Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fleeing to America - Jews & their early settlements


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, a Spanish conquistador and converso first set foot in what is now Texas in 1570. The 1st recorded Jewish-born person to set foot on American soil was Joachim Gans in 1584. 


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, 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 twenty 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.

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.

Jews had previously been barred from settling in English colonies, as they had been banned from all English lands for 400 years. Oliver Cromwell (British Protector from 1649 through 1660, through his son Richard) lifted this prohibition. 


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.


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.