Asser Levy in New Amsterdam

Leading up to Thanksgiving, a post on Twitter reminded me of Steve Brodner’s 2013 piece on Asser Levy (?-1680). 

Asser Levy is the first documented Jew in North America, and his been called the Founding Father of American Jewry. He might have been one of the Jewish refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil. He does not appear in surviving records of the Jewish congregation there, but the timing is right. He was in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654, when Peter Stuyvesant, the governor, opposed the settlement of Jews from Recife. Stuyvesant was eventually defeated by an appeal to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, Then, over the years, Levy routinely challenged policies that put Jews on a lower legal footing than gentiles.

I got interested in the Asser Levy story maybe a decade ago when I was looking at the idea my ancestor John Moses (c1616-1693) was Jewish. I’m skeptical but if he was Jewish he’d be the earliest known Jew in British North America. He was in Maine by 1638 as an apprentice to George Cleeve and Richard Tucker, of Casco Bay. His antecedents are unknown. I believe he entered Cleeve’s service about 1636 when Cleeve was in England on business. Some researchers believe Aaron Moses was a Sephardic Jew, originally from Amsterdam, but there is no evidence except what can be guessed from his name and the fact he named his son Aaron. The yDNA of his male-line descendants does not support a Jewish origin.

I was also interested in Asser Levy because–supposedly, according to Geni, who knows how reliable anything there is–I have Dutch ancestors who came to New York from Recife. Margrietje (Meyerinck) Wiltsie (1635-1704). Her mother’s mother is said to have been a native Brazilian woman.

Still another reason for my interest in Asser Levy is an idea among some of my relatives that the Howerys were originally Jewish. I thought for a time that if John Moses was Jewish that might account for the story. Another connection I once thought might contribute to that idea is a connection to Solomon Israel (c1710-1795), of Wilkes County, North Carolina. His grandson married Nancy Alloway, a 2nd great aunt of Grandma Bertha (Alloway) Howery. That wouldn’t give the Howerys a direct Jewish descent but might have been enough, I thought, to account for the vague idea of a Jewish connection.

Now, I attribute the “tradition” to a poorly understood British Israelitism, popularized by Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. I don’t doubt that there was also some influence from the brief popularity of Ray Banks’ theory that part of yDNA Haplogroup G2a (to which the Howerys belong) was spread through Europe by Radhanites (Jewish merchants).

Back to Asser Levy. Normally on Geni there would be one profile per person, and where there is a reasonable doubt or dispute about a person’s ancestry we deal with it by accepting only the proved information. That is, we don’t link the profile to any parents but instead describe the pros and cons in the notes for the profile. That’s not what we see there now (2019), nine years after I started work on his profile.

Because of the vanity of a particular curator we were pushed into a situation where Geni has two versions of Asser Levy. This curator needed to have a duplicate to serve as his ancestor’s brother. We were not able to resolve the dispute because he was not willing to consider the other, conflicting theories about Asser Levys’ origin and ancestry. He promised to work further, but never did.

Now, years later, both profiles are in the charge of a curator who recently argued aggressively that genealogical forgery and invention are not something to be concerned about or even necessarily corrected. Pam is not likely to fix it. And anyway, she’s more interested in Southerners gutting each other with hunting knives. Very colorful.

I’ve been wondering lately if I ought to pick up this project again. I’m still thinking but on the whole I think it’s probably a good lesson about the limits of collaborative genealogy.

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