Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Jewish settlement of Newport in 1658: Fact or Fiction?

And you thought this blog was about Mary and William Dyer, and Puritans and Quakers! So it is. But it’s also about their culture, politics, religion, natural history, neighbors, influences, and everything around them.
Many Portuguese Jewish refugees fleeing the Inquisition went first to the Netherlands or Brazil, then to New Amsterdam (now called New York), where they had a measure of religious freedom under the Dutch Reformed Church; and others went (via Brazil and Barbados) to Newport, Rhode Island, because of the Rhode Island charters granting religious freedom--and for Newport's commercial trading opportunities (sugar, rum, African slaves). If the Jewish refugees and traders came to Newport in 1658, it’s very likely that they crossed paths or did business with William Dyer, who died about 1677.

The Jewish settlement of Newport in 1658: Fact or Fiction?

Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, finished in 1763.

 ©2012 by Patricia O’Sullivan (used by permission)

When fellow author and antiquarian, Christy K. Robinson, asked me to write a guest blog about the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, in the 17th century, I imagined writing the first draft in an hour. However, I got stuck immediately because I couldn’t pin down a primary source document for the establishment of the Newport Jewish community in 1658. It turns out this settlement date hinges on a mysterious letter found in an attic trunk in the 19th century.

A more detailed series on the controversy surrounding this date will appear in my blog, in the coming weeks. What follows is a summary of my research on the 1658 Jewish settlement date.

The Jewish settlement of Newport in 1658 is often stated as common knowledge by trusted institutions and historians. However, the 1658 settlement was not common knowledge until the twenty-first century. In fact, up until 1853, no one wrote about a Jewish settlement in Newport almost two hundred years earlier. Not even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who published a poem about the Jews of Newport on the two-hundredth anniversary of the 1658 settlement date mentioned it. Up until 1853, Jewish settlement in Newport was difficult to pin down. There are records from the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1684 and 1688 recording the presence of Jews in the colony. But there was not an actual Jewish community until the mid-eighteenth century when the Jews of Newport built a synagogue.

So what happened in 1853 that pushed the ‘common knowledge’ settlement date back one hundred years?

It began with a death, that of Hannah Hull of Connecticut in 1839. As her nephew and executor, Isaac Gould, sifted through her effects, he found an old, coverless trunk in her attic. Isaac’s son, Nathan Gould, claimed years later his father found in that trunk a letter concerning the Freemasons of Newport. According to Nathan Gould, the letter, compromised by time and weather, read:
“Ths ye (day and month obliterated) 1656 or 8 (not certain which, as the place was stained and broken: the three first figures were plain) Wee mett att y House of Mordecai Campunnall and affter Synagog Wee gave Abm Moses the degrees of Masonrie.”
Memorial stone at entrance to Newport's Jewish cemetery.

In 1853, another Gould of Connecticut, James L. Gould, (whose relationship to Isaac and Nathan Gould is unclear) wrote a history of the Freemasons of Newport, citing the letter found in the trunk as evidence the masons were active in Newport in 1658.

Masonic leaders in Rhode Island and Massachusetts dismissed the letter as a fabrication after pressing the Goulds for further evidence of their claims. None of the Goulds could produce the original letter, claiming it had been misplaced.

However, a local historian, Edward Peters, cited the discredited letter in his History of Rhode Island published in 1853. Almost twenty years later, another historian, Charles P. Daly, cited Peterson’s History of Rhode Island when he claimed in “The Settlement of the Jews in North America” Jews came to Newport in 1658. In 1897 Max J. Kohler cited both Peterson and James Gould when he presented the 1658 settlement date as fact in his book, The Jews of Newport.

In the next one hundred years various historians accepted the 1658 settlement date, disputed it, or ignored it as not worthy of a scholarly discussion. Accounts of the 1658 settlement vacillated widely between fabrication, fact, and unsubstantiated tradition. However, most histories of the Jews in North America and of Newport published since 2000 present the 1658 settlement date as a longstanding fact. It has now become tradition to date the settlement of the Jews in Newport at 1658.

It is disturbing how discredited historical evidence has been repeated enough times to be valued as a tradition. It suggests that some historians are either sloppy in their research or so eager to write history in a particular way they are willing to overlook shoddy evidence.

