This Day in Jewish History

1624: The First Jew to Settle in North America Buys Some Real Estate

Elias Legardo, whose surname has evolved into monikers like Elligood and Alligood, may have been the first Jew to settle in North America.

U.S. Navy Seaman Matthew Bookwalter / Wikimedia Commons

On February 16, 1624, the name of Elias Legardo, a European-born immigrant to Virginia, turned up in a register of settlers in the North American colony. According to some historians, this made Legardo, who had arrived three years earlier on a ship called the Abigail, the first Jew to settle in North America.

Legardo was not the first Jew to step foot on the continent. Records show that Joachim Gans holds that distinction; he sailed to America as part of a scientific expedition organized by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584.

But Gans, an expert in metallurgy, returned to Europe with Sir Francis Drake two years later. Legardo, on the other hand, remained in Virginia, where he married, had a family and died.

Not much is known about Legardo’s life before his arrival in the New World. Leon Huhner, curator of the American Jewish Historical Society and a prolific chronicler of Jewish history, postulated that the name Legardo was Sephardi Jewish.

Writing in a 1917 publication of the society, Huhner posited that Elias Legardo descended from Portuguese Jews who had left the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition and found a new home in France. According to Huhner, Legardo was born in about 1593, in the southern French region of Languedoc.

Europeans began settling Virginia in 1607 with the arrival of the first colonists at Jamestown. They came under the auspices of the Virginia Company of England, a joint-stock company given a charter by King James I to set up colonies in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.

Elias Legardo’s name appears on the manifest of the Abigail, which arrived in Virginia in 1621. Legardo, a winegrower, is listed as being part of a group traveling with one Anthonie Bonall, also a Languedoc winemaker and a silkgrower, who was sent by John Bonall (most likely a relation), the keeper of King James’ silkworms. The Abigail is believed to have delivered its 19 new-immigrant colonists to Virginia in November 1621.

A little over two years later, on February 16, 1624, we meet up again with Legardo. His name appears as a resident of Buckroe in the “muster area” known as “Elizabeth Cittie-Beyond the Hampton River” (one of the political divisions of the Virginia colony). Under this census, he is listed as an indentured servant. Huhner speculates that Legardo was brought to Virginia to teach others the art of grape-breeding.

By March 14, 1628, Legardo had taken a lease on 100 acres in the area, an arrangement that was extended for another 21 years in 1633. Shortly after that, records show him taking a lease on 13 acres that had belonged to his master, Anthonie Bonall.

Finally, for March 7, 1629, court records show that Jamestown merchant Richard Stephens had sued Legardo, and that a law officer named Sergeant Coleman was supposed to arrest him but didn’t. The court ordered another policeman to bring Legardo in and not release him before he paid a bond — but the rest of the drama is not known.

Historians believe that Legardo married Rebecca Isaake, who also hailed from England, and who is known to have been present in Virginia by 1624. According to Huhner, Legardo died circa 1670 at the ripe age of 77.

Modern-day genealogists believe that the name Legardo evolved over the years into surnames such as Elligood and Alligood. Contemporary genealogists such as G.T. Alligood, whose writings can be found on the Web, have tried to trace the history of the clan, which is not known to have remained Jewish for long.