This essay introduces a hitherto neglected economic niche in the southern colonies of the Britain's North American empire--the fur trade--that a small but important group of Jews entered. Since Jewish trade with native nations has been explored in the northern colonies, that literature will be summarized and used for comparison with the experience in the South to discern crucial patterns. Yet the few works available on the trade nexus in the North are descriptive narratives. Thus this study represents the first analytic synthesis concerning the subject in its broadest framework in British colonial America. This is also one of the few economic studies to cover the Jewish experience in the British colonial North and South. The patterns developed here illuminate interaction with a variety of groups, explore religious and ethnic identity, discern variations between the northern and southern experiences, and reveal the complex webs of family, business, and government interests.
Contrasting the northern and southern activities illuminates several differences as well as substantial similarities. Jews in the North emerged as a dominant force in the trade, whereas in the South they played a smaller role. In at least one center in the North--Lancaster, Pennsylvania--Jews were sufficient in number and far enough away from the port city communities to establish durable Jewish institutions. In the South where fewer Jews were involved, the trade occurred in close enough proximity to Charleston and Savannah to preclude the need for community institutions outside these centers. Yet the development of Lancaster's Jewish community was also an aberration in the North since similar enclaves did not emerge in Albany, Fort Pitt, or other northern trade centers. Furthermore, in case studies of Moses Nunes and Abram Mordecai presented here, Jews in the southern colonies developed long-term relationships and families across racial lines. Such relationships have not yet been uncovered among Jews trading in the North although they did occur later in the West.
In both sections the trade fostered a diverse economic and political nexus. Jews in the fur trade also sought economic advancement as translators/interpreters, government agents, office holders and military suppliers, landowners and speculators, and provision merchants of goods granted as gifts to native nations, manufacturers or importers of goods for the exchange with furs, commercial actors with firms in Europe, business partners and general store owners for which furs were but one of numerous commodities, creditors, and investors. In conjunction with the trade, Jews became enmeshed in diplomacy, war, government policy, and legal disputes. The trade, then, served as just one aspect of a variety of interrelated and sometimes interdependent activities.
Only a small number of Jews in British colonial America participated in the fur trade. Thus, it can be depicted as an atypical commercial endeavor. (1) Nonetheless, many of those who participated, regardless of region, were important business people and Jewish community leaders. Furthermore, the multifaceted pursuits of Jews in British colonial America associated with the fur trade as individuals and partners offers a complex, integrated, and sophisticated business model applicable for other Jewish enterprises during the colonial era and beyond. (2) Jews involved in import and export sales acted as agent-brokers, gambled on shipping, developed land, and speculated in real estate.
The traders' activities placed them along borderlands with nebulous geographic, colonial, national, religious, and ethnic boundaries. (3) Jews utilized their trans-colonial and transatlantic ties with family and other Jews, but also interacted with native people and Europeans from different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Sephardic, and Central and East European Jews participated in the trade although Sephardim tended to have greater involvement in the South. Overlap took place with northern Ashkenazi firms expanding their activities into the South and working with Sephardim in the region. In North and South some Sephardim and Ashkenazim managed to retain religious tradition while others traveled more swiftly on the road toward acculturation and even assimilation. The social and economic status of Jews rose and fell with the vicissitudes of the trade, war, and diplomacy. Jews found success in the trade but also failure. Still, overall the trade nexus on these borderlands opened doors to secular society and civic engagement and, thus, a pathway to modernity.
Jews and the Fur Trade in the North
For much of the colonial period, animal skins and pelts were the major commodity Europeans obtained from the native population for export from New Amsterdam/New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Canada. (4) For most Jews the fur trade served as one aspect of broader transatlantic commerce that included work as importers, exporters, and agents for others involved in trade in a variety of goods. Initially excluded from this trade, important and influential Sephardim and Ashkenazim in colonial Dutch and British America fought for the right to enter it. For them, the trade served as an integral part of a variety of commercial enterprises. As was typical in several other enterprises, many Jewish fur traders maintained commercial ties with Jewish firms in Europe.
