Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Next to New York, Newport, Rhode Island, established by Roger Williams as a haven of tolerance for persons of all religious beliefs (he specifically included Jews), was the most important settlement in Colonial America, both in general and for Jews, who were among its first settlers. The earliest verifiable reference to Jews at Newport dates to 1658, when 15 families arrived and immediately established a congregation. In 1677, they purchased and established a burial ground, which attained everlasting fame through The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the site that he published in 1854.

Between 1740 and 1760, enterprising Jewish settlers from Spain, Portugal and the West Indies arrived and quickly established Newport as the seat of the most extensive trade of the country and, by the time of the Revolutionary War, there were some 200 Jewish families in Newport. The three most prominent Jewish merchants there were arguably Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, Aaron Lopez and Isaac Hart, who together owned virtually all the candle-making enterprises in the northern colonies. Jewish merchants, led by this triumvirate, were not merely capitalists who furnished the wherewithal for trade but, as we shall see, their enterprising efforts created the trade itself.


From the earliest days of the American colonies, whale oil was the most important product for domestic use and foreign trade, particularly with Great Britain – for the five years between 1768 and 1772, whale oil generated 53 percent of all income earned by the northern colonies for exports to Great Britain – and Jews, who were pioneers in the spermaceti candle business in colonial America, dominated the manufacture and trade of this commodity from the early 1750s. Beginning in 1750, two important technological innovations led to American domination of the fishing industry for well over a century. First was the installation aboard the fishing vessels of iron posts in a brick oven to facilitate the extraction of oil from blubber. The second, and more important, development was a method invented by Rivera for separating and using spermaceti, the waxy substance found in the whale’s head.

In 1751, Rivera, who was very familiar with the process of tallow candle manufacturing, began to purchase “head matter,” the mixture of oil and spermaceti taken from the whale’s head to make candles, and he developed a system for separating the oil from the spermaceti. Although spermaceti was always the basic element for candle production and the oil was a mere byproduct to be separated out from the head matter, the oil turned out to be of better quality and a superior candle illuminant. Rivera sold them as separate commodities, with the oil mixture commanding a much higher price; the higher revenues created an epic incentive to engage in whaling and led to improvements in whaleboat development, and Rivera became a very wealthy man. Considered a luxury item and priced accordingly, Rivera’s candles were sold to affluent customers along the eastern Atlantic coast, but his greatest market was in the Caribbean.

A charter member of the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers (1761), Rivera, along with Lopez and Hart, led the effort to control costs and distribution and to regulate competition. They enacted Articles of Agreement on November 5, 1761, that established a maximum price to be paid to the largest supplier of head matter and established a price for the sale of candles throughout New England, which is considered to be the first attempt in American history to restrain trade through anti-competitive collaborative action.

Oil painting of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, attributed to Gilbert Stuart (circa 1775).

Rivera (1717-1789) was born in Spain, where the Rivera family had flourished for many centuries before becoming Marranos (a derogatory term for crypto-Jews during the Spanish Inquisition). During the 17th century, some family members had immigrated to Mexico in a fruitless attempt to escape the auto-da-fe (public burning at the stake of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity). Abraham Rivera, his wife and three children fled Spain and arrived in New York, where they underwent the “reconversion to Judaism,” which was then customary among the liberated secret Jews. Abraham and his wife were remarried according to Jewish law and the children were given the new names of Isaac, Jacob, and Rebecca.

Abraham established himself as a merchant, became a freeman (1726), and later became a citizen under the Act passed by the English Parliament granting naturalization to Jews and Protestants (1740). He also became active in the New York Jewish community, serving three terms as parnas (president) of Congregation Shearith Israel (1729). He and the family moved to Newport (1748), where he continued to thrive as a merchant and an active member of the Jewish community until his death in 1765.

His son, Jacob Rivera, went to Curacao as a young man and married before moving with his family to Newport in 1748, where he became a leading merchant shipper. He was publicly recognized and acknowledged as a devout Jew and an honored citizen; his non-Jewish colleagues esteemed him to the point where they would forgo Saturday meetings on his account. His honesty was the stuff of legend; in one famous incident, after declaring bankruptcy and regaining his losses, he gave a banquet for his creditors, each of whom found under his napkin a check for the full outstanding amount – plus interest.

Rivera was active in the life of both the Jewish and the general communities; a founder of the Newport congregation, he laid the second cornerstone of the synagogue (1759), served as president of the congregation, and was one of three members chosen by the congregation to hold legal title to the land and improvements thereon. Along with Aaron Lopez, he contributed 10,000 feet of lumber to construct Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University.

Bill of sale signed by Rivera.

Exhibited here is a January 31, 1770, bill of sale from Newport between Rivera and the merchant William Vernon for the delivery of oil from July 1, 1765, through July 1, 1768. Described and listed on the bill are the contemplated uses of the oil, including oil for Capt. [Peter] Dordin, a slaver captain (who died on the coast of Africa); oil for the Brig Apollo; and oil to Capt. William Pinneger for the brig Capt. Taylor. Pinneger would later die while commanding the slave ship Spry six hours before the vessel made landfall at Barbados after a torturous five-month voyage through the Middle Passage, the route of the Atlantic slave trade.


