Jews in Colonial America by John D. Craton

Note: While cleaning out my garage recently I came across this little paper which was written when I was a senior in high school. Since this covers a subject that is rarely discussed in American history classes today, I thought I would put it online just to share the information. Please overlook some of the puerile writing ... it was written in 1971 when I was only 17 years old.


The journey to America began in Spain in the year 1492. That was the year that marked the climax in a series of anti-Semitic laws passed under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella to rid the Iberian Peninsula of its Jewish inhabitants.

For centuries the Jews had enjoyed a particular freedom in Spain that had not been theirs in other parts of the world. As always, there had been persecutions in Iberia, but by comparison Spain offered a relatively safe haven for Jews suffering brutally in other countries.

It had always been that way. Jews were allowed to take up residence within a kingdom — segregated, of course — and to become the primary financial resource for the king. They were always among the monarch's most faithful and loyal subjects, but they were never his most trusted. Perhaps it was because of their great loyalty that the Christians looked upon them with both awe and suspicion. But when the monarch’s friendship with the Jews became too conspicuous, when the court became too full of these “strange little men,” he would have to regain his standing with his own people and as likely as not would endorse a campaign against the very people who had so long supported him. The Jews would be persecuted, their goods taken, a few martyred, and others expelled from the kingdom.

But in Spain these things had been rare. The Jews had enjoyed a greater freedom in Spain than they had known since the destruction of Jerusalem. Their men of science and the arts had advanced to create one of the highest and most revered cultures of medieval Europe. They had been well-tolerated by most of the rulers and had even been permitted to worship in their own synagogues. But the fifteenth century was to see an end go all this. With its crescendo of events that began as early as 1300 when Peter the Cruel first attacked the Jews, to the final Edict of Expulsion of January 2, 1492, the time of freedom and hope in the Old World came to an end.(1)

What was it that made the expulsion from Spain more a part of the history of early American Jews than any other event in Europe at the time? To answer this, one must first examine the conditions of the Edict of Expulsion. The Jews were ordered to leave Spain no later than August 1, 1492 (though in the event the last groups did not leave until the following day, August 2). Perhaps it was indeed some twist of fate that August 2, 1492, was also Tisha B’Av (Ninth of Av), the fast day that recalls the destruction of the First and Second Temples.(2) It was also the same day on which three tiny vessels sailed forth from their harbor near Seville and passed some of the very ships on which many of the exiled Jews had embarked.(3) Those three vessels were the small but notable fleet of Christopher Columbus on his way to a new world, a world of tolerance, and perhaps even a new Jerusalem.


It would be impossible to say who were the first Jews to come to America, for many of the earliest hid their identities in order to sail on Portugese and Dutch ships. There were known to be several converted Jews on Columbus’ first voyage, one of whom was Luis de Torres, the chief interpreter who spoke several Eastern languages.(4) He was baptized shortly before going on board, and it is believed he may in fact have been the first of Columbus’ crew to set foot on American soil because they assumed they had landed in the East. De Torres also was the first European to discover maize (corn) and bring it back to the Old World.(5)

If only converted Jews could journey on the first voyages, many others left behind played important roles in these explorations. Luis de Santangel helped Columbus persuade Queen Isabella to sponsor him on his voyage and helped her raise capital for it, in spite of the fact that members of his own family fell victim to the Inquisition.(6) Columbus used charts that had been compiled by Abraham Zacuto,(7) a Jew, printed by another, and presented to him by yet a third child of Israel.(8) He also used what was perhaps the most astounding navigational instrument of his time, the “Jacob’s staff,” a device used to measure the sun’s position and that had been invented by Jacob ben Makhir, a Jew.(9) There is even substantial evidence that Christopher Columbus was himself a converted Jew. It is known, for instancem that he made efforts to hide his ancestry, and research has revealed that he was probably of Jewish descent and may have himself been a Jew.(10)

The reason the Jews came to the New World should be evident — they were fleeing the Inquisition. The first to come and live came as Marranos, a somewhat derogatory term for a converted Jew. (Many Jews became nominal converts to Christianity in order to escape persecution or death, but they retained their faith privately and remained Jewish in their hearts.) But even the converts often had difficulty finding acceptance aboard vessels sailing west. For this reason many tried to destroy every scrap of evidence that might show that they were or ever had been Jewish.

