Memorial erected to Joachim Gans, the first Jew in North America
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Memorial erected to Joachim Gans, the first Jew in North America

It took nearly four and a half centuries for Americans to acknowledge the Jewish metallurgist, who was tried for denying the divinity of Jesus after returning to Britain

A memorial sign in honor of Joachim Gans, the first known Jew to set foot in North America. (brindleybeach.com)
A memorial sign in honor of Joachim Gans, the first known Jew to set foot in North America. (brindleybeach.com)

Joachim Gans has finally received public recognition for his contribution to the colonization of North America, centuries after he became the first Jew to arrive in the New World in 1585.

According to Smithsonian.com, a memorial marker was erected in Gans’s memory last month alongside a highway in North Carolina near the site of the first, abortive British settlement on Roanoke Island, where the Prague-born Jew served as colonial metallurgist.

“Joachim Gans. Scientist; Jewish native of Prague. Led metallurgy experiments, 1585-86, at the first Roanoke colony near here. Part of Lane’s English expedition,” the sign read.

Smithsonian noted that Gans “played a key role in the first attempt by the English to settle the New World” and that “his accomplishments in the 1580s helped plant the seed for what became the United States.”

An illustration of Joachim Gans in his workshop. (National Park Service)

Gans, an expert metallurgist in Prague, initially came to England to help the country get more copper from its ore and do it more efficiently. At the time, Jews were banned from living in England but the British, facing shortages of metals necessary for arming their ships in the face of tensions with Spain, overlooked his religious background in order to include him in the colony. Gans’s presence helped reassure investors who were skeptical about the commercial prospects in North America because other explorers had failed to find anything promising.

Gans’s inclusion in the exploration “marks the line where England was more interested in what he could contribute to the economy than holding onto religious prejudices,” said Leonard Rogoff, president of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina and author of a book about Jews in North Carolina.

While the mission ultimately failed and the colonists returned to England, during his time in North America Gans was able to provide reliable evidence of the continent’s abundance of natural resources, which helped drum up future interest in colonization. Although Gans didn’t find gold, he did identify copper. And his research was enough to convince a group of civilians, who became the Lost Colony, to settle there in 1587.

Noting that the erection of the sign comes at a time of heightened anti-Semitism and vigorous public debates over how best to memorialize some of the more unsavory aspects of American history, Smithsonian stated that “highway markers like the one dedicated to Gans offer a quiet, cheap, and democratic alternative to memorialize new heroes ignored by previous generations.”

Part of the reason Gans’s role may have been forgotten is the anti-Semitism that ruled in 16th century Britain. In 1589, three years after his return to England, Gans was charged with heresy for denying the divinity of Jesus. He was jailed, and it’s not clear what happened after that. Historians assume he wasn’t executed because there’s no record of that happening, leaving open the possibility that he returned to Prague. A historian at the Jewish Museum of Prague is researching that question, and a seminar on Gans is scheduled in November in Prague.

Archaeologists plan to return this fall to the site of the science center once headed by Gans at Roanoke, the first science center in the New World.

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