Jewish New York: The Early Years

Challenges and triumphs since 23 Jews landed in New Amsterdam in 1654.

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Reprinted with permission from Sephardim in the Americas: Studies in Culture and History (The University of Alabama Press). 

As is well known, the first Jewish settlement in what became the United States was in Dutch New Amsterdam. The generally accepted history is that in late August or early September of 1654, a French ship--called variously the St. Catherine or St. Charles--captained by Jacques de la Motthe, arrived in the harbor of New Amsterdam with a number of Dutch refugees, including 23 Jewish men, women, and children, presumably from Recife. The surviving docu­mentary references have given rise to a number of theories regarding the route and circumstances that brought these pioneers to Peter Stuyvesant's small village.

At least two Jews met the boat: Solomon Pieters or Petersen, who appears briefly in the Dutch records as advocate for the Jews in their first dealings with Stuyvesant; and Jacob Barsimson, an Ashkenazi trader who had just arrived in the colony. Captain de la Motthe sued his Jewish passengers for the promised fare, and when they were unable to meet his demands, two heads of family were imprisoned as hostages until funds to pay the debt could be obtained from relatives in Amsterdam.

Initial Hostility

Stuyvesant, who objected to any settlers who were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church, attempted to evict the Jews, but Jewish stockholders in Amsterdam prevailed on the Dutch West India Company to order the narrow-minded governor to let them remain. Possi­bly at the instigation of the Amsterdam Jewish community, six heads of Sephardic families, led by Abraham de Lucena, went to New Am­sterdam as settlers in March 1655 to investigate its business potential. They brought a Torah scroll with them, an indication that a private synagogue was created.

Stuyvesant, determined to drive the Jewish settlers out of New Amsterdam, made efforts to restrict their trade, prohibited their owning property, and taxed them to pay for the town watch. When Barsimson and Asser Levy the community butcher--both Ashkenazim--protested that they had "burgher" (i.e., citizenship) rights from Am­sterdam and should be allowed to take their turn as guards on the town wall, Amsterdam ruled in their favor. In 1655, the Jews applied for a plot of land for a cemetery, but the governor denied the request, pointing out that no one had yet died. The following year the death of one of the Jews compelled him to designate "a little hook of land" beyond the town wall. This site has long since disappeared.

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Abraham J. Peck

Abraham J. Peck teaches in the Department of History, University of Southern Maine.