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.


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Bowry Lane

If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.

Native American dwellings on Manhattan Island, before the Dutch settlement.
Source: John Gilmary Shea, 1886.

The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”

Dutch Bouwerij

As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.

In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”

Map of New Amsterdam. Fort at the tip of Manhattan, the Broad Way extending straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerijs” along the East River, 1644.

Enslaved Africans

In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.

Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.

Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets
Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets, 1861. Source: NYPL

Manhattan Changes Hands

When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.

Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury. A plan of the city of New-York & its environs to Greenwich, on the North or Hudsons River, and to Crown Point, on the East or Sound River, shewing the several streets, publick buildings, docks, fort & battery, with the true form & course of the commanding grounds, with and without the town. Survey'd in the winter,i.e. 1766. [London; Sold by A. Dury, 1775]
Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury, 1766. Source: Library of Congress

In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.

The Oldest Home in Manhattan

While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.

The house is brick, painted dark red. There are Chinese characters below the third floor windows.
Edward Mooney House at 18 Bowery.
Source: Wikimedia

The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.

During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.

The architectural style of the house is Early Federal, reflecting strongly its Georgian antecedents in construction, proportions and design details. It is three stories in height, with s finished-garret beneath a gambrel roof, Two features of special note which verif,y the documented age of the building are the hand-hewn timbers framing the roof and the broad width of the front windows in proportion to their height. On the exterior, original splayed stone lintels with double keystone blocks are above most of the windows. At the gable end of the house, Which can be viewed from Pell Street, the garret floor is lighted by a central round-headed window. the upper sash of which contains original wooden tracery. It is flanked by a pair of quadrant windows. The gambrel roof on this side is Within a parapet wall connecting:two large chimneys. The interior of the house also discloses many original architectural details including, in the earliest section, window frames and trim, and in the extension, a stairway with an oval-shaped handrail.
From the Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 23, 1966

The Bowery

The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.

Image of the Bowery with people walking on the street, horse-drawn carts, and trolleys below an elevated train track in front of the Bowery Savings Bank.
The Bowery 1897-1898. Source: Wikimedia

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.


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