Native Americans & Jews: The Lost Tribes Episode

An all-too forgotten historical debate

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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 accredit or discredit it? What did these theories signify about American Jewish agendas and anxieties?Native American Leader

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."

Religious Connotations

Some of these writers were interested in Native American history, but most of them were just interested in the Bible. Indeed, the Lost Tribe claim should be seen as part of a general 19th-century fascination with biblical history. Explorations of Holy Land flora and fauna, the geography of the Holy Land, the life of Jesus-the-man, were very much en vogue. A close identification among some 17th and 18th century Americans with the chosen people of Scripture helped Christian settlers see their colonization of New England as a reenactment of Israel's journey into the Promised Land.

It also contributed to a more general religious mythmaking scheme that helped define the national identity of the United States. To cite just one example, in a 1799 Thanksgiving Day sermon, Abiel Tabbot told his congregation in Massachusetts: "It has often been remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe.  Hence, 'OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL,' is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper."  

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David Koffman

David Koffman is a doctoral student in New York University's Departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. David has produced several documentaries for film and television and is a member of the Jews/Media/Religion working group at the Center for Religion and Media.