The first official landing of any Jews in the New World was in 1502. It had been made possible by the signing of a compact between between King Manuel the Great of Portugal and a Marrano, Fernando de Loronha. De Loronha agreed to explore 300 leagues of Brazil’s coast every year and build a fort wherever he and his passengers settled if they would be permitted to voyage to the New World. Five ships, filled mostly with converts, left Portugal in 1502, and in 1503 De Loronha’s passengers built their first fort on Brazilian soil.(11)

The settlements of the Jews in South America grew rapidly in the years to follow as more and more fled the Inquisition. For a while these Jews settled in colonies and cultivated extensive tobacco and sugar plantations and developed a rather large class of merchants and financiers who engaged in exporting raw materials and importing finished products.(12) But this arrangement was only to last a short time. The Inquisition followed soon after as Spain sent branch offices to the New World. As early as 1520 a Spanish soldier in Mexico was executed on the suspicion of secretly practicing Judaism.(13) And as new Christian settlers arrived, rather than initiating trade and cooperative cultivation with the settled Jews, they frequently plundered and persecuted them.(14)

There were large numbers of Marranos in the Portugese colony of Pernambuco on the Brazilian coast, and they returned to their ancestral faith secretly. They may well have been the first to practice Judaism in the New World. Soon, however, following the discovery of gold and other precious minerals in South America, England, France, and Holland began sending their own explorers to the New World. When the Dutch saw the Jews fleeing the Inquisition, they asked them to help seize some of the Brazilian trading posts from the Portugese.(15) They achieved success, and the Pernambuco colony forthrightly threw off their veil of secrecy and established an openly Jewish community. This community thrived and even invited a rabbi from Amsterdam to come join them.(16) Unfortunately the Dutch could not maintain their hold on the conquered colonies, and these soon fell back under the control of the Portugese.(17) With the return of the Portugese — and the Inquisition — the community fell apart and scattered to all parts of the globe. Some fled to Holland, others made peace with the Catholic Church and resumed living as Marranos;(18) but twenty-seven set sail for North America.(19)


The small band of Jews who came to New Amsterdam was indeed a brave lot. They were not all who wanted to come to North America, but rather were all that were able to do so. It is believed that a number of Jews feeling the South American Inquisition escaped to Cape St. Anthony, where they ran into some of their old friends embarking for New Netherlands.(20) They pleaded to be taken along, but only twenty-seven were accepted. But even this small number was not accepted without protest. The boat was already overcrowded, and Captain Jacques de la Motthe did not want the Jews aboard. However, with gold and extravagant promises of larger payments after landing, the captain was finally persuaded to allow them to sail with him. But because of the crowded conditions the Jews were forced to leave most of their goods behind to be shipped to them on a later vessel.(21)

On a September day in 1654, the barque Saint Catarina anchored in the port of New Amsterdam.(22) But to the dismay of all concerned, Captain de la Motthe forbade the Jews to take ashore even the few goods they had been able to bring with them until they had paid every penny of their fare. The Jews begged him to allow them to take their goods with them and reminded him of the other goods that were to be arriving soon from South America, but he would not budge. Finally, distraught, impoverished, and totally alone, the Jews disembarked and left their belongings behind.

Since they had no money or any friends in New Amsterdam, they had to camp on the shore outside of town, exposed to the elements and the bitter northeastern autumn.(23) They had to live off bread from charity and grew disheartened at De la Motthe’s unceasing demands for payment.(24) They again asked the captain to be allowed to bring just a few of their goods and tools ashore so that they might start earning money to repay him; they asked him to be patient and wait for the other goods that had been left behind; they asked him to consider the amount they had already paid him and to trust them until he came again to New Amsterdam. But to all their pleas De la Motthe turned a deaf ear and remained unflagging in his prejudice.

A climax was soon reached. The New Amsterdam court records tell the story. The Jews were summoned to appear before the Worshipful Court of Bourgomasters and Schepens of the City of New Amsterdam on Monday, September 7, 1654.(25) Solomon Pieterson was chosen from the group to address the Bourgomasters.(26) He was earnest and eloquent in his speech and was successful enough to persuade the court to give them a little time. The judgment was ”...that the Jews shall, within twice twenty-four hours after date, pay according to contract what they lawfully owe, and in the meantime the furniture and whatever the petitioner has in his possession shall remain as security, without alienating the same.“(27)

