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Joseph Jacobs: Southampton’s Jewish Pioneer

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

The Passover celebration commemorates the story of the Israelite's exodus from slavery and persecution in ancient Egypt. Centuries later, Jews looked to escape persecution in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition in the 1500’s. At first they were welcomed in Holland and the Dutch colony in Brazil. From there, some moved on to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the 1650’s. Although Holland was more tolerant of Jews, the Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, was not as welcoming. However, after England acquired New York in 1664, Jews were granted more freedom and allowed to become citizens of the English Colonies (including New York) in 1740. This measure of freedom began a new exodus of sorts from Europe to North America and New York.

"Israel's Escape from Egypt", Bible card (Providence Lithograph Company, 1907)

The new exodus started slowly, with about 225 Jews living in New York by 1730. Although small in number, the community was large enough to inspire Isaac Pinto to translate the Jewish prayer book into English. Published in 1766, it was the first complete Jewish prayer book to be translated into English. By 1776, it is estimated that the total Jewish population in the Colonies was approximately 2,500. Of that total, about 400 lived in New York.

The first recorded Jew in Southampton is Joseph Jacobs, a merchant who was born about 1720. Although much of Joseph’s life is unknown, it is possible that he came to New York after 1740. The prospect of citizenship and the increase in trade with the Colonies during the Seven Years War (1756-63), was an attraction to English Jews. Joseph arrived in Southampton about 1760 and purchased a home on Main Street, near the present-day Rogers Mansion (home of the Southampton History Museum) from Stephen Pierce in 1761. Joseph was married to Eleanor (nee Thomas) and they raised five children. The family was active in Southampton and appears to have been welcomed in the community.

Joseph occasionally partnered with the only other known Jew on the East End at the time,

Aaron Isaacs of East Hampton. Aaron was born in Hamburg and was approximately the same age as Joseph. The two men were contracted to haul goods for Gardiner family in 1773.

Portrait, Possibly of Aaron Isaacs (FindAGrave.Com)

In September 1774 Joseph became sick and he died shortly thereafter. He listed his friend

Elias Matthews as the executor of his estate. After his death, Jacobs’ finances were settled, including this receipt (in the Southampton History Museum’s collection) for the payment of a debt owed to Joseph.

As a non-Christian, Joseph’s final resting place is unknown. However, Joseph’s widow Eleanor and her children (sons Joseph, Joel and Oliver and daughters Eleanor and Prudence) remained in Southampton. Like many other Southampton patriots, Eleanor and her family were evacuated to Connecticut during the British occupation in 1776. The family was taken to Saybrook by Captain Zebulon Cooper, together with 94 other passengers, including John Foster, Silas Halsey, and Uriah Rogers.

"A map of the most inhabited part of New England" by Thomas Jefferys (Library of Congress, 1774)

After the war, the Jacobs family returned to Southampton, where they continued to contribute to the community. One of Joseph’s sons, (Joel) ran a country store in Southampton while another son (Joseph) moved to Good Ground (Hampton Bays). From Good Ground, three of Joseph’s great grandsons volunteered for the 127th New York Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, one of whom died of disease on November 1, 1864, at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Like the ancient Jews in Egypt, the exodus of the Jews from Europe to America was long and perilous. Although not always welcome, the initial pioneers, like Joseph Jacobs and Aaron Isaacs, paved the way.

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