Sephardic Jews, Mulattos and Afro-European Jews

English Crypto-Jews Disappear into the American Colonies


Part 4:  Sephardic Jews, Mulattos and Afro-European Jews


By Dr. Douglas Schar


Richard Forrester: Sephardic Jewish, German Jewish, and African American.

Some say the ratio of “European” men outnumbered “European” women 4-1 in the early colonies. This was true for colonial Christians and colonial Jews. With those statistics, only one out of four men could find a European wife, and the other three had to make other arrangements. Many early colonial Jews formed families with Indian and African women. Elaborate rules were devised to handle this common occurrence.  Children of these unions, while considered Jewish, were not considered full members of the Jewish community. Unless the Jewish parent went to great lengths to have them upgraded to full members.


The children of Jewish men and Native and African women ended up living in the Jewish world, the white Christian world, and the African American world. Today, the one thing their descendants have in common is not knowing about their colonial ancestral past.


The Hays-Touro family

Two of the more famous Sephardic families in the English colonies are the Touro and Hays families. Indeed, the first synagogue in America, Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, was named after its first rabbi, Isaac Touro (1738-1783).  An Amsterdam-born Sephardic Jew, he married Reyna (Malka) Hays (1743-1768) in 1773. The couple were wed in an elaborate Jewish ceremony at the Newport synagogue officiated by Rabbi Isaac Karigal, the first rabbi to visit the American colonies. In a sense, their marriage might have been the first legitimate Jewish marriage in America! This colonial couple had four children, Abraham, Rebecca, Judah and Nathan.


Meanwhile in New York, Moses Michael Hays (1739-1805), Reyna’s brother, married Rachel Myers (1738-1810) and they had six children, Judah, Judith, Sarah (Sally), Rebecca, Catherine and Slowey.


And this is where things get complicated. Their daughter Judith Hays (1767-1844) married her first cousin, Samuel Myers (1755-1836). At the same time, their other daughter Sarah Hays (1772-1832) married Samuel’s brother, Moses Mears Myers (1771-1860).  Two sisters married two brothers. All cousins.


Then four of the New York Hays children, Judith, Sarah, Catherine and Slowey moved from New York to Richmond, Virginia.  The unmarried sisters (Catherine and Slowey) and the two married sisters (Judith and Sarah) maintained homes in close proximity to one another other. That’s three Richmond households filled with Hays children.


Gustavus Adolphus Myers (1801-1869), son of Judith Hays and Samuel Myers, met a free woman of color working in the house of his aunt, Sarah Hays. The woman was named Nellie Forrester (1800-1873). The two had a romantic liaison and on February 1, 1823, their son was born, Richard Gustavus Forrester. He was given his father’s name as a middle name and his mother’s surname. The extended Sephardic family raised Richard as their own child. Eventually, Gustavus sent Nellie and Richard to Canada so his son might receive the education denied mixed race children in the slave-owning South.


Catherine Hays maintained a close friendship with her cousin Judah Touro (1775-1854). Judah had moved from Newport to New Orleans to expand the families import export business. And expand it he did. He became a very wealthy man.


Though he lived in a slave state, Judah had a reputation for being kindly to the enslaved. He was known to purchase slaves with the sole intent of setting them free. He opened a hospital that tended to white and black patients, the Touro Infirmary. And, he had a common law marriage with a free woman of color, Ellen Wilson (1800-?). The union produced a daughter, Narcissa (1822-1883). In 1830, Judah sent Narcissa to be raised by his good friend and maiden cousin Catherine Hays in Richmond.  Judah wanted Narcissa to be closer to a larger Jewish community than what existed in New Orleans. When Judah died, he left Ellen Wilson a house and a substantial amount of money so that she might live comfortably.


In 1836, Nellie and Richard Gustavus Forrester returned to Richmond and lived with his great aunts, Slowey and Catherine Hays. In 1840, a marriage was arranged between the cousins Richard Gustavus Forrester (Hays) and Narcissa Wilson (Touro). It is unclear where they were married. As they were Jewish, Christian and interracial, it’s anyone’s guess.

Narcissa Touro: Sephardic Jewish and African American.


In 1806, it had become illegal for free persons of color or freed slaves to remain in Virginia for more than a year. So that Richard and Narcissa might remain in Richmond with their Jewish family, Catherine and Slowey reported them as household servants to the census taker.


This clan of Sephardic Jews did not condone slavery and gamed the system in every manner known to keep Richard and Narcissa and their subsequent children safe.  A double house was built by Richard’s grandfather, Samuel Myers, to accommodate the spinsters and the Forrester family. The house was located on the very fashionable Broad Street, one block away from Monument Avenue. And what a family it was!  Narcisse and Richard Forrester were parents to 23 children:


Lucretia Wells(1843-1873)

Richard Henry (1844-1930)

Richard Gil ( 1844-1909)

Ruhan (1843-)

William Manning Taylor(1847-1910)

James Stephen(1848-1906)

Amelia(1849- ?)

Mary Ann Adams (1850- ?)