But what could the Jews do to pay back their debt of 1,567 florins within ”twice twenty-four hours“? Whatever plans they may have had failed them, for the court reconvened the following Thursday morning with Captain De la Motthe’s case being the first called.(28) The court listened carefully to both sides but was uncertain what to do. They felt they should do all within their power to encourage immigrants and believed De la Motthe was being unreasonable in his demands; but the law was plain, and they were forced to give the judgment that the Jews ”shall first be called upon, and their goods be sold for payment, and if these shall not be sufficient to make up the full sum, then, according to contract each one for all, in solidum, shall be called upon, until the full amount be paid.“(29) However, they showed some compassion by giving the Jews four more days to meet the debt before authorizing De le Motthe ”to cause to be sold, by public venue, in the presence of the officer, the goods of Abram Israel and Judica de Mereda, being the great debtor, and these not sufficing, he shall proceed in like manner with the others to the full acquittance of the debt and no further.“(30)

Four days went by, and still no ship came from South America. The Jews could find no work nor any place where they might borrow money. So, at long last, their goods were put up for sale. But to the dismay of Captain De la Motthe, the New Netherlanders, after purchasing some of the items, turned around and gave them back to the Jews.(31) When the captain found out about this he stopped the sale altogether. At his wits end he called in a lawyer, and on September 16 the court once again agreed to hear his case. It is said that the lawyer gave a long and eloquent speech and convinced the court to place two of the Jews in prison until the debt was paid. De la Motthe, however, finally grew restless on land and decided to set sail again before the final settlement was reached. He left the Jews to his sailors to do with as they wished. The sailors, having seen these poor settlers so savagely mistreated — having witnessed men, women, and children suffer long cold nights on the shore without proper food and shelter — decided to show a little kindness. As the records show, on October 26, 1654,

Solomon Pieterson appeared in Court and exhibited a declaration from ... the sailors, relative to the balance of the freight of the Jews, promising to wait until the arrival of the ships from Patria. Wherefore he requests to receive the monies still in the Secretary’s hands for Rycke Numes, whose goods were sold, over and above her own freight debt, in order to obtain with that money support for her. Whereupon was endorsed: Petitioner Solomon Pieterson as attorney was permitted to take, under security, the money in the Secretary’s hands.(32)

So, for the time being, the Jews had won a peace. They were given back their goods that remained, and apparently the long-awaited ships from South America finally arrived for their debt was paid shortly thereafter.(33)

Unfortunately, however, this peace was not long to last. Perhaps because of the prolonged court case with Captain de le Motthe, Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam sent a letter to the director of the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam dated September 22, 1654, in which he requested that ”none of the Jewish nation be permitted to infest New Netherland.“(34) In reply the directors said that it

...would be unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss sustained by the Jews in the taking of Brazil, and also because of the large amount of capital which they have invested in the shares of this company. After many consultations we have decided and reasoned upon a certain petition made by Portugese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail and trade in New Netherlands and to live and remain there, provided that the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company of to the community, but be supported by their own nation.(35)

This did not sit well with Stuyvesant, and he wrote several more letters to Amsterdam complaining about the presence of the Jews. The last known reply to Stuyvesant was dated April 26, 1655, and stated: ”We would have liked to agree to your wishes and requests that the new territories should not be further invaded by the people of the Jewish race, for we foresee from such immigration the same difficulties which you fear.“(36)

After the reception of this letter, the position of the Jews in New Amsterdam became precarious. Already on March 1, 1655, Abraham de la Simon had been called before the court upon the sheriff’s complaint of his keeping open a store during a sermon one Sunday. It was suggested to the court that they ask all the Jews to leave the colony. Some did in fact go to Rhode Island because they felt the governor would soon expel them from the community.(37)

The Jews who remained, however, overcame these hardships, and on July 15 a special act was passed that gave them the privileges they had so long sought.(38) But even with the passing of this act the governor still refused to allow them to purchase real estate.

Nor did the order give them the freedom to be employed in public service. Jacob Barsimon and Asser Levy both petitioned to be allowed to stand guard like the other burghers or at least be relieved from the tax. Levy showed the court his application for the right of citizenship and reminded them that he had once been a burgher in Amsterdam. The court denied these requests and others like it. When the matter was brought before the governor and the council, despite their own misgivings they were forced to obey the directions from Holland, and an order was issued on April 21, 1657, that the Bourgomaster should admit Jews to the privilege of public service.(39)

The trouble between the Jews and the governor of New Amsterdam appears to have ended at this point, and there was little more trouble under Dutch rule.(40)


When the British captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 and renamed it New York, the position of the Jews remained unchanged for the most part. There is a record of at least one Jew coming from Newport and having difficulty setting up a retail trade in New York,(41) but by and large the Jews enjoyed a great deal of freedom under the British.