B’nai Brith Philatelic Service postal cover paying homage to Rivera.

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Old portrait of Aaron Lopez.

As Portuguese Jews fleeing persecution, the Lopez family immigrated to the United States, and Aaron Lopez (born Duarte Lopez, 1731-1782) moved to Newport in October 1752 at age 21 to seek his fortune. He became known as “The Merchant Prince of New England” and is credited with playing the leading role in the rapid commercial development of Newport that transformed it into the most formidable commercial rival to New York in Colonial America. He built an extensive transatlantic mercantile empire, was among the first to pursue the whaling business as far as the Falkland Islands and, in particular, was heavily involved in the West India trade in molasses, which he brought to Newport, manufactured into rum, and exported to Africa.

Naturalization was of great importance to American Jewish merchants because the British Navigation Act of 1740 made it illegal for aliens to trade in the colonies, under penalty of forfeiting their vessel and having their goods confiscated and, as such, Lopez applied for naturalization in Rhode Island. However, his application was rejected by the Rhode Island Superior Court in March 1762 on the spurious basis that the Act was designed to increase the population of the colony and that it already had enough citizens. The true reason, however, was overt antisemitism; as the court reasoned:

By charter granted to this colony, it appears that the free and quiet enjoyment of the Christian religion and a desire of propagating the same were the principal views within which the colony was settled, and by a law made and passed in the year 1663, no person who does not profess the Christian religion can be admitted free in this colony.

Lopez immediately moved temporarily to Massachusetts, where he was naturalized on October 15, 1762 – thereby becoming the first Jew to be naturalized in the colony – before returning to Newport.

Lopez, a crypto-Jew who was raised to practice Judaism in secret while maintaining outward adherence to Christianity, was a proud Jew who honored his Jewish heritage. After his arrival in America, he publicly renounced his “Marrano” past, and he and his family became practicing Jews in the Sephardic tradition. He underwent circumcision at age 21 (and had his son circumcised in 1753); regularly donned tefillin; married his wife Abigail in a Jewish ceremony; became the president of the Yeshuat Yisrael congregation; and laid the cornerstone for the famous Touro Synagogue.

In a letter to a correspondent in Charleston, Lopez describes the Spanish Inquisition and his family’s flight to Newport. His account books include references to purchases of sweet oil for Chanukah and mentions “sedakah” (sic), charity that he donated to the synagogue. He was strictly Sabbath observant, closing his shop on Saturday and prohibiting any of his ships from departing Newport on Saturday; out of deference to his Christian clients and neighbors, he also kept his shop closed on Sundays, making his closing on Shabbat an ever greater financial challenge and sacrifice.

In 1782, he was deeply upset when a trial regarding one of his vessels continued through Saturday, forcing him to remain overnight in Hartford for Shabbat; as he wrote to his friend, Moses Seixas, in a January 7, 1782, correspondence, “I would not stay one hour longer in that Town & soon as our Sabbath was over I mounted my Sulkey and left the contentious Judges to pass the Sentence.” It was broadly known that he meticulously kept the Jewish Festivals as well; on one occasion, an out-of-town client apologized for being in Newport and not visiting him because it was Passover and he knew that Lopez would not conduct business. He was meticulous about Shabbat and Festival observance to the point that not only he did not permit his employees to work on these days but on minor holidays as well, when work is ordinarily permitted, such as Purim and Tisha B’Av. In accordance with Torah law, his “no work” on Jewish holidays policy extended to his slaves as well.

Rivera-Lopez family tree.

There is a record of Lopez ordering 250 pounds of matzah from New York, and the family refused to compromise its observance of Passover even after the outbreak of the American Revolution forced them to flee from Newport. He sold some of his cheese as “coushir” (kosher) and he frequently included “Jew beef” (i.e., kosher meat) for sale in his shops; he even included kosher meat in cargoes to the West Indies, and there is at least one known example where his cargo included “chorisas” (charoset) for use during Passover.

Lopez’s ties to the well-established Gomez and Rivera families and America’s economic boom during the French and Indian War assured him the credit he needed to expand his business far beyond Rhode Island. Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, whose daughter he married in 1763 after the death of his first wife, often acted as his partner. Though a specialist in the American whale oil industry, he was also heavily involved in the spermaceti candle industry with Rivera, and his business interests included livestock, groceries, household furnishing and clothes, lumber, molasses and rum, and, in particular, ships, which he outfitted and chartered.

By 1770, Lopez had become the wealthiest man in Newport and one of the largest merchants in all of the American colonies. He owned a wharf and over 120 ships, including some thirty transoceanic vessels for European and West Indies trade, which he built, chartered, and outfitted and for which he hired captains and crews. Rivera invested in the enterprise, but he generally left running the operations to Lopez, who dispatched well over 200 voyages during his active shipping career in Newport, which lasted from 1760 to 1776.

