First Jewish Settlers in North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first documented Jewish settlers in North America arrived in New Amsterdam. They fought for and eventually obtained the right to live and work in New Netherland, despite intense opposition, laying the groundwork for greater religious toleration in the New World.

Summary of Event

The first Jewish settlers of record in New Amsterdam New Amsterdam;Jews were Jacob Barsimon Barsimon, Jacob and Solomon Pieterson, Pieterson, Solomon both of whom came from Holland in the summer of 1654. The next month, twenty-three other Jews arrived, both old and young, refugees from the Portuguese conquest of Dutch Brazil (New Holland), which had been the richest property of the Dutch West India Company in America. After leaving Recife, Brazil, their ship had been captured by Spanish pirates, from whom they were saved by a French privateer, the Saint Charles, captained by Jacques de La Motthe La Motthe, Jacques de[LaMotthe, Jacques de] . Having little more than the clothes on their backs, the Jewish migrants convinced La Motthe to carry them to New Amsterdam for twenty-five hundred guilders, which they hoped to borrow in that Dutch port. They shortly discovered, however, what Jacob Barsimon and Solomon Pieterson were already learning: There was much opposition to Jews settling in New Netherland. New Netherland;Jews in [kw]First Jewish Settlers in North America (Summer, 1654-1656) [kw]America, First Jewish Settlers in North (Summer, 1654-1656) [kw]North America, First Jewish Settlers in (Summer, 1654-1656) [kw]Jewish Settlers in North America, First (Summer, 1654-1656) Social issues and reform;Summer, 1654-1656: First Jewish Settlers in North America[1810] Colonization;Summer, 1654-1656: First Jewish Settlers in North America[1810] Religion and theology;Summer, 1654-1656: First Jewish Settlers in North America[1810] American Colonies;Summer, 1654-1656: First Jewish Settlers in North America[1810] Jews;North America North America;Jewish settlers Levy, Asser Megapolensis, Dominie Johannes Stuyvesant, Peter

Their poverty made the Dutch Jews from Brazil especially vulnerable. Unable to borrow the money, they asked La Motthe for extra time to contact friends and receive money from Amsterdam. Rather than waiting, La Motthe brought suit in the City Court of New Amsterdam, which ordered that the Jews’ meager belongings should be sold at public auction. Even after all that was worth selling had been sold, the unfortunate exiles still owed almost five hundred guilders. The City Court then ordered that two of the Jews—David Israel Israel, David and Moses Ambroisius Ambroisius, Moses —should be held under civil arrest until the total debt was paid. In October, the matter finally was resolved after the crew of the Saint Charles, holding title to the remainder of the Jewish debt, agreed to wait until additional funds could be sent from Amsterdam.

The ordeal of the Jewish refugees was far from over. They wanted to remain in New Amsterdam, but Director-General Peter Stuyvesant Stuyvesant, Peter complained to the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company. Stuyvesant was against allowing the Jews to stay, as were the city magistrates, who resented “their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians,” and the deacons of the Reformed Church, who feared that in “their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter.” Indicating that the colonists generally shared his anti-Semitic views, Stuyvesant informed the Amsterdam directors that “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.” As for the future, he urged “that the deceitful race—such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ—be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony, to the detraction of your Worships and the dissatisfaction of your Worships’ most affectionate subjects.”

Despite his vehemence against the Jews, Stuyvesant delayed his expulsion order, waiting instead for guidance from the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company Dutch West India Company , to whom the unwanted refugees were also appealing. The Jewish community in Amsterdam took up their cause. During the early sixteenth century, the embattled United Provinces—and especially the city of Amsterdam—had become a haven for persecuted European Jews, whose many contributions to Dutch economic and cultural life had brought them considerable religious freedom, political and legal rights, and economic privileges. Not only did Jewish investors own approximately 4 percent of the Dutch West India Company’s stock, but also more than six hundred Dutch Jews had participated in colonizing Dutch Brazil. Virtually all of them left Pernambuco in 1654 with the other Dutch nationals, losing practically everything, although the conquering Portuguese had urged them to remain and promised to protect their property. Thus their loyalty to the Dutch republic could hardly be questioned. Moreover, thinly populated New Netherland desperately needed settlers.

On the other hand, Dominie Johannes Megapolensis, Megapolensis, Dominie Johannes one of the leading Dutch Reformed preachers in New Netherland, was especially disturbed because a few additional Jewish families recently had immigrated from Amsterdam. Migration;Jews into New York He called upon the Amsterdam Classis of the Reformed Church to use its influence to have the Jews expelled from the American colony. “These people have no other God than the Mammon of unrighteousness,” warned Megapolensis, “and no other aim than to get possession of Christian property, and to overcome all other merchants by drawing all trade toward themselves.” Surely, Megapolensis pleaded, these “godless rascals” should be expelled.

