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colonyin 1649. Franco was a scholar & agent for Immanuel Perada, a Dutch merchant. He delivered supplies to Edward Gibbons, a major general in the Massachusetts militia. After a dispute over who should pay Franco (Gibbons or Perada) the Massachusetts General Court ruled on May 6, 1649, that Franco was to be expelled from the colony, and granted him "six shillings per week out of the Treasury for ten weeks, for sustenance, till he can get his passage to Holland."

On July 8, 1654, Jacob Barsimson left Holland and arrived aboard the Peartree on August 22 in the port of New Amsterdam (in lower Manhattan, where Wall Street is today). Barsimson was employed by the Dutch East India Company and had fled the Portuguese.


In September 1654, the 23 Jews from the Sephardic community in the Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdam (New York City).  Barsimson is said to have met them at The Battery upon their arrival. This group was made up of 23 Dutch Jews (4 couples, 2 widows, and 13 children). Like Barsimson, they had fled from a former Dutch settlement; the group had emigrated from Pernambuco in Dutch Brazil (now called Recife), after the settlement was conquered by the Portuguese. Fearing the Inquisition, the Jews left Recife. They originally docked in Jamaica and Cuba, but the Spanish did not allow them to remain there. Their ship, Ste. Catherine, went to New Amsterdam instead, settling against the wishes of local merchants and the local Dutch Reformed Church. 

Colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant, upon complaint from his local church groups, attempted to have the Jews expelled. He wrote a letter to the directors of the Dutch West India Company dated September 22, 1654: "The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant to the inferior magistrates, as also to the people having the most affection for you; the Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart, praying also most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your worships, that the deceitful race—such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ—be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony to the detraction of your worships and the dissatisfaction of your worships' most affectionate subjects." 


However, among the directors of the Dutch West India Company included several influential Jews, who interceded on the refugees' behalf. Company officials rebuffed Stuyvesant and ordered him in a letter dated April 26, 1655, to let the Jews remain in New Amsterdam, "provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation..."We would have liked to effectuate and fulfill your wishes and request that the new territories should no more be allowed to be infected by people of the Jewish nation, for we foresee therefrom the same difficulties which you fear, but after having further weighed and considered the matter, we observe that this would be somewhat unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss sustained by this nation, with others, in the taking of Brazil, as also because of the large amount of capital which they still have invested in the shares of this company. Therefore after many deliberations we have finally decided and resolved to apostille [annotate] upon a certain petition presented by said Portuguese Jews that these people may travel and trade to and in New Netherland and live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation. You will now govern yourself accordingly." 


Upon the capture of the colony by the English in 1664, the rights enjoyed by the Jews were not interfered with, and for 20 years they appear to have lived much as before the British occupation, though with slight increase in their numbers.


Solomon Pietersen was a merchant from Amsterdam who came to town in 1654. In 1656, Pietersen became the first known American Jew to intermarry with a Christian; though there are no records showing Pietersen formally converted, his daughter Anna was baptized in childhood.

Asser Levy (Van Swellem) is first mentioned in public records in New Amsterdam in 1654 in connection with the group of 23 Jews who arrived as refugees from Brazil. It is likely he preceded their arrival. Levy was the (kosher) butcher for the small Jewish community. He fought for Jewish rights in the Dutch colony and is famous for having secured the right of Jews to be admitted as Burghers and to serve guard duty for the colony.


Esther & Isaac Pinheiro were married in Amsterdam in 1656. After coming to the New World, the couple lived in New York, but eventually settled on the West Indian Island of Nevis, which was a bustling center of shipping & trade. Isaac Pinheiro passed away while in New York, on February 17, 1710. In his will he designated Esther as his sole executrix & left much of his property & other holdings to her. She took on the responsibility of running her husband’s far-flung & rather extensive business interests, after his death. Esther Pinheiro became a familiar figure in the commercial communities of New York City & Boston. From 1716 to 1718, the Widow Pinheiro was a frequent visitor to the mainland colonies. She sailed from her home in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, to the ports of Boston & New York City in what was presumably her own small sloop, the Neptune. She managed the sale of the cargo & assembled a return load of flour, lumber, fish, & goods from Europe.


In New York City, Shearith Israel Congregation is the oldest continuous congregation started in 1687, having their first synagogue erected in 1728, & its current building still houses some of the original pieces of that first.

Religious tolerance was also established elsewhere in the colonies; the colony of South Carolina, for example, was originally governed under an elaborate charter drawn up in 1669, by the English philosopher John Locke. This charter granted liberty of conscience to all settlers, expressly mentioning "Jews, heathens, and dissenters."  As a result, Charleston, South Carolina has a particularly long history of Sephardic settlement, which in 1816, numbered over 600, then the largest Jewish population of any city in the United States.

In Maryland, Dr. Jacob Lumbrozo, who had arrived January 24, 1656, was tried in 1658 for blasphemy, but was released by reason of the general amnesty granted in honor of the accession of Richard Cromwell (March 3, 1658). Letters of denization were issued to Lumbrozo September 10, 1663. Besides practicing medicine, he also owned a plantation, engaged in trade with the Indians, & had active intercourse with London merchants. He was one of the earliest medical practitioners in Maryland, & his career casts light upon the history & nature of religious tolerance in Maryland. By the strength of his personality, he was able to disregard nearly all the laws which would have rendered his residence in the colony impossible, & he seems to have observed his faith even though this, under the laws, was forbidden.

By 1658, Jews had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, seeking religious liberty. Sephardic Dutch Jews were among the early settlers of Newport (where Touro Synagogue, the country's oldest surviving synagogue building, stands).  

Small numbers of Jews continued to come to the British North American colonies, settling mainly in the seaport towns like Savannah, Philadelphia, & Baltimore. By the time of American Revolution, the Jewish population in America was very small, with only 1,000-2000, in a colonial population of about 2.5 million.

For Jews, the promise of America was deeply rooted in its commitment to religious liberty. In the 18C, President George Washington's declaration in 1790 to the Newport Hebrew Congregation that this nation gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," provided the Jewish community with an early assurance of America's suitability as a haven.

For more documents, see the Library of Congress here.


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