Among the voluminous records found in the Gemeente Archief (Municipal Archive) in Amsterdam are notarial archives, many of which relate to the New Amsterdam Jewish experience 350 years ago. Here can be found legal and business papers, as well as ones that contain such vital statistics as marriages, births, and deaths. While these records make the past more understandable and help to answer many questions, paradoxically they also raise new issues in their wake.
Letters, diaries, journals, and the like are largely absent for the earliest period of American Jewish history, the mid-seventeenth century. Merchants and entrepreneurs seem to have had little interest in commenting on their lives so that future generations could readily comprehend their motives and desires. The absence of such "windows" makes the Gemeente Archief notarial materials all the more important. They are a major link with what was. Published here are several documents selected from the Archief that pertain to Asser Levy, the first permanent Jewish inhabitant of New Amsterdam. Like Levy, a number of Jews arrived at that frontier settlement in 1654, but he is the only one to have remained, dying in 1682 in English New York. There are no other known prior deaths of Jews in the city. His career as merchant, land speculator, and butcher provided a cornerstone for a future Jewish presence.
A better and fuller understanding of the Jews of New Amsterdam, as these documents clearly demonstrate, necessitate research not only in Dutch archives but also those that exist in other European countries. For example, Levy surely was born in or came from Vilna, then in seventeenth-century Poland, but by the middle of the seventeenth century, probably as a result of Cossack pogroms, he went to Schwelm, a town near Dusseldorf in the Ruhr valley, then to Amsterdam, and finally, in 1654, to New Amsterdam. In 1660, he returned to Germany on business and then returned to New Amsterdam. The questions are obvious. Why the visit to and from the Ruhr? What was he doing there? A contemporary, Joseph d' Acosta, frequently went to Hamburg. Why? What records exist in German archives that could shed some light on these activities? What was Levy doing in Amsterdam? Why did he choose to live his life in New Amsterdam? While the questions abound, to date there exist few answers. To understand this early history better, what is obviously needed is a comprehensive, careful study of various relevant European archives.
Dutch notarial archives are a treasure trove of information that have not often been used heretofore to study early American Jewish history. One hopes that the documents presented here will add illumination to the little-understood earliest days of the Jewish people in North America.
Translations are by Benno Scharff of Amsterdam.
Notarial Archive 2443/479-80
This document is seemingly a simple agreement concluded on January 27, 1659, for Cornelis Janss Plavier and his wife Geertje Andriesz. The couple, about to leave for New Amsterdam on the Trouw, borrowed 1625 guilders, insurance included, from Amsterdam merchant Abraham Cohen Henriquez. The loan was to be repaid with the sale of beaver shipped in the autumn to Amsterdam. Merchandise and bills of lading for the beaver were to be kept by Asser Levy, or in his absence by Joseph d' Acosta, until proper security could be given by the couple for the shipment for which they were obligated.
The couple left Amsterdam shortly after and were in New Amsterdam by April 1659. On April 29, 1659, Asser Levy as attorney in fact for Abraham Cohen, "Jew at Amsterdam," appeared in the Court of Burgomasters and Schepens (Municipal Court) of New Amsterdam to demand from Plavier the money he had received from Cohen. Plavier admitted the loan. Levy refused to accept a 460 guilder payment, and demanded imprisonment or public sale of Plavier's goods. The Court ordered the defendant to pay any balance due on the loan. (1) It would appear that on April 30, 1659, Plavier mortgaged his house on Heere Street (later Broadway) at the city wall (Wall Street). History, as of now, is silent as to the final disposition of this settlement. Did Abraham Cohen receive his furs? Was the mortgage satisfied? Probably the answer is that all parties were satisfied; at least nothing is mentioned in further documents.
Abraham Cohen [Henriquez], alias Fancisco Vaz de Leon, one of the chief shareholders in the Dutch West Indian Company, was noted for his generosity to Christians and Jews during their stay in Brazil. His father may have been Jacob Cohen Henriquez, who was a purveyor to Prince Mauritz, Governor General of that Dutch colony. In December 1655, he was in New Amsterdam, but stayed only a short while. (2)
Joseph d' Acosta, who had an active career as merchant, like Abraham Cohen had been in Brazil. While in Amsterdam in 1655, he helped form a trading company and arrived in New Netherland by late 1655, where he stayed for only a short time. (3)
Cornelis Playlet was or became a baker in New Amsterdam, and was first mentioned as such in 1666. In the following year, he was fined and warned not to bake bread in the future, inasmuch as he had marketed bread "not fit to eat, and therefore will bring a great blame upon this place by other neighbors at Barbados and elsewhere." Plavier seemingly mended his ways, and over the next years continued in the trade. In 1676, he was appointed deputy reviewer (inspector) of flour, and in 1689 was elected alderman of the North Ward. (4)
January 27, 1659
This day, the xxvii January 1659, appeared before me, Jan Molengraeff, notary: Cornelis Janss Plavier and Geertje Andries van Coesvelt, man and wife, presently about to depart and sail for New Amsterdam in New...