The Mystery of the Lost Jewish Colony and the Myth of the Lost Hebrew-Indian Tribes

What happened to the disappeared Jewish traders of Pennsylvania? Were they trying to convert Native Americans back to their long lost Judaism?

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).
Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Wikimedia Commons

The woman in charge of the Thomas Brendle Museum in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania looked up at me wearily. “You want to know where the Jews are?” she asked. “You know there’s no trace of them?” When I nodded, she sent me to the yard near the column-fronted house up Fountain Park, towards Tower Hill. “They say it was there, but you can’t see a thing. The walls of the cemetery no longer exist, if they ever did.”

Schaefferstown lies about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, 20 miles north of Lancaster. It was formally established in 1758 by an industrious German Lutheran named Alexander Schaeffer. He called the place Heidelberg, after the Prussian city, but local residents preferred to dub it “Schaeffer’s town.” 

But three decades before Schaeffer bought the land and meticulously divided its plots, twenty or so Jewish traders lived there, along with some women and children, in a place known as Lebanon Trading Post. If it existed, it would have been the first inland Jewish settlement in the United States. But this purported pioneering Jewish colony left no trace, as if the earth had swallowed it up, and its existence, once widely accepted, is considered no more than a folk legend 300 years later.

At the Lancaster Historical Society, there are oral records of witnesses who remember relatives who spoke of the existence of the Jewish cemetery on Tower Hill and even of stones with Hebrew letters that once belonged to a Jewish synagogue known even then as “the schul”. Some historians of the late 19th and early 20th century found circumstantial evidence of the Jewish presence in Schaefferstown through the fact that Christians in the vicinity, including Pietists, Mennonites and Amish, maintained Jewish customs, including circumcision and keeping the Sabbath. But lacking any real physical evidence of the Jews of Schaefferstown, their existence is now a myth rather than recorded fact.

The Jews' 'new Zion'

Jews came to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century in search of what one Lancaster historian dubbed “their new Zion”. They were seeking refuge from the discrimination they suffered in New York, Newport and other Jewish enclaves in the Northeast but also searching for new livelihoods as traders with the British rulers and the colonial authorities and as middlemen between both and the numerous Native American tribes who lived in Pennsylvania at the time. Judith Guston, a curator at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, tells me of unsubstantiated claims made in historical records from that era that the Indians, as they were then known, displayed more reverence and respect towards Jewish traders, especially observant ones, than towards their Christian counterparts. Michael Gratz, a famous Philadelphian trader and founder of a local dynasty, would keep Shabbat out in the wild, she says.

But there is also another version as to the main impetus for the settlement of Jews in Schaefferstown. It holds that their commercial enterprise was just a cover for their true spiritual quest: to convert Indians to Judaism. They believed, along with many other Westerners at the time, that the Native American tribes weren’t really indigenous or “native” at all, but descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, expelled in 722 B.C.E. from their Middle East homeland by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V. This belief was especially pronounced in the Province of Pennsylvania, whose founder, William Penn, once noted the stark physical resemblance between the Indians of the Delaware tribe and the Jews he had met growing up in London.

The identification of Native Americans with the Ten Lost Tribes, though still prevalent in some marginal Protestant churches, may sound ludicrous today, but it was one of the main intellectual responses of many European scholars to the theological challenges posed by the discovery of a New World with hitherto unknown people and animals. When Columbus discovered America, he did not realize that it was a continent completely detached from Asia or Europe; when this realization dawned on Europeans in the early 16th century, they had to tackle a new religious dilemma. If all men and women were descended from Adam and Eve, and all animals from Noah’s ark, and the Earth has only existed for 5,000 years, how can one explain the new discoveries in North and South America? How and when did the Indians and their livestock and all the wild animals in the forests of North and South America cross oceans and mountains and thousands of kilometers to reach the New World?