According to the Chartert of Liberties and Privileges of 1683, there was to be religious freedom for all ”who professed faith in God by Jesus Christ“(42) — which technically meant the Jews were excluded from freedom of worship. The Jews petitioned Governor Thomas Dongan in 1686 for permission to practice their religion, but it was refused.(43) However, James, Duke of York (to whom New York had been given by his brother) sent instructions ”to permit all persons of what religion soever, quietly to inhabit within the government, and to give no disturbance or disquiet whatsoever for or by reason of their differing matters of religion.“(44)

A synagogue was erected on Mill Street in New York sometime between 1691 and 1695, and it was named Shearith Israel, meaning ”Remnant of Israel.“(45) And a remnant it was, for the story of Colonial Jews is not one of communities but of individuals.(46) Whereas Christians generally relocated to the Americas in large groups, there are no records of any European communities of Jews having immigrated to the New World during this period.

The Jews made great progress under British rule, and about the only major point of discrimination had to do with their not being allowed to give testimony in court.(47) Nevertheless, their condition in New York was highly favorable, as Peter Kalm, the Swedish botanist and world traveler, records:

There are many Jews settled in New York who possess great privileges. They have a Synagogue and houses, great country-seats of their own property, and are allowed to keep shops in town. They have likewise several ships which they freight and send out with their goods; in fine, the Jews enjoy all the privileges in common to the other inhabitants of this town and province.(48)

But for all their freedom in New York, there were few other Jewish settlements of any size in Colonial America. This was largely because most of the Jews came as individuals or in groups of one or two families rather than as communities. In fact, the original landing of twenty-seven Jews in 1654 constituted perhaps the largest single group during Colonial times.

Smaller groups of Jews are known to have existed in parts of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia, but none was particularly large. Presumably there were groups of Jews in almost every section of the settled continent at that time, but most were so small as to be unclassified. About the only other group approaching the size of those in New York was a community that settled in Massachusetts. There the Jews made significant progress in both culture and education, and it was in Massachusetts that Christians saw many Jews set up private businesses of all kinds and witnessed Judah Monis become the first instructor of Hebrew at Harvard University.(49)

The Jews made deep impressions on America during the Colonial times. John Cotton once wanted to adopt the Mosaic Code as the bases for the laws of Massachusetts,(50) and there was even a proposal made to decree Hebrew as the official language of the Colonies.(51) Out of this spirit many of the basic principles of the Mosaic Code were in fact made to fit in the American Constitution.(52)

The Jews had come a long way since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They had suffered much in every respect and were likely to suffer more. But at last they had found a home where they could practice their faith openly and without undue fear of governmental intervention. And of one thing all who knew them was sure — the Jews were here to stay.


1 Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publiication Society of America. 1968). Book II, chap. VIII, passim.
2 ibid., p. 415.
3 ibid.
4 Max I. Dimont, Jews, God, and History (NY: Signet, 1962), p. 356.
5 ibid.
6 Grayzel, p.500.
7 ibid.
8 Lee M. Friedman, Early American Jews (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), p. ix.
9 Howard Fast, The Jews NY: Dial Press, 1968), pp. 255-256. (N.B. The invention of this instrument is credited to Levi ben Gerson in Dimont’s Jews, God, and History, p. 270, but Fast attributes its invention to Ben Makhir. In either case, the instrument is attributed to a Jew.)
10 Grayzel, p. 500.
11 Dimont, pp. 356-357.
12 ibid., p. 357.
13 Grayzel, p. 500.
14 Dimont, p. 357.
15 ibid.
16 Grayzel, p. 501.
17 ibid.
18 ibid.
19 Peter Wiernik, History of the Jews in America (NY: Jewish Press Publishing Company, 1912), p. 62.
20 Friedman, p. 53.
21 ibid.
22 Wiernik, p. 62.
23 Friedman, p. 54.
24 ibid.
25 ibid.
26 ibid., p. 55.
27 ibid.
28 ibid., p. 56.
29 ibid.
30 ibid.
31 ibid., p. 57.
32 ibid., p. 60.
33 Wiernik, p. 62 ff.
34 ibid.
35 ibid., p. 63.
36 ibid.
37 ibid.
38 ibid.
39 ibid.
40 ibid., pp. 66-67.
41 ibid., p. 67 ff.
42 ibid.
43 ibid.
44 ibid.
45 ibid.
46 Dimont, p. 358.
47 Wiernik, p. 67 ff.
48 ibid.
49 Friedman, pp. 3-39, passim.
50 Dimont, p. 358.
51 ibid.
52 ibid.

Copyright © 1971-2014 by John Craton

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