In 1758, Barnard Gratz wrote a letter to his London-based cousin Solomon Henry to discuss his brother's prospects. Gratz had just learned that his younger brother Michael was en route from the East Indies, where he had been a clerk or a servant to a merchant, to London. He proposed that Michael join him in Philadelphia where he could "keep a shop here in the Country," Gratz wrote, "or else [live] here at Mr David Franks's in my place where he would have as good a man for his Master as Possible ... & learn the business of this country by staying with him 2 or 3 years for wages in his store." (1) Barnard had arrived only four years earlier, at the age of seventeen. He had the good fortune to find employment as a clerk in Franks's counting house where he had learned vital skills. Now that Gratz was preparing to leave his employ, Franks and his London-based brother Moses, also a prominent and wealthy merchant, promised to invest in a joint venture with Barnard. The letter betrayed some of Gratz's concerns. "I should be glad to know [Michael's] reason for returning," he wrote. He worried that Michael's decision to abandon the East Indies suggested some sort of failure on his part, a lack of aptitude for the complex world of commerce perhaps. If that was the case, Michael could become a burden to Gratz. If Michael demonstrated "Honesty, Industry, Good nature & no pride," Barnard would assist him "with anything in my power ... as far as I am able & that is not a Great deal as I am Butt a poor f[e]llow my self." Admitting that his finances were still precarious posed a different problem for Barnard. His cousin Solomon Henry and at least one other London colleague had provided him with goods on credit, and he still owed them money. He did not want his cousin, who was also his business associate, to doubt his reliability or honesty, and he promised to remit payment soon. The letter sheds light on the circumstances that early Ashkenazim in the Atlantic world faced, their efforts to break into the vibrant yet risky commercial milieu, the networks they developed, and the complex dynamics that regulated them.
Over the past few decades, scholars have been investigating Jews' participation in the Atlantic world of trade and the ways in which their networks wove together families, commercial houses, colonies, and empires. The focus, however, has been on Sephardim. (2) While the early Ashkenazi presence in colonial America is well documented, scholarship looks at their arrival as the beginning of American Jewish history--the prelude to a much more substantial wave of Ashkenazi immigration in the nineteenth century. Studies highlight the ways they adapted to a new environment, established Jewish communities, and transformed their faith in the process. (3) But they do not place them in context of the Jewish Atlantic world. Ashkenazim began migrating to England and Holland toward the end of the seventeenth century and trickled into the American colonies. Like Sephardim, Ashkenazim created webs of connections that facilitated the flow of people, information, and trade goods. Only a few prominent eighteenth-century Ashkenazi merchants were able to break into maritime trade, but they, in concert with newly arriving Ashkenazim oriented themselves toward the hinterlands and continental trade.
During the early decades of the eighteenth century, a few Ashkenazi merchants flourished through the construction of kinship and ethnic networks that tied together multiple Atlantic world ports. A sense of obligation prompted them to give newcomers their first opportunities--family members, friends, and strangers who were drawn by news of others' success--and set them on the road to success. But the benefits were mutual: newcomers performed vital tasks in merchants' businesses and carried their merchandize into the hinterlands. This collaboration enabled established merchants to extend their enterprises beyond port cities and beyond the sphere of maritime trade networks and it enabled established families and newcomers to adapt to the changing commercial milieu orienting their enterprises within the continental arena. Philadelphia's emerging community exemplifies the process particularly well since it was primarily Ashkenazim who settled there, making Philadelphia and the surrounding region an important node for Jewish commerce. And David Franks, whom Gratz mentioned twice in his letter, was the primary catalyst.
