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October 13, 2015 / 30 Tishri, 5776
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Jonas Phillips: Orthodox Colonial Businessman

Jonas Phillips

Jonas Phillips

(All quotes are fromPortraits Etched in Stone: Early Jewish Settlers, 1682-1831”by David de Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1952).


A number of Jews who came to America from Europe during the eighteenth century were businessmen, actively involved in American life, and religiously observant. Jonas Phillips is one such person.

“In the early part of the eighteenth century the Jews of Germany rarely bore family names. In 1735 a boy was born in Buseck, a village in Oberhessen, Rhenish Prussia, to whom his father gave the name Jonah. The father was generally known to his friends as Phaibush, a name which he may not have recognized as none other than that of the Greek god of the sun, Phoebus Apollo. This Phaibush had fair title to the name, since his official Hebrew name was Aaron Uri, and Uri, meaning ‘fiery,’ was translated into Judaeo-German as Phaibush. In the course of time this name Jonah son of Phaibush became Anglicized into Jonas Phillips. This was an apt transformation, since Phillip, which in Greek means lover of horses, is fittingly associated with Phoebus Apollo, driver of the chariot of the sun.

“Jonas Phillips was twenty-one years old when in November 1756 he arrived at Charles Town, S.C., on the Charming Nancy. He came, as did so many of the settlers in those days, as an indentured servant. In London, three months before the sailing of the ship, Moses Lindo had engaged Jonas Phillips in his service ‘to come with him to this Province.’ Moses Lindo subsequently declared that they ‘arrived together in the same vessel here, the said Jonas Phillips lived with him some months and that the said Jonas Phillips was in his employ and that he did behave and deport himself faithfully and honestly … the said Jonas is trustworthy even to Gold untold.’

“After Phillips had completed his term of service with Moses Lindo, he moved northward from Charleston, and we next find him settled in Albany. There he became a freeman of the city on August l 3, l 759. He was in business as ‘Retailer’ or ‘Merchant’ “opposite the Fort next door to Mrs. Moores.’ But he felt the difficulties of living away from a Jewish community, and while in Albany he maintained connections with the city of New York. For it was at this time, in 1760, that he appears as a master mason in the Trinity Lodge #4 F. & A.M.” Eventually he decided to leave Albany [and did so in 1761].”

“We may well believe that one of the main reasons for his leaving Albany was Rebecca[i], daughter of the late hazan of the New York community, David Mendes Machado, and his wife Zipporah Nunes Ribeiro[ii]. For a year later in Hickory Town, Plymouth Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on November 10, 1762, Jonah the son of Phaibush of Buseck, Charleston, and Albany, married this daughter of the families of Nunes Ribeiro and Mendes Machado. Between 1763 and 1786 she presented him with an annual addition to his family, bearing him in all 21 children in 23 years.

“While Jonas Phillips’ domestic business of founding a family grew steadily, his commercial affairs were not at first successful. England’s restrictive policy on Colonial trade made the conduct of business very difficult, and soon after his marriage his business went to pieces. On May 2, 1764, he obtained from the Supreme Court of the State of New York a warrant for his release as an insolvent debtor, he having assigned all his estate to Hayman Levy, John Alexander, and David Shaw for the benefit of his creditors. His honesty was unquestioned; had not Moses Lindo, his first American employer, testified that he was ‘trustworthy even to Gold untold’?

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

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