Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Buttonwood Jews

On the 17th of May, 1792, 24 businessmen met under a buttonwood (sycamore) tree and made an agreement to deal only with one another and to set a .25% commission rate on all transactions. The tree under which those brokers and merchants met was located on Wall Street in Manhattan and that agreement established what would become the New York Stock Exchange. In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, Jewish Treats presents a quick look at the five Jews who signed the Buttonwood Agreement.

Isaac Moses Gomez (1768 - 1831) was a native of New York, as was his father Moses Gomez (1728 - 1789). Isaac actually wrote a detailed history tracing the Gomez family to a Spanish converso nobleman, also named Isaac Gomez, who lost everything fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Luis Moses Gomez, the son of the Spanish Isaac, was raised in France but received permission in Great Britain to come to the colonies, where he built Gomez Mill House in what is now Marlboro, New York (“Oldest Jewish Dwelling in North America”). Isaac Gomez of Buttonwood fame married Abigail Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island, and raised 10 children to adulthood.

Bernard Hart (1763-1855) was born in London and emigrated around 1777. Married twice, the son of the only child of his first marriage was Bret (Francis Brett) Harte (1836 - 1902), a popular author and poet. Hart’s second wife was the daughter of Benjamin Seixas, and one of their sons, Emanuel Bernard Hart, served in the U.S. Congress from 1851 - 1853.

Ephraim Hart (1747 - 1825) was born in Furth, Germany, where his last name was Hirz. It is known that he was in America during the Revolutionary War because his tombstone lists him as a private in Captain Henry Graham’s Company. In the 18770s, Hart spent time in Philadelphia, where he joined Congregation Mikveh Israel. When he returned to New York, he became an active member Shearith Israel Congregation.

Benjamin Mendes Seixas (1747 - 1817) was born in Newport, Rhode Island and came from a band of famous brothers. Gershom Mendes Seixas was the spiritual head of Shearith Israel. Moses founded the Bank of Rhodes Island and wrote to George Washington, resulting in the famous presidential letter to the Jews of Newport (“to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”).

Alexander Zuntz (1742 - 1819) has little recorded about him. Born in Westphalia (Germany), he came to America as a Hessian mercenary hired by the British. He defected and stayed in the U.S., where he became a successful businessman and active member of Shearith Israel.

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