David Franks's family was one of the earliest Ashkenazi families circulating in the Atlantic world. David Franks's father Jacob arrived in New York in the first decade of the eighteenth century, no doubt with the intention of furthering his family's extensive commercial interests. Jacob Franks's father Abraham Franks was one of two Ashkenazi so-called "Jew brokers" in London; his brothers, Aaron and Isaac, were prominent merchants in the diamond and coral trade in India; another brother, David, spent time in Surinam, presumably conducting trade. (4) When Jacob Franks first arrived in New York he served as clerk to merchant Moses Levy, another Ashkenazi who moved to New York in the 1690s. Moses Levy's origins are not well documented, but it is likely that he was related to Benjamin Levy, the only other Ashkenazi among the twelve licensed Jewish brokers in London. Benjamin Levy's second wife was Jacob Franks's sister. A likely connection, then, made Jacob Franks's clerkship possible, but Franks's performance as Levy's employee solidified their relationship. Once Franks had proved his competence, the two men collaborated in multiple commercial ventures. (5)
Like the prosperous Sephardi merchants in the Atlantic world, the Franks and Levy families used several strategies to promote and protect their interests. First, they reinforced their economic ties by marrying kin and the children of other close colleagues. Jacob Franks married Levy's daughter, Abigaill; one of Jacob Franks's sisters, also Abigail, married Benedictus Salomons, scion of a London Jewish mercantile family involved in the Madras diamond trade; and his brothers Aaron and Isaac married the daughters of eminent London merchant Moses Hart, their mother's brother and a cousin of Abigaill Levy Franks, who was a government agent under Queen Anne. In addition to cementing business ties, these marriages assured both parties that their spouses were Jews of a similar social status. (6) Second, networks opened up opportunities for sons to receive training under the guidance of their fathers' colleagues. Just as Moses Levy employed Jacob Franks, Franks's brothers in London oversaw his son Naphtali's training in the 1730s, while his nephews Coleman and Moses Salomons made their way to the colonies where Jacob Franks kept an eye on them. Once young men acquired the tools they needed to engage in business they graduated to serving colleagues as agents and factors in new locales. When they came of age, Moses Levy's and Jacob Franks's sons dispersed to London, Jamaica, and Philadelphia.
Over the course of several decades, the Levy/Franks/Salomons collective enterprises included ports of call in Barbados, Jamaica, Rhode Island, Madeira, St. Thomas, Bermuda, South Carolina, Lisbon, Surinam, Newfoundland, Nevis, Amsterdam, and Madras. Their ventures included government contracts, and importing and exporting all manner of goods. (7) To optimize their prospects for the entire group, family members living in different ports collaborated in multiple ventures. They could oversee one another's interests and jointly optimize profits. For example, Naphtali Franks and a cousin Simson Levy were awarded a government contract to supply food to the British naval forces stationed there. In 1741, they chartered a ship, which sailed from London to New York, where Naphtali's factors there---his father and brother Moses--loaded it for its trip to Jamaica. (8)
Networks promoted cooperation, but they also provided some peace of mind when uncertain and fluctuating shipping and insurance prices, scarce capital, unstable foreign exchange markets, and overseas and local demand made commerce risky at a time when there were few legal and commercial safeguards and communication were slow. Networks enabled merchants to more easily gauge associates' economic buoyancy as well as their dependability and honesty. Merchants particularly needed to monitor colleagues' economic behavior and their credit and to become informed about suspicious or untrustworthy behavior, which was a constant concern, even with kin. Overlapping commercial and social relationships opened up multiple channels of communication, permitting members to monitor one another more effectively. (9)
David Franks moved to Philadelphia at the encouragement of family members who sought to expand their commercial reach. (10) Philadelphia was quickly becoming the largest port in America. A steady flow of immigrants populated the abundant and fertile hinterlands in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. Lancaster, a town situated seventy miles to the west of Philadelphia, connected the Atlantic littoral and the hinterlands. It was a burgeoning marketplace for the region's agricultural produce and for goods that merchants brought from Philadelphia and it was also a hub for Pennsylvania's trade in deerskins--an item in high demand in Europe. (11) Together with his uncle Nathan Levy who had settled in Philadelphia 1736, Franks took advantage of every lucrative sector. The two men imported manufactured goods and exported furs and deerskins, partnered in shipping ventures and army contracting, and invested in properties. (12) Levy (until he died in 1753) and Franks expanded their families' reach and, at the same time, gave a generation of Ashkenazi immigrants access to the world of trade.
The Gratzes and their cousins the Henrys were recipients of the Franks's benevolence, and they exemplify the experience of many Jews who migrated to the colonies...