Menu JTA Search

Fur trader´s family reunion

Historians and family members gathered to celebrate Michigan´s first Jew.  (Flo Shortt)

Historians and family members gathered to celebrate Michigan´s first Jew. (Flo Shortt)

TORONTO, July 20 (JTA) — The Solomons family reunion was no ordinary gathering with a tasty barbecue and annoying relatives: This unusual get-together celebrated an American Jewish pioneer. Upon discovering their distinguished pedigree, 60 descendants of Ezekiel Solomons, an 18th-century Jewish fur trader known as Michigan´s first Jewish settler, recently gathered at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, Mich., about 50 miles south of the Canadian city of Sault Ste. Marie. The event was organized by Thom Smith, a Franciscan friar in Indian River, Mich., who discovered four years ago that Solomons was his fifth-great-grandfather. Over the last few years, Smith has made contact with hundreds of Solomons´ descendants living in the Great Lakes region of both the United States and Canada. Because many of the six Solomons children had families of 10 to 12 children, he estimates that thousands more remain to be discovered. "Ezekiel is really an inspiration to us because of his love of faith and his love of family," Smith said. Sheldon and Judith Godfrey, a husband-and-wife team of historians from Toronto, were honored guests at the two-day event because of the extensive original research on Solomons that they conducted for their 1995 book, "Search Out the Land." The Godfreys carried the additional distinction of being the only Jews at the reunion. Although Solomons remained loyal to his Jewish faith throughout his life, he married a Roman Catholic, Louise Dubois, and all of their six children were baptized and raised as Catholics. The gathering included a few Catholic clergy and nuns, as well as some people with French Canadian ancestry and members of the Metis, Ojibwa and other native groups. Descendants of several area lighthouse keepers were also in attendance. Many came from towns in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, while a few traveled from more distant cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Miami. "All were very positive about their Jewish ancestry and wanted to know as much as they could about their Jewish heritage," Sheldon Godfrey said. Family members believe Solomons was born about 1735, but because of the research done by the Godfreys, they are no longer certain of his birthplace. An elderly great-grandson said in 1900 that the illustrious fur trader was born in Berlin, but Sheldon Godfrey has a different theory. "I believe he was one of the many Bohemian Jews who were expelled by the Empress Maria Theresa about 1746," he said. "The Jewish refugees of the 18th century came from Bohemia," a region that is today part of the Czech Republic. Before the Godfreys, few scholars had managed to penetrate deeply into Ezekiel Solomons´ colorful career. He is regarded as a somewhat elusive historical figure because, unlike other Jewish pioneers of the period, he was illiterate in English and left no papers to posterity. He was part of a consortium of five Jewish traders who received permission from the British to establish a trading post at Fort Michilimackinac in 1761. The venture was considered potentially lucrative, but enormously risky. It ended abruptly on June 2, 1763, the date of a native attack on the British stronghold known as the Pontiac uprising. As one of the lucky few to escape with their lives, Solomons was captured and ransomed to British forces in Montreal. In 1963, with assistance from the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, the state marked the 200th anniversary of the uprising with a plaque at the entrance to the fort, commemorating Solomons as "Michigan´s First Jewish Settler." As part of Michigan´s second oldest state park, Fort Michilimackinac has undergone intensive archaeological research and thorough restoration, and Solomons´ trading house has been faithfully rebuilt. Inside, a wax figure of Solomons stands by his desk in front of a fireplace, surrounded by goods, including bales of beaver pelts. For the last 40 years, costumed historical interpreters have re-enacted the Pontiac uprising each summer for tourists. The Solomons reunion was timed to coincide with the staged battle. Many Solomons descendants also posed for photographs with a historical interpreter in dress uniform and three-pointed hat, who has portrayed their ancestor for the last 21 years. In the 1770s, Solomons built up a string of successful trading posts north of Lake Superior, prompting rivals in the Hudson´s Bay Company to refer to him in correspondence as "that illiterate Jew." But according to Godfrey, he was far from illiterate. "As a prominent member of the Montreal Hebrew Congregation, he was recorded in its minutes as leading its services and reading in Hebrew," he said. Like his fellow fur traders, Solomons often traveled by canoe from the Sault Ste. Marie area to attend High Holidays services in Montreal. When his young son Joseph died in 1778, he sought to bury him in the Jewish cemetery there. The congregation consented but inserted a rule into its constitution immediately afterwards that uncircumsized males could never be buried there. In the 1780s Solomons returned with his family to Michilimackinac and lived on Mackinac Island with other fur traders. Archaeologists have examined the grounds around his family´s living quarters and concluded that he adhered to kosher laws. For the High Holidays of 1804, he traveled to New York because the Montreal synagogue had closed. The records of New York´s Shearith Israel Congregation show that he gave charity that October and died shortly afterwards without returning home. Although Solomons is regarded as Michigan´s first Jewish settler, Michigan´s Upper Peninsula was actually part of Quebec until the War of 1812, said Godfrey, who calls Solomons an important Canadian historical figure, albeit one largely neglected by scholars until recently. Ezekiel Solomons is one of numerous Jewish pioneers between 1740 and 1867 whose exploits are detailed in "Search Out the Land." The book focuses on "the significant role played by Jews in British North America in the fight for civil and political rights." "We all expected the Jews came after the pogroms started in the 1880s and that we came to someone else´s country," Godfrey said. "That´s absolutely untrue. We were part of it from the very beginning."