It began with a casual remark by one of my grandsons, the one who inherited the history-buff gene. His sphere of interest is mainly Canada, a curiosity whetted by his experiences as an undergrad at McGill University, in Montreal.
Recently, he was telling me about Cape Breton and the backstory to a song about the island. Just before our conversation ended, he added, “I also found out that the first Jew to settle in Nova Scotia came from colonial Newport.” And then he said “goodbye.” But he had already said those magical words, “colonial Newport.”
Since traveling to find original or even secondary information was not an option, this journey of discovery had to rely, in part, on the internet – which, of course, is not always a reliable source.
Finding the identity of this first Jewish settler on the web proved easy. His name was Samuel Hart. He came to Nova Scotia from New York at a time when many Tories were leaving New York for Canada. But then the questions began. Was it “sometime in the 1780’s”? 1781? 1785? And where was his home in the colonies? New York? Philadelphia? Newport?
Accounts differ, but on Hart’s life in Nova Scotia there is agreement. Samuel Hart (c. 1747-1810) did arrive in Nova Scotia when many Tory sympathizers emigrated from New York. He became a very successful dry goods merchant and importer, perhaps engaging in “sharp practices.”
According to A.B. Sutherland, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Hart had a brother, Moses, who lived in London. When Moses suffered heavy losses in business, Samuel bailed him out.
Samuel Hart was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for Liverpool Township, serving 1793-1799. In order to take his seat in the House of Assembly, he had to take an oath “as a Christian.” He converted.
Hart purchased a large estate, Maroon Hall, in Preston, entertained lavishly, and died tragically after being declared legally insane.
To add to the mysteries about his life, the Atlantic Jewish Council states, “The first Jews arrived in Halifax in 1750, a year after the city was founded and established as a fort. By 1752, there were as many as 30 Jewish men, women, and children living in Halifax .... The first Jewish settlers came from Newport, Rhode Island. Most were merchants.”
The many articles in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society’s Notes dealing with the Jews of colonial Newport make no mention of this exodus. However, there is information on the Hart family.
The Harts were prominent among the Jewish merchants of Newport. Originally from England, they came to Newport after achieving residency privileges in New York. They were ambitious, canny entrepreneurs who were attracted to the city’s shipping industry.
Abraham and Nephtaly Hart were members of the original group of nine Jewish businessmen to arrive from New York in the 1740s. Additional members of the Hart clan arrived in the next decade. They engaged in a variety of commercial ventures – manufacturing, trade, shipping – often in partnerships with others in the community. (Marilyn Kaplan “Jewish Merchants of Newport,” RIJHNotes, vol. 1, 1975.)
As long as the British occupied Newport during the American Revolution, the Harts were able to operate some of their businesses. When the British forces withdrew, their situation became untenable.
In his magnum opus, “The Colonial American Jews,” Jacob Rader Marcus wrote: “Apparently all the Harts were Loyalists – among them Isaac, Samuel, Samuel Jr, Moses, Jacob and Nephtaly .... After the Hart clan left, all their estates were confiscated and they were declared banished.”
The Harts were accused of offering comfort to the British and refusing to take a loyalty oath to the new government. They found refuge in New York City and in New York’s Long Island.
Jacob Hart had wanted to move to Nova Scotia, but ran out of money. He took his family back to England in 1783. According to Malcolm Stern’s genealogy of the American Hart family, Jacob’s family included two sons and a daughter: Moses (b. 1748), Samuel (b. 1749) and Miriam.
Is this Samuel our elusive subject? Did he fulfill his father’s dream of Nova Scotia?
A major part of the joy of history is the search itself, and the interesting sidelights one finds along the way, such as that the most common Jewish name in colonial America was Hart, originally Herz, meaning heart. They were not all related.
In the late 19th century, Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement began arriving in Cape Breton to work in the mines. Lured by the promise of paid passage by the mine owners, they saw a way to escape the terror of pogroms. At one time, there were 400 Jewish families living on the island.
When the mines closed, the general population, including the Jewish population, dwindled. The remaining Jewish community is now centered in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Then there is … but I shall leave that nugget for another column. And, yes, I am still searching for Samuel Hart.
With gratitude to Carrie-Ann Smith and Cara MacDonald at The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, and Joe Weber at American Jewish Archives.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at email@example.com or 401-331-1360.