Jews in Colonial New York — Part 1

Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.

Dutch people gather in a town square.
New York of 1660. Source: NYPL

The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1

Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule

Menasseh ben Israel by Rembrandt, 1636 (etching). Source: National Portrait Gallery (UK)

In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.

Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.

A fleet of Dutch merchant ships, sails billowing, flying the Dutch red, white, and blue flag.
Dutch West India Company. Source: Public Domain

Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.

Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.

While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:

“… After many consultations we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail to and trade in New Netherland and to 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 govern yourself accordingly.”

Peter Stuyvesant, April 26, 1655.

New Amsterdam

Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.

The left page shows handwriting: Isaac Mattahias Gomez. The right page is engraved with Biblia Espanola.
A Sephardic bible, translated into Spanish, printed in 1661.
Source: Gomez Mill House.

Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.

Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.

The articles of capitulation provided that:

All people shall still continue free denizens and enjoy their lands, houses, goods, ships wheresoever they are within this country, and dispose of them as they please.

The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.

Was it so simple? Yes, and no.

English Colonial Rule

A painting of the surrender.British ships in the background.
The fall of New Amsterdam. A woman pleads with Peter Stuyvesant. Source: Wikimedia

Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.

What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.

Next, we’ll explore the nuances of British control up through the American Revolution in Jews in Colonial New York – Part 2.

Ships approach the fortress at the tip of New York City. A Union Jack flies above the fort.
A view of Fort George with the city of New York. Source: John Carwitham, 1731.

Footnotes:

  1. Civil Status of the Jews in Colonial New York

Sources:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


Join Hallie’s newsletter and read
Rescuing Her Rebel for free

3 Comments

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.