In his book “Origins of the American Indians”, Lee Huddleston details European efforts to reconcile the new discoveries with the accepted religious axioms, especially from the mid-16th century onwards. Spanish scholars first tried to ascribe the origin of the Indians to China, Carthage, the East Indies, the lost continent of Atlantis and even the biblical Solomonic kingdom of Ophir. The first serious claim that they were descendants of the lost Jewish tribes was made in 1567 by the Dutch theologian Joannes Lumnius. In later years the theory spread to Spanish and Portuguese scholars as well. They identified America with the biblical Arsareth mentioned in the New Testament version of the book of Ezra, Esdras, which was ascribed to Columbus as well. To Hebrew speakers, Arsareth sounds like a jumble of Eretz Acheret, which means ‘another country” and is mentioned in the Old Testament as a place of banishment for the sinning Jews.

English and other north European scholars also tackled the question of the origin of Native Americans, but the turning point for many of them came, according to Huddleston, in the wake of testimony offered by a Jew named Aharon Levy who arrived in Amsterdam in 1644. Levy recounted being told by his Indian captors in what is now Ecuador that they were secret Hebrews who would soon drive the Spaniards from their lands. His story was picked up the preeminent Jewish spiritual leader at the time, Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel, who became the chief proponent of the Indians are Jews theory and wrote a famous book called Hope of Israel about it. 

Ben Israel, who was widely respected by Christian scholars, tried to use the “discovery” of Jews in the new continents in his unsuccessful bids to persuade Oliver Cromwell to allow Jews to return to England 400 years after they were first banished. Only when they are in England and France, he reasoned, would Jews be dispersed throughout all the lands, thus enabling the arrival of the Messiah, be he Christian or Jew.

At about the same time, an English cleric named Thomas Thorowgood published Jewes in America: Probabilities that Americans are Jews, which claimed the biblical descent of Indians based on supposedly shared traits and values with Jews, including belief in one God, laws of purity and cannibalism. Thorowgood was a supporter of John Eliot, the so-called “Apostle to the Indians,” who sought to convert Native Americans to Christianity. By believing they were Jews, Guston says, proselytizers achieved a “twofer”; they could save the soul both of a heathen and a Jew in one fell swoop. She showed me a rare copy held in the museum of a John Eliot Bible printed in the Natick language of Massachusetts, but with Latin letters. The printers, she said, had to stop printing to order more supplies of the letters o, p and k, which appear in much greater frequency in Natick than in English, before they could finish the print.

The American Revolution in 1776 did not put an end to the efforts to discover the origins of Native Americans. On the contrary, the belief that they were descendants of the lost Jewish tribes reached a new peak following the war of 1812, as Dr. Eran Shalev of Haifa University recounts in his book "American Zion," with the publication of “A Star in the West or, A humble attempt to discover the long lost ten tribes of Israel: preparatory to their return to their beloved city, Jerusalem” by Elias Boudinot. It became a best seller during the time of the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revival movement of the early 19th century. 

The Niagara Falls Jewish homeland  

Mordechai Manuel Noah’s famous efforts to set up the Jewish homeland Ararat near Niagara Falls in Upstate New York was also based on a glorious reunification of the new Jews on the continent with their long-lost brethren from the Indian tribes. And the greatest manifestation of the belief that Indians were biblical Hebrews - though technically not from the Ten Tribes - is contained in the Book of Mormon, which depicts the sixth century B.C.E. journey of prophets Lehi and his son Nephi from the Kingdom of Israel to the new Promised Land.

Whether they were simply out for commercial gain or were also engaged in spiritual yearnings, there is no denying that the early Jewish land traders of Pennsylvania -- of Philadelphia, Lancaster and, who knows, perhaps Schaefferstown as well -- became the owners of vast tracts of land sold or ceded by the Indians in the decades preceding the American Revolution. They owned much of Pennsylvania, most of Ohio and all of Southern Illinois. 

They might have become lords of the land, but the new American government did not recognize their acquisitions and their holdings were seized and the Jews of Schaefferstown disappeared forever. Perhaps they all converted to Christianity, possibly they were all killed, or perhaps they were persuaded by the Native Americans that, given that they were all Jews, it was a better idea for the Europeans to join their brethren in the forests rather than asking them to adopt the restrictive and intricate Jewish law that was formulated hundreds of years after the Ten Tribes were dispersed to go forth to the new Promised Land.