Charles N(1854- ?)


John P (1858-1921)

Sarah C (1859- ?)

Katherine Walton(1860-1943)

Robert S (1864-1907)

Melissa E (1866-1927)

Eleazar S (1867-1920)

Lee S (1868-1930)

Ella Coleman(1872-? )

Arthur Gratton(1873-1909)

George T(1873-1951)

Leona (1875-? )

Julia F(1879-? )


Richard and Narcissa had a house to live in and ample money. When their elderly aunts, Catherine and Slowey, died, they left their fortunes to them. What became of these 23 mixed race Sephardic children? Based on available records, Lucretia, Richard Henry, Richard Gil, William Manning Taylor, Katherine and Arthur Gratton, lived as people of color, were classified as Mulatto on the census and married persons of color. Thus, some members of the African American community can trace their ancestry back to these two notable colonial American Sephardic families.


What happened to the remaining 16 children? Unknown. After the civil war, Richmond became a difficult place for people of color to live and many left. While some of Richard and Narcissa’s children elected to live in the African American world, others may have chosen to live in the white Christian world, or the Jewish world.


There is a wonderful website, that traces the African American Hays-Touros from 1760 to present through Narcissa and Richard’s third son, Richard Gil Forrester.


In the incredible book, “Once We Were Slaves”, written by Laura Arnold Leibman, we see how things played out in another mixed-race Sephardic family. In this case, we see an example of descendants of enslaved persons and Sephardic Jews becoming members of the early American Sephardic elite. The book tells the story of the brother and sister, Sarah Rodrigues-Brandon (1799-1828) and Isaac Lopes-Brandon (1792-1855). They were born into slavery to a Sephardic father, Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, and an enslaved Afro-Caribbean mother, Sarah Esther Lopes-Gil (1780) in Barbados. The siblings traveled to Suriname, officially converted and joined the “Nation.” The siblings would leave their African ancestry and slave status behind them, moving into the elite Sephardic world in Suriname, London, Philadelphia and New York.


Sarah Rodrigues-Brandon married another Sephardic Jew, Joshua Moses (1780-1837) at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.  They had nine children who lived as Jews. In 1824, her brother, Isaac Rodrigues-Brandon married Joshua’s sister, Lavinia Moses (1786-1828) in New York at the Portuguese Synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. Rabbi Moses Peixotto officiated. They had one child, Abraham Rodriques Brandon. The siblings’ children and grandchildren would join the New York Sephardic Grandees, the Brandon, Gill, Lopes, Moses and Seixas families included.  (10)

Sarah Rodrigues Brandon-Moses: Sephardic Jewish and African American.


Interestingly, at a point, the Richmond Hays-Touro family intersect with the Barbados Rodrigues-Brandon family. Isaac Lopes Brandon and his mother, Sarah Esther Lopes-Gil, moved from Barbados to Philadelphia in 1820 and joined Mikveh Israel Synagogue. The Mahamad, who decided who could and could not become members of the synagogue, was made up of Benjamin J Phillips, Levy Phillips, Samuel Hays, Simon Gratz and Benjamin Nones. Samuel Hays and the Richmond Hays family were all direct descendants of the American progenitor of the Hays family, Michael (Jechial) Hays. The mixed-race mother and her mixed-race son were accepted by the synagogue. Indeed, Sarah and Isaac’s mother, Sarah Esther Lopes Gil, appears in the synagogue records as Mrs. Abraham R. Brandon.


The second wave of colonial Crypto-Jews, mostly publicly practicing Jews, ended up joining all manner of colonial families. Some married white Christians and entered the white colonial Christian world. Some married African Americans and entered into the African American Christian colonial world. Some married White and African American Christians and their children entered the Jewish colonial world. Malcolm Stern’s family trees of early American Jewish families indicate most became part of East Coast white or black Christian families shedding their Jewish identities.


We end where we began. Today, people, white and black, Christian and Jewish, with roots in the early American colonies, descend from seriously secret crypto-Jewish ancestors and openly practicing Jews. As the centuries have passed most of these early colonial Jewish ancestors have vanished with little trace into the general population. Many people do not know their colonial ancestors were “Hebrews.”


However, it seems as though some of them are figuring it out. In the first instance, Comings Street cemetery docent Lee Kamman is giving some of them history lessons on his tours. In the second instance, I am getting more and more contacts from people with deep roots in colonial America, white and black, who have taken ancestry DNA tests and discovered they have Jewish ancestry.  Many of them express interest in knowing more about their Jewish heritage. A certain number report always having felt an inexplicable pull towards Judaism.


Douglas Schar, Ph.D. is a historical consultant who contributes pieces on crypto-Jewish genealogy. He is the creator of the site Hidden Jewish Ancestry (which is highly recommended). One of his current history/genealogy projects is to make the so-called Alien Rolls of London (ca. 1520-1820) better known. These records mark the appearance in England (and thence to America) of Sephardic Jewish families which we think of today as “good old English stock,” such as Adams, Anderson, Drake, Davis and others.

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