My daughter Judith keeps me au courant with articles about art and artists, aggravating news items, and arcane bits of the history of Jews in New York City, where she lives.
Recently she sent an item titled “The Buttonwood Jews.” On seeing the title, my first thoughts turned to the historical section of Warwick known as Buttonwoods Beach, on Nausaucket Neck. But it soon became apparent this item had nothing to do with Warwick or a beach. The article, from the website Jewish Treats (http://www.jewishtreats.org/search?q=Buttonwood), dated May 17, 2016, dealt with the actions of some New York businessmen more than 200 years ago. It began:
“On the 17th of May, 1792, 24 businessmen met under a buttonwood (sycamore) tree and made an agreement to deal only with one another and to set a .25% commission rate on the transactions. The tree under which those brokers and merchants met was located on Wall Street in Manhattan, and that agreement established what would become the New York Stock Exchange.”
The article then named and briefly profiled the five Jewish businessmen who signed the Buttonwood Agreement: Isaac Moses Gomez, Bernard Hart, Ephraim Hart, Benjamin Mendes Seixas and Alexander Zunz.
In addition to their common business interests, they all belonged to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. Three also had family connections to Jews in Colonial Newport. It should be noted that by the time the agreement was signed, Newport had ceased to be a commercial hub, and the once vibrant Jewish community was no more.
Admittedly, these links to the early history of the Jews in Rhode Island are tenuous – one might say just footnotes – but interesting when considered in the web of our history.
So, who were they, the five Jewish signatories to the Buttonwood Agreement, whose action so long ago affects our lives even today?
Alexander Zunz came to this country from Germany to serve with the British forces during the American Revolution. He was one of a number of Hessian Jewish mercenaries hired by the British. Those stationed in or near New York would worship at Shearith Israel with the congregation of Tory sympathizers remaining in the city. Zunz evidently saw a better future for himself conducting business than fighting rebels. He deserted and became a successful entrepreneur.
The two men named Hart were not related to each other or to the Hart families of Newport. Ephraim Hart, nee Hirz, was not of Spanish or Portuguese descent; he was born in Germany. It is not known when he came to this country, but he was here during the War for Independence. The inscription on his tombstone states he was a private in Captain Henry Graham’s Company.
Bernard Hart was born in London and came to this country in 1777. He was married twice. His grandson Francis, descended from his first wife Catherine, chose to be known not as Francis Hart but by his middle name Brett, with a slight change in the spelling. He dropped the final T from Brett and added an E to Hart. Bret Harte gained renown as a poet and author of short stories about the West. His favored subjects were the miners and drifters, scoundrels and settlers who came to California during the Gold Rush.
Bernard’s second wife was Rebecca, daughter of Benjamin Mendes Seixas, and therein lies a Newport connection.
Benjamin Mendes Seixas, the father-in-law of Bernard Hart, was born in Newport, though his brothers were all born in New York. The four Seixas brothers played major roles in early American Jewish history. Abraham served as an officer in the Continental Army. Gershom, at age 23, became the first American-born hazzan and the spiritual leader of Shearith Israel. For his actions and espousal of the patriot cause, he was one of 14 clergymen invited to attend the inauguration of George Washington. He was also cited because he was one of the first ministers in New York to preach Thanksgiving Day sermons. A plaque in the congregation he served for half a century calls him “The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution.”
Moses, one of the founders of the Newport Bank of Rhode Island, wrote the letter of welcome to George Washington in the name of his congregation when Washington visited Newport. Washington’s reply, which incorporated phrases from Seixas’s letter, is read each year at Touro Synagogue.
Isaac Moses Gomez’s great-grandfather, Luis Moses Gomez, arrived in New York around the beginning of the 18th century. He first opened a store, and soon realized the potential of international trade, using his family connections. He also established a trading post 6 miles from Newburgh, New York. The 300-year-old Gomez Mill House, in Marlboro, New York, is the oldest surviving Jewish residence in America.
The family prospered and took an active role in community affairs. Isaac continued their success in commerce as a broker and also followed the tradition of philanthropy. His connection to Rhode Island was his marriage to “his beloved” Abigail, daughter of Aaron Lopez. They raised 10 children.
I admit – I do enjoy these sorts of footnotes. They add color to the web of our history.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.