Expressing some sympathy for Stuyvesant’s anti-Jewish prejudice, the Amsterdam Chamber nevertheless announced in early 1655 that Jews could travel, trade, and live in New Netherland, provided they cared for their own poor. Over the next few years, while not directly defying the company’s directive, Stuyvesant and other civil officials delayed, obstructed, and otherwise made life more difficult for the Jews of New Amsterdam. In March, 1655, for example, Abraham de Lucena Lucena, Abraham de was arrested for selling goods on Sunday. In July, de Lucena and others petitioned to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery but were denied. Indeed, Jews were not allowed to purchase land in New Amsterdam. They also were exempted from the city militia, on grounds that other colonists would not serve with them, but were required to pay a heavy tax each month in lieu of service.

The Jews of New Amsterdam resented and resisted such treatment. In November, when Asser Levy Levy, Asser and Jacob Barsimon, two young Jews with little money, protested the tax and asked to do service with the militia instead, the town council dismissed their protest and noted that the petitioners could choose to go elsewhere. The same message was conveyed by the heavy rates imposed upon Jews in the general levy to raise funds for rebuilding the city’s defense wall. Most discouraging were the restrictions placed on Jews who wished to trade to Albany and Delaware Bay.

In 1656, the Amsterdam Chamber chastised Stuyvesant and insisted that Jews in New Netherland were to have the same rights and privileges as Jews in old Amsterdam. They could trade wholesale, rent and buy property, and enjoy the protection of the law as other Dutch citizens did. However, their religious freedom did not extend to public worship, and they were not allowed to sell retail, work as mechanics, or live and work outside a designated area of town. Despite the opposition of the Burgomasters and Schepens, Stuyvesant, ever the faithful servant of the Dutch West India Company, insisted that Asser Levy be admitted to the burgher right, which allowed him to run a business, vote in town elections, and even hold office. Jews in the city of New Amsterdam were not ghettoized, and they could work as mechanics and tradesmen as well as shopkeepers and merchants. Asser Levy became the first Jewish landowner and was one of two Jews licensed as butchers in 1660.

Significance

Prejudice remained among the Dutch of New Netherland, but social and economic acceptance came to the Jewish community in New Amsterdam. They were allowed their separate burial ground, and their right to observe the Sabbath on Saturday was respected. They never established a synagogue and may not have had enough people to maintain a congregation, but regular religious services apparently were held. Asser Levy owned a Torah, and others had prayer books and shawls. Most of the Jews in New Amsterdam were Sephardim, descended from Portuguese Jews, although a few were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, France, and Eastern Europe. Their numbers remained quite small, never more than a handful of families, and there seems to have been a good deal of migration in and out of the colony. However, the Jews of New Amsterdam were pioneers who prepared the way for the more extensive Jewish community that would emerge in early New York.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faber, Eli. A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820. Vol. 1 in The Jewish People in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A history of the Jewish migration to America from 1654 through 1820, focusing on Jews from Amsterdam, Lisbon, and London who settled in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurock, Jeffrey S., ed. The Colonial and National Periods, 1654-1820. Vol. 1 in American Jewish History. New York: Routledge, 1998. Collection of articles, including two essays by Leo Hershkowitz about Asser Levy and the early New York Jews, and the subsequent development of the New York Jewish community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hershkowitz, Leo. “Judaism.” In The Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, edited by Jacob Ernest Cook. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. Brief but incisive summary of colonial Judaism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, Henry H., and Eugene Rachlis. Peter Stuyvesant and His New York. New York: Random House, 1959. Gives insight into the anti-Semitism of Dutch Calvinism and the cooperative efforts of Stuyvesant and the Dutch Reformed preachers against the Jews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Jacob R. The Colonial American Jew, 1492-1776. 3 vols. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1970. Presents a detailed survey of the Jewish experience in early America, relating connections between the various Jewish communities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheim, Samuel. The Early History of the Jews in New York, 1654-1664. New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1909. Basic source for details on early Jewish settlers and their trials, tribulations, and successes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rink, Oliver A. Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. An account that relates the Jewish migration to larger economic and social developments in New Netherland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, George L. Religion and Trade in New Netherland: Dutch Origins and American Development. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. An analysis of religious toleration that emerged in the northern Netherlands and its transference to New Netherland.

Founding of New Amsterdam

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Portugal Retakes Control of Brazil

British Conquest of New Netherland

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Peter Stuyvesant. Jews;North America North America;Jewish settlers

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