Although there were very few Jewish slave owners in colonial America, Lopez personally owned five slaves and Rivera twelve, and they used their slaves in the difficult and unpleasant work of rendering the whale head matter for making candles. Lopez’s (and Rivera’s) involvement in the slave trade included sending 14 slave ships to the west coast of Africa between 1761 and 1774, and records of slaves sold in America survive for five of those voyages, including records of the deaths of several slaves at sea from disease and fever. Over that fourteen-year period, it is estimated that their ships brought over 1,100 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the southern colonies of America.

Although all fourteen of the slave voyages reached their intended destinations and returned safely to Newport, there is evidence that few of them turned a profit and, in general, the slaving enterprise resulted in a net loss for Lopez and Rivera. Thus, while it is true that, regrettably, Lopez and Rivera did engage in the slave trade, contrary to allegations by countless antisemites and historians, they did not make their fortunes from slaving. In fact, slavery constituted only the smallest part of their commercial activities and the slave trade in general was never a meaningful part of Newport’s economy.

On the eve of the American Revolution, Lopez was Newport’s leading merchant and he was recognized and respected as a leading citizen by both the nascent Jewish community and by the broader secular community in Colonial America. Notwithstanding his extensive financial and other contacts with the British, he was a great supporter of the American cause during the Revolution and he was a great American patriot. His strong support for American independence virtually destroyed his entire business when, with the imminent capture of Newport by the British, he was forced to flee. He relocated to Leicester where, together with Rivera, he took 70 members of the Newport Jewish community and founded the first Jewish community in Massachusetts. He set up a retail shop and a modest commodities trade; used the proceeds from his business to become an important supplier of munitions to American forces, including equipping his own ships with guns to serve as armed frigates; and harbored many Jewish refugees in his Leicester home during the American Revolution.

Some of Lopez’s ships had been captured by American privateers, but he prevailed against them in several lawsuits. In April 1780, a petition was presented on his behalf to Congress to permit him safe conduct to move some of his property from Jamaica to the United States. However, he was never able to recoup his losses before his death in an unfortunate accident when, returning with his family from Leicester to Newport, he drowned when watering his horse and the carriage fell into a pond, leaving behind a wife and fifteen children. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Newport and was mourned not only by the Jewish community but by all Newporters.

Business receipt signed by Lopez.

Exhibited here is a November 1773 boldly penned receipt with Lopez’s fancy autograph signature asking Thos. Cranston to deliver to noted Wm. Vernon “2 hogs heads of new England Rum for which they will send two casks.”

Vernon (1719-1806), perhaps the most prolific merchant in the Atlantic slave trade, ironically also played a leading role in the maritime activities of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. His duties included responsibility for building and outfitting the ships of the Continental Navy, which was effectively the precursor to the Department of the Navy – effectively making him the first Secretary of the Navy before the position was officially established in the 1790s. 

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Isaac Hart (?-1780) was born into an Ashkenazic family in London, where his relative, R. Aaron Hart (1667-1756), was the first chief rabbi of the Ashkenazic Jews in England. One of the founders of the Jewish community of Newport, he settled there in 1750, soon becoming well-known as a successful and cultured merchant and shipper and the owner of an impressive estate; both the president of Yale and the governor of Rhode Island were among his friends and, along with Rivera and Moses Levy, he purchased land for the purpose of establishing Yeshuat Yisrael (later called the Touro Synagogue), the first Jewish house of worship in Newport (1759).

Business note by Hart regarding shipment of rum.

Exhibited here is a September 24, 1764, note signed “Naph Isaac Hart” to William Vernon requesting, in part, “. . . please let Saml Meres have two hds [hogsheads] Barbados Rum . . .”


Although most of the prominent Jews in colonial America were strong supporters of the colonialists and their struggle for independence, Hart was a conspicuous exception. One of the city’s best-known Jewish loyalists, he was a Tory with close business ties to the British who affirmed his loyalty to George III and publicly refused to take an oath of loyalty to the rebel cause. When Rhode Island banished a number of its Jewish loyalists, Hart was stripped of all rights and property and told by the Rhode Island Assembly that he would be arrested if he ever returned to the state (July 1780).

Hart fled to New York, where the British gave him some land on Long Island but, within three months, he was killed in the defense of a British garrison during the Battle of Long Island. According to a report in the December 2, 1780 Rivington’s Gazette,

Mr. Isaac Hart, of Newport R.I., formerly an eminent merchant and ever a loyal subject, was inhumanly fired upon and bayoneted, wounded in fifteen parts of his body, and beat with their muskets in a most shocking manner in the very act of imploring quarter, and died of his wounds a few hours after, universally regretted by every true lover of his King and country.

While it was not uncommon for loyalists and rebels to murder each other, the savagery that accompanied Hart’s death suggests that antisemitism may have played a role, arguably making Hart the only Jew in America at the time to be killed, at least in part, for his faith. Hart, like other loyalist Jews of Newport, paid dearly for having chosen the losing side in the War of Independence.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].