Fact Sheet on 1654
The Beginning of Jewish Communal Life in North America
In September 1654, a small group of Jewish passengers "23 souls, big as well as little" on the ship St. Cathrien (some historians refer to the ship as the St. Charles) arrived in New Amsterdam (later New York City).
Were they really the first?
A few Jewish traders had already passed through certain North American coastal settlements. In fact, a few Jewish men were already present in New Amsterdam in September 1654. But we date the presence of a communal Jewish presence in North America to the arrival of the St. Cathrien. In part, this is because the presence of women and children indicated that this was a group seeking not merely profit, but a home.
How do we know about them?
The only specific information we have about the twenty-three individuals comprising this group comes from records of legal conflict. Shortly after their arrival, the captain of the St. Cathrien sued all the Jewish passengers for 2500 florins to cover their passage and food. A few weeks later, Rycke Nounes, one of the Jewish women in the group, sued a fellow male passenger for debts incurred before the journey.
Who were they?
The court records yield the names of six of the passengers (4 men and 2 women). From this information, historians have postulated various family configurations in order to come up with the number of men, women, and children present. Possible combinations have included six women, four men, and thirteen children or six men, seven women, and ten children. All such numbers are purely speculative.
Where did they come from?
Most of the Jews who arrived on the St. Cathrien probably started out in the settlement of Recife in Northeastern Brazil where they had lived under relatively tolerant Dutch rule. When the Portuguese recaptured Northern Brazil from the Dutch in early 1654, Recife's 600 Jews all departed fearing the imposition of the Spanish/Portuguese Inquisition in the New World. Most of those who left found their way to Dutch-ruled territories in the West Indies or to Amsterdam itself, seeking the relative tolerance of religious diversity allowed by the Dutch authorities.
Were they welcome in New Amsterdam?
Those who came to New Amsterdam also came to a Dutch territory, but they faced a hostile reception from the territory's governor. Peter Stuyvesant immediately wrote to the directors of the Dutch West India company which ran the colony to ask that the company's directors allow him to "require [the Jews] in a friendly way to depart." He described Jews as "deceitful," "very repugnant," and as "hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ." Moreover, he warned that once the Jews were given "liberty" then "we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists." Stuyvesant presciently understood that a land willing to afford opportunity and equality to Jews could hardly avoid becoming a home to religious and political pluralism. The directors of the Dutch West India Company, moved by their economic need for more settlers in the New World territories and under pressure from the company's Jewish shareholders, rejected Stuyvesant's request. They informed him that Jews should be permitted to travel, trade, and live in New Netherland "provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation."
Did they find a home?
By 1655, the Jews of New Amsterdam, supplemented by additional arrivals, had acquired a separate Jewish burial ground and a Torah scroll lent by the Amsterdam synagogue. Despite these accoutrements of community, few of the original settlers remained long in the settlement. Many members of the group departed in anticipation of the introduction of British rule in 1664. Their Torah scroll was returned to Amsterdam in 1663. We know of only one Jew present in New Amsterdam in 1654 who actually remained to create a life and family. Asser Levy, who had maintained Jewish observance and demanded full civil status from both the Dutch and British authorities, died in New York City in 1682. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, we know little about his wife.