The Newport Jewish community was enormously important in the history of the United States. Men like Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rodrigues Riviera spent their fortunes aiding the Patriot cause while Isaac Touro steadfastly supported Britain and thus saved Newport’s synagogue for posterity. And Moses Seixas’s correspondence with George Washington has been enshrined in our national consciousness as one of the strongest statements of religious freedom made by our Founding Fathers. (For more information, click the highlighted links.)

However, Newport’s Jewish community did not achieve this greatness until the middle of the eighteenth century. And following the British occupation of Newport from 1776-1779, the Newport Jewish community never recovered its former numbers. By 1812 it was a memory, not a congregation. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”, there were but a handful of living Jews in that city. The Newport Jewish community of lore comprised of a single generation. What they achieved is not diminished by their short tenure. Indeed, the fact they accomplished so much in a 35-40 year period is all the more impressive.

Facts matter. We cannot make something true by wishing it so. In addition, we need to ask ourselves: Why do we want something to be so? Does the date of Jewish settlement in Newport, be it 1658 or 1748, matter when we consider the importance of Jews in the history of this nation?

The promise of America is that it is a country for everyone no matter when they arrived or what their religion is. If that is not the reality, the problem is not when a people settled here but a disconnect between what America promises and what she is. 

 Patricia O’Sullivan is author of Hope of Israel,* a novel about the readmission of the Jews to England, and an instructor of Religion and Ethics at the University of Mississippi.

Thank you, Patti, for sharing your research, and enlarging our knowledge of what life was like in the 17th century—and how the same issues are relevant today. I’m currently reading and enjoying Hope of Israel, and look forward to the release of your next book, Legend of the Dead. (I heard its subject is connected to the Newport Jewish community!)

*Hope of Israel synopsis: In 1656, a small community of Spanish Catholic merchants lived in London bound by a sacred secret: they were Portuguese Jews. This is the story of one of them, Domingo de Lacerda, who learns early on that survival in seventeenth-century Europe requires both deceit and conformity. But then he meets Lucy, who has secrets of her own and who challenges Domingo to question everything he has been taught to value. The political and spiritual conflicts that characterized the Iberian Inquisition, the English Civil War, and the English Interregnum provide a backdrop against which Domingo must choose between his obligation to the Jewish community that protects him and the Catholic woman who loves him.


  1. Thank you for this post, Patti and Christy! Whether the 1658 date is good or not, they were certainly a part of Rhode Island in the 17th century, when they would not have been welcome elsewhere in New England. America did not promise freedom of religion at that time, but at least she learns from her mistakes.

  2. From the Facebook page for Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island. They responded to the above article link via FB message inbox:

    From our history: In 1658, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. These fifteen families came from Barbados, where a Jewish community had existed since the 1620s. They were of Spanish and Portuguese origin; their families had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, CuraƧao and Jamaica. Upon their arrival they formalized a new congregation in Newport (the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States) calling themselves 'Yeshuat Israel'. By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.

  3. Keep reading at for more information about the 1658 date. There is a tradition of a 1658 settlement date, but there is no evidence to support it. Also, this "tradition" was no tradition until quite recently. The synagogue and the Loeb Center are perhaps relying on the scholarship of historians who did not do a good job checking their sources or overlooked dubious sources in order to set the date at 1658.

  4. Patricia, I find a similar situation with tradition and legend surrounding Mary and William Dyer. And people who have based their own work or genealogical data on the legends or faulty research by historians of 100+ years ago are LOATHE to give up those cherished ideas. I respect your attention to detail, your questions, and your open mind.

  5. I find this entire subject very fascinating. I've been putting together a family tree, and found out that my portuguese ancestry has jewish roots! I am from southeastern massachusetts and am continuing my search in this direction. Thank you for your work on this subject.

  6. Though the 1658 date cannot be confirmed (and the Touro Synagogue website has been revised to reflect that uncertainty), references to Jewish businessmen in Newport, as well as the purchase of land for the Jewish cemetery, in the 1670s do document the presence of Jews well before the mid-1700s. It is the 1658 date, not the presence of Jews here in the 17th Century, that is not documented.


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