When does American Jewish history begin? Some would say that it begins in 1492, when Columbus set sail on his historic voyage accompanied by at least one known Jewish crew member (Luis de Torres). Others would point to the 23 Jews from Recife (Brazil) who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Technically, however, history names Joachim Gans as the first Jewish colonist in America.
A native of Prague, Gans made his way to England in the late 1500s. This was approximately 75 years before Menashe ben Israel petitioned Oliver Cromwell to officially permit Jews to reside in England, from whence they had been banned since 1290.
A noted mining expert, Gans made a name for himself by introducing a process that reduced by weeks the time needed to purify copper. His knowledge of metals attracted the attention of Sir Walter Raleigh, who included Gans on his expedition to start a colony in the New World.
The Roanoke Colony was located on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. The colonists arrived in the summer of 1585 and built a small fort. Settling the New World was not as simple as they had expected. Within a year, the colonists were short on food and had reached a stand-off in relations with the nearby native Indian tribes. When Sir Francis Drake sailed by and offered them passage home, almost all of the colonists (including Gans) agreed to leave. The supply ship for which they had been waiting arrived only after the colony had been abandoned.
Gans returned to England and settled in Bristol. In 1589, however, the Bishop of Chichester asked him some specific theological questions. The Bishop, however, did not like Gans’ answers and charged him with blasphemy. The question of his fate was sent to the Queen’s Privy Council, where, it seems, nothing more came of it – perhaps due to Gans’ close relationship with several powerful men of the court.
Nothing more is known about the fate of Joachim Gans.
This Treat is in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.