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November 29, 2015 / 17 Kislev, 5776
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The Early Jewish Settlement Of Texas

Old B'nai Israel Synagogue and Cohen Community House

Old B'nai Israel Synagogue and Cohen Community House
Photo Credit: Nsaum75/wikimedia

In 1519 Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, Spanish explorer and cartographer, led an expedition into Texas with the goal of finding a passage between the Gulf of Mexico and Asia. He and his men were probably the first Europeans to see the land that became known as Texas. At various times between 1519 and 1848, all or parts of Texas were claimed by Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States.

Beginning in 1810 the people of Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule and started what became known as the Mexican War of Independence. This armed conflict ended in 1821 with Spain losing control of its North American territories. The new country of Mexico was formed from much of the land that had comprised New Spain – including Spanish Texas.

In 1821 Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836) established the first legal settlement of 300 North American families (termed the Old 300) in Mexican owned Texas. Among this group was Samuel Isaacs, the first Jew to be recorded as settling in Texas. He was granted land located in Fort Bend County. Nothing more is known about him other than he served in the Texas army from 1836 to 1837.

The founding of Austin’s colony marked the beginning of a wave of immigration from the United States to Texas, which at this time was not a part of the U.S. As many as 30,000 American immigrants had arrived by 1835. More followed throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, a number of them Jews.

The Seeligsons, Dyers and Ostermans

The Seeligsons, Dyers, and Ostermans were meticulously observant in traditional religious practice. They did not consider it a deterrent to their absorption into the civic and political activity of the bustling port city. They formed the religious nucleus which created the first Jewish communal organization in the state [of Texas], the Galveston Jewish cemetery (The Occident, Vol. X, No. 7, October, 1852). Reacting to this event, The Galveston News of August 31, 1852, with an eye to the future, wrote: “But we anticipate the organization of a Jewish congregation and the addition of a synagogue to the number of our places of public worship, at no very distant day.”1

Michael Seeligson

Michael Seeligson was born in Holland in 1797 to Sephardic Jewish parents, whose ancestors had fled to northern Europe from the Spanish Inquisition. He came to Galveston, Texas in 1838. The following year his wife Adelaide and his family joined him. Michael and two of his sons played a critical role in the movement to have the Republic of Texas annexed to the United States. Michael served as alderman of the city of Galveston in 1840 and 1848 and in 1853 he was elected the first Jewish mayor of the city.

Michael was especially noted for his wisdom and kindness. These exceptional attributes must have played no small role in the willingness of the predominantly non-Jewish population of Galveston to elect an observant Jew to such a high office.

Leon and Isidore Dyer

Leon (1807-1883) and Isidore (1813-1888) Dyer were born in Dessau, Germany. Their parents, who moved to Baltimore while they were both relatively young, were instrumental in the founding of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1830.

[Leon] Dyer was self-educated. In the early part of his career he worked in his father’s beef-packing establishment (the first in America). As a young man he enjoyed great popularity with the citizens of Baltimore, and filled a number of minor public offices. When the great Baltimore bread riots broke out, he was elected acting mayor, and through his intervention order was soon restored. While Dyer was engaged in business in New Orleans in 1836, Texas called for aid in her struggle for independence. Dyer was at that time quartermaster-general of the state militia of Louisiana. With several hundred citizens of New Orleans he embarked at once on a schooner bound for Galveston, arriving two days after the battle of San Jacinto. He received a commission as major in the Texas forces, signed by the first president, Burnett.The Louisiana contingent was assigned to the force of Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green, and saw active service clearing western Texas of bands of plundering Mexican troops. When Santa Anna was taken from Galveston to Washington, Major Dyer accompanied the guard, and Santa Anna’s autograph letter thanking Dyer for courtesies received on the journey testifies to the general’s gratitude.

In 1848 Colonel Dyer crossed the plains to California, and settled in San Francisco, where he founded a congregation – the first on the Pacific coast.2

Leon’s younger brother Isidore moved to Galveston in 1840 and went into business. He was so successful that he was able to retire in 1861. However, given his business acumen, he was not allowed to enjoy his retirement for long. In 1866 he was elected president of the Galveston Union Marine and Fire Insurance and held this position until 1880.

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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