- Jews and the Fur Trade along the Southern British Colonial Borderlands
This essay introduces a hitherto neglected economic niche in the southern colonies of the Britain’s North American empire—the fur trade—that a small but important group of Jews entered. Since Jewish trade with native nations has been explored in the northern colonies, that literature will be summarized and used for comparison with the experience in the South to discern crucial patterns. Yet the few works available on the trade nexus in the North are descriptive narratives. Thus this study represents the first analytic synthesis concerning the subject in its broadest framework in British colonial America. This is also one of the few economic studies to cover the Jewish experience in the British colonial North and South. The patterns developed here illuminate interaction with a variety of groups, explore religious and ethnic identity, discern variations between the northern and southern experiences, and reveal the complex webs of family, business, and government interests.
Contrasting the northern and southern activities illuminates several differences as well as substantial similarities. Jews in the North emerged as a dominant force in the trade, whereas in the South they played a smaller role. In at least one center in the North—Lancaster, Pennsylvania—Jews were sufficient in number and far enough away from the port city communities to establish durable Jewish institutions. In the South where fewer Jews were involved, the trade occurred in close enough proximity to Charleston and Savannah to preclude the need for community institutions outside these centers. Yet the development of Lancaster’s Jewish community was also an aberration in the North since similar enclaves did not emerge in Albany, Fort Pitt, or other northern trade centers. Furthermore, in case studies of Moses Nunes and Abram Mordecai presented here, Jews in the southern colonies developed long-term relationships and families across racial lines. Such relationships have not yet been uncovered among Jews trading in the North although they did occur later in the West.
In both sections the trade fostered a diverse economic and political nexus. Jews in the fur trade also sought economic advancement as translators/interpreters, government agents, office holders and military suppliers, landowners and speculators, and provision merchants of goods [End Page 195] granted as gifts to native nations, manufacturers or importers of goods for the exchange with furs, commercial actors with firms in Europe, business partners and general store owners for which furs were but one of numerous commodities, creditors, and investors. In conjunction with the trade, Jews became enmeshed in diplomacy, war, government policy, and legal disputes. The trade, then, served as just one aspect of a variety of interrelated and sometimes interdependent activities.
Only a small number of Jews in British colonial America participated in the fur trade. Thus, it can be depicted as an atypical commercial endeavor.1 Nonetheless, many of those who participated, regardless of region, were important business people and Jewish community leaders. Furthermore, the multifaceted pursuits of Jews in British colonial America associated with the fur trade as individuals and partners offers a complex, integrated, and sophisticated business model applicable for other Jewish enterprises during the colonial era and beyond.2 Jews involved in import and export sales acted as agent-brokers, gambled on shipping, developed land, and speculated in real estate.
The traders’ activities placed them along borderlands with nebulous geographic, colonial, national, religious, and ethnic boundaries.3 Jews [End Page 196] utilized their trans-colonial and transatlantic ties with family and other Jews, but also interacted with native people and Europeans from different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Sephardic, and Central and East European Jews participated in the trade although Sephardim tended to have greater involvement in the South. Overlap took place with northern Ashkenazi firms expanding their activities into the South and working with Sephardim in the region. In North and South some Sephardim and Ashkenazim managed to retain religious tradition while others traveled more swiftly on the road toward acculturation and even assimilation. The social and economic status of Jews rose and fell with the vicissitudes of the trade, war, and diplomacy. Jews found success in the trade but also failure. Still...