Among the first Jews known to be involved in the fur trade, Asser Levy van Swellem was arguably the most important Jew in colonial New Amsterdam/New York. Born in Vilna, Polish Lithuania, and after briefly living in Amsterdam, he served as an agent of the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam welcoming the twenty-three Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. He worked tirelessly with other Jews who fought Governor Peter Stuyvesant for basic rights and freedoms. In 1655, shortly after their arrival, Stuyvesant banned Jews from conducting trade along the South River (Delaware) and at Fort Orange. Consequently, Sephardim Abraham de Lucena, Salvador D'Andrada, Jacob Cohen Henriques, and David Ferera unsuccessfully petitioned for the right. Regardless of the prohibition, Levy spent time in the trade at Fort Orange around 1656. He also wrote to Jews in Holland soliciting their assistance in lobbying the directors of the Dutch West India Company who thereupon overrode the governor's edict. Levy, a kosher butcher, also found success in international trade, money lending, and real estate including obtaining a mortgage for property near Fort Orange in 1660 and a house and lot in Beverwyck the following year. (5)
Other Jews in New Amsterdam besides Levy bartered European goods with Native Americans for furs. These included Italian-born David Ferera, one of the unsuccessful petitioners. Arriving in New Amsterdam around 1655, Ferera served as agent for Moses Da Silva of Amsterdam. Da Silva provided Dutch trading goods that Ferera exchanged for beaver pelts, elk hides, and other commodities. After conflict with the authorities, Ferera moved to Maryland where he continued to serve Da Silva and extended trade to Virginia by 1658. In and out of lawsuits, the wandering Ferera departed Maryland after England passed the Navigation Act of 1660 that limited foreign trade to English citizens and free denizens. (6) The four Sephardi petitioners departed New York by about 1660, although Levy remained until his death in 1682.
Furs continued to play a major part in the diverse, transatlantic commerce of New York Jewry as the community rebuilt and flourished under British rule. In 1705 alone, Joseph Bueno de Mesquita sent 1,064 pounds of elk hides and eighty-six fox skins to London. Also of Sephardic stock, New York-born Daniel Gomez rose as another highly successful transatlantic merchant. Among his numerous landholdings with his father Luis was a twenty-two hundred acre parcel in Newburgh, New York, where he constructed a trading post that became known as "the Jew's house." From there he traded especially with the Algonquin nation for furs. Although living in relative isolation for periods of time along the upper Hudson, the center of his life remained New York City where he served as parnas for Shearith Israel eight times. (7)
Historians have recorded the deep involvement of the Franks family in the fur trade in Lancaster and the backcountry of Pennsylvania as well as the same activities conducted by other Jewish merchants based in New York and Philadelphia. (8) These case studies highlight how traders became enmeshed in and impacted by wars, military affairs, and colonial politics. The Franks family, along with several other Jewish firms, provisioned the British army in Pennsylvania and further west. This facilitated trade with native nations and also involved politics and policies. Jewish provision merchants prospered during the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years' War in Europe, [1756-1763]) within the colonies. With victory, Great Britain gained control of French Canada and, with it, the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the fur trade. London now rose as a fur center alongside and then ahead of Amsterdam and Paris. Nonetheless, before and during the war, the fur trade was disrupted, and several British American firms including those of David Franks and Joseph Simon suffered substantial losses.
London-born Jacob Franks, scion of an affluent family, moved to New York during the first decade of the eighteenth century where he pursued a highly successful career in imports and exports including furs. Somewhat typical of Jews of his time and place, he diversified acting as the royal fiscal agent for the North, naval contractor, and metal products dealer. His complex, integrated business proved to be multigenerational and linked by family connections. Jacob's son David Franks partnered with his uncle Nathan Levy from the early 1740s until Levy's death...