Three-and-a-quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston
The chosen people in the Holy City
Part I: The Beginnings
Jews are not newcomers to Charleston. The first settlement in the new colony of Carolina was in 1670 across the Ashley River from what is now Charleston. Within a decade, the settlement had been moved to the peninsula where Charles Town was established. Jews may well have been in Carolina from these very earliest years. Many of Carolina’s first settlers came from the West Indian island of Barbados, which had an established Jewish community by the mid-1650s; Jews there would have been aware of the new colony of Carolina. The island of Jamaica also had a Jewish community at this time. Indeed, one of Charleston’s very first Jews had lived in Jamaica before arriving in Charleston.
What brought Jews to Charleston in this early period? Several things should be mentioned. In 1492, two centuries before Jews first appear in the records of Carolina, Spain expelled its Jews. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave the Jews in their kingdom a choice: Convert to the Catholic faith or leave. Many Jews reluctantly converted and many others fled to lands that would accept them. A large number of Jewish refugees went to the neighboring kingdom of Portugal, but in late 1496 Portugal also issued an edict expelling its Jews. However, the Portuguese king decided that he didn't want to lose his Jewish subjects and they were forcibly converted as the deadline for leaving approached.
These voluntary and forced conversions created a large group in Spain and Portugal called “New Christians.” As newly minted Catholics, most doors were now open and many rose to positions of wealth and importance. However, the New Christians were often distrusted and loathed. Their commitment to their new faith was doubted and the Inquisition relentlessly pursued New Christians when it suspected them of secretly practicing Judaism. Those suspected could face prison, torture and sometimes being burned alive.
It’s not surprising that many New Christians fled Portugal and Spain if they could and settled in places where they could live in peace. Holland and England were popular choices for these refugees and many went to islands in the Caribbean ruled by the Dutch or English. Once they had escaped Spain and Portugal, many of these exiles embraced Judaism once more. The Jews from Spain and Portugal are known as Sephardic Jews. The term Sephardic is derived from the Hebrew word “Sefarad,” which was identified with Spain. The Jews hailing from the rest of Europe, on the other hand, are referred to as Ashkenazic Jews. That term comes from the Hebrew word “Ashkenaz,” which was identified with Germany. Most, but not all, of the earliest Jews in the New World, including Charleston, were Sephardic in origin, as we will see.
In addition to the close links between Charleston and the islands of the Caribbean, where Jews fleeing the Inquisition had settled, another factor likely encouraged Jews to come to the new colony. The philosopher and physician John Locke, who, it is generally agreed, drew up the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, included a provision of remarkable tolerance for that time concerning religious liberty. This document, which appeared in 1669, specifically provided that Jews and other non-Christians would have freedom of religion. Furthermore, the use of hostile or negative language directed toward any religion was prohibited. A provision like this was truly exceptional 350 years ago. Only one religion was not welcome in Carolina at this time: Roman Catholics. Jews were welcome, or at least not discouraged from settling in Carolina, while professing Catholics were not.
Though it is plausible that Jews were here from the earliest years of the colony, their presence is clearly documented in the 1690s. Governor John Archdale wrote an interesting account of an event that took place shortly after he became the governor in the summer of 1695. Archdale wrote that the Yemassee Indians, who lived about 80 miles from Charles Town, had captured several Indians while on a hunting expedition in Florida (a Spanish colony at that time). The Yemassee had planned to sell these Indians into slavery, a common practice at that time.
Governor Archdale asked that these Indians be brought to Charles Town. The Yemassees complied and the governor discovered that the Indians from Florida spoke Spanish. The governor was able to converse with them, he explained in his account of this incident, because he “had a Jew for an Interpreter.” The Jewish interpreter discovered that these Indians were Roman Catholics. Since they were Christians, Governor Archdale decided to send them back to Florida, bearing a letter to the Spanish governor, instead of selling these Indians into slavery.
This is the first mention of a Jew in what is now Charleston. Unfortunately, we don’t have the name of this man. Since he knew Spanish, he was likely of Sephardic background, although it is possible that his origins were Ashkenazic and that he had spent enough time in the Caribbean or Europe with his Sephardic brethren to acquire knowledge of Spanish. At least one of the Jews living here in the 1690’s was Ashkenazic, as we will see. Archdale’s story is interesting on several levels. It suggests that this unnamed Jew had been in the colony long enough to be known and that his knowledge of Spanish was recognized. It also suggests that his services were valued and that his religion was not an issue.
The names of three Jews appear in the records less than two years later. In March 1697, 64 men, mainly Huguenots, applied for citizenship. Four Jews were among these applicants and the names of three of these Jews have survived. The name of the fourth man cannot be deciphered, unfortunately. The names of the three men that we do know are Simon Valentine, Jacob Mendis and Abraham Avila. All three men are described as merchants. Simon Valentine is of particular interest. His name appears in the records more frequently than anyone else of these earliest Jewish settlers in Charles Town. We know that he lived in New York in the 1680s and that he was the nephew of Asser Levy, who was a leading figure among the first group of Jews to settle in North America — in what was then New Amsterdam in 1654.
Valentine had also lived in Jamaica before coming to Charles Town. He was of Ashkenazic background at a time when most of the first Jews in North American were Sephardic. His full name was Simon Valentine van der Wilden. In 17th century Dutch, “der Wilden” was the name for Vilna, in Lithuania. Many Ashkenazic Jews had fled upheaval and anti-Jewish attacks in Eastern Europe and had come to Amsterdam in the 17th century. The surnames of Jacob Mendis and Abraham Avila are clearly Sephardic, on the other hand.
The records show that Valentine acquired citizenship in the colony in May 1697 and Abraham Avila followed in August 1698. In that same year, in 1698, Avila gave a power of attorney to Valentine, citing the “trust and confidence that I repose in Mr. Simon Valentine.” The only other Jew whose name we have as living in Carolina in the 17th century, Samuel Mincks, also had dealings with Valentine. In 1696, Valentine sold a slave to Mincks. The colony’s early records list Mincks as a planter, while the other three Jews living in Charleston, Valentine, Avila and Mendis are referred to a merchants. Simon Valentine seems to have had a high profile in the colony. In the first years of the 1700s, the dissenters were locked in a struggle with the adherents of the Church of England and their Huguenot allies.
A spokesman for the dissenters charged that “Simon Valentine, the Jew,” was involved in a deal with the governor whose appropriateness was suspect. The person making this accusation admitted that he had no proof, however. In 1701, Jacob Mears of Jamaica appointed William Smith, a merchant in Carolina, his attorney to collect sums that Mears claimed were owed him by Simon Valentine. At some point Valentine had acquired a farm of 350 acres jointly with another Jew, Mordecai Nathan. In November 1715 Nathan mortgaged this property and the deed states that Nathan had survived Valentine at that point. Several Jews appear in the colony in the first decade of the 1700s and Nathan is one of them. He had previously lived in New York, like Valentine and still had some presence in New York as late as 1711.
As the 18th century began the number of Jews in the colony gradually increased, although their numbers remained small. It was not until 1749 that Charles Town’s Jews deemed themselves numerous enough to organize formally as a synagogue.
In the next article in this series, we will discuss the growth of the number of Jews in Charleston, the activities in which they engaged and the early Jewish exercise of voting rights in the colony.
Jeffrey Kaplan is a retired attorney who worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to Charleston. He has served as the archivist of Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (founded in 1740), and is the historian of BSBI Congregation here in Charleston, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue. He teaches and lectures regularly, and is also a storyteller. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.