In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians dispersed the Kingdom of Israel, giving life and legend to the Lost Tribes. The repatriation of these lost tribes eventually became an integral part of the Jewish–and Christian–messianic dream, and there have been Lost Tribe speculations about numerous “discovered” populations. One the most fascinating — and unfortunately forgotten — such discussions centered on the Native Americans. How did American Jews respond to this? Why and how did Jews credit or discredit it? What did these theories signify about American Jewish agendas and anxieties?
A Theory is Born
One of the first books to suggest the Native American Lost Tribe theory was written by a Jew, the Dutch rabbi, scholar, and diplomat Manasseh ben Israel. In The Hope of Israel (1650), Ben Israel suggested that the discovery of the Native Americans, a surviving remnant of the Assyrian exile, was a sign heralding the messianic era. Just one year later, Thomas Thorowgood published his best seller Jewes in America, Or, Probabilities that those Indians are Judaical, made more probable by some Additionals to the former Conjectures. The Lost Tribe idea found favor among early American notables, including Cotton Mather (the influential English minister), Elias Boudinot (the New Jersey lawyer who was one of the leaders of the American Revolution), and the Quaker leader William Penn.
The notion was revived after James Adair, a 40-year veteran Indian trader and meticulous chronicler of the Israelitish features of Native American religion and social custom wrote The History of the American Indians…Containing an Account of their Origin, Language, Manners, Religion and Civil Customs in 1775. Even Epaphras Jones, an American Bible professor engaged the theory in 1831, claiming that anyone “conversant with the European Jews and the Aborigines of America… will perceive a great likeness in color, features, hair, aptness to cunning, dispositions for roving, &s.”