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Sephardim in the Southern Colonies

Many people who turn to DNA to give them more information about their Native American heritage are surprised at the results. Some people with Cherokee ancestry, for example, find that the expected Asiatic DNA, which can indicate Native American background, is present in small amounts, or not at all; and instead, Southern European, Jewish, and sometimes Middle Eastern/North African markers abound, to the astonishment of families who have no paper trail even remotely suggestive of such ancestry. In many cases, this points to Sephardic influence—Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, made their way to the New World, and who married into Cherokee and other tribes.

We are just beginning to learn how Portuguese and Spanish Jews made their way to the New World. While it’s likely some may have arrived with the earliest Spanish explorers, few people realize that Sephardic Jews were part of early English settlements in the south. The Original Lists of Persons of Quality1 which has records of the inhabitants of Virginia and other English colonies in the South, makes it clear that Spanish and Portuguese were among the earliest colonists. A list of arrivals to Virginia mentions: Richard and Elizabeth Cañon who sailed from London to “Bormoodes of Somer Islands” in June of 1635; William Quyñie who arrived in Virginia in July of 1635; and Marie Lerrigo who arrived in Virginia in 1635. A list of inhabitants of Virginia as of February 16, 1623 shows the following names:

Robert Manuell, at Jordan’s Ferry
John Poñtes at “James Cittye”
John Vergo at Over the River
Nicholas Arras, at the Plantation near James Cittie

Vicencio _________
Ould Sheppard his Sonn
Richard Tarborer
Mrs. Bernardo, all at “the glase house”

and Abram Avalin, at the Eastern Shore.

In addition, a man named Mathias Francisco arrived on the Jacob, in 1624 and lived in Elizabeth Cittie.

Settlers traveled among the colonies, and sometimes back and forth to London. Tickets to travel were granted to Abraham Lopes in 1679, bound from Virginia for London on the Hope; to Telles Abraham Lopez, on December 31, 1679, sailing from Virginia to Jamaica; to Jacob Tinico on April 11, 1679 for New England; and to Moses Henriques Cotinho, November 6th, 1679, sailing from Virginia to Jamaica.

The names listed above are mostly Portuguese and Spanish names. Vicencio and Bernardo may be Italian. There is no guarantee that these people were also Jewish, but it is quite likely since so many Jews from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere were seeking refuge in the New World, and may have come as conversos. Italians Jews also counted among the Sephardim, and it would not be outside the realm of possibility that Italian Jews would also settle in the colonies.

Most interesting of all in The Original Lists of Persons of Quality, is the list of Jewish families who lived in the town of St. Michaells, Barbados in 1680.

Acob Franco Nunes
Aron Nauaro
Aron Barruch
Paul Deurede
Issac Perrera
David Ralph Demereado
Lewis Dias
Abraham Qay
Abraham Barruch
Dauid Israell
Anthony Sousa
Leah Medinah
Isack Abof
Abraham Burges Aron
Moses Hamias
Mrs. Leah Decompas
Hester Bar Simon
Daniell Boyna Abram Valuerde
Judieah Torez
Moses Mercado
Jaell Serano
Eliah Lopez
Isaac Gomez
Joseph Senior
Isaac Perera
Isack Meza
Solomon Cordoza
Abraham Lopes
Solomon Obediente
Judith Risson
Dauid Namias
Moses Arrobas
Gabriell Antunes
Sarah Atkins
Rachell Burges
Mordecah Palache
Rebecah Barruch
Jacob Pacheco
Rachell Lopez
Jacob Fonceco Vale
Sarah Mordecah
Samuel Dechauis
David Swaris
Judith Nauaro
Hester Noy
Judih Israell
Moses Dasauido
Isaac Noy
Samuell Nauarro
Jacob Preet
Abraham Costanio

In all, there were 54 Jewish families listed as living in St. Michaells. Almost all had slaves, indicating that they were families of some wealth, probably planters, and possibly involved in the slave trade. Most of the names are either Spanish or Portuguese. In the listing of names, the letter “u” was frequently substituted for the “v,” thus you have Nauarro, instead of Navarro, and Dauid, instead of David.

In column 2, the name Namias appears. Namias is a Sephardic name that has been found among Jews from Turkey and Tunisia and the Sudan. The name Medinah, in column 1, is also found in Tunisia, as well as elsewhere.2

The name Abof in the first column, is of Arabic origin, perhaps derived from the Arabic word aboaf, a stringed musical instrument.

In column 3, the name Noy may derive from the Hebrew word Noe, meaning both “Noah” and “restful.”

These Middle Eastern origins of the above names reflects both the distant Moorish history of Spain, and the more recent exodus of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to North African countries, prominent among which was Morocco.

The name, Judith Risson, may well be French. At first glance, Samuell Dechauis, looks French, but is more likely a version of de Chavez.

Since many Spanish Jews had fled to Portugal, and then, with the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536, to the Netherlands, it can be assumed that many who arrived in the New World came by way of Amsterdam. In the 1600s, there was a thriving Sephardic community in Amsterdam, consisting of many Portuguese merchants among others.

In Essays in Modern Jewish History,3 we read that Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam in the 1600s used a very small pool of names, and that 91% of male names were drawn from the following: Abraham, Ishac (and other spelling of Isaac); Jacob; David; Moseh (Moses); Joseph; Semeul (Samuel); Aharon (Aron); Binjamin and Selomah, Daniel, and Imanuel.8 A quick glance at the above list of Jews in Barbados shows the prominence of most of these names.

In addition, many names of Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam were changed to reflect preferential spelling and sounds in the Dutch language. For example, in Portuguese, Isaac would normally be spelled with a final “c,” but Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam sometimes changed the final sound to “ck” or “k.”4 Isack Abof, from the first column, and Isack Meza, from the second column, are examples of just such a change, and point to a probable residence in the city of Amsterdam.

Other name changes, such as Dauid Swaris, instead of Suarez in column 3, and Rodrigus, in column 1, instead of Rodrigues, also suggest that these were Portuguese Jews who had first lived in Amsterdam. Finally, Jacob Preett may be a Dutch sounding version of the Spanish surname, Prieto.

It should be remembered that these settlements were not static. Although the first plantations in Barbados grew tobacco and cotton, the sugar cane industry began in earnest around 1640. This meant that many colonists were actively involved in the rum/slave trade. Travel back and forth to Virginia and elsewhere in the colonies was a necessity, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine that children and grandchildren of these Sephardic Jews made their way to the Southern Highlands, some of them intermarrying with Native Americans. There was definitely a strong tie between Barbados and Charleston, then later with the new Colony of Georgia. After all good land was taken in Barbados, the children and grandchildren, who did not inherit the plantation had no choice, but move to the British Colonies on the mainland where land was abundant. Since the South Atlantic Coast had the climate most similar climate to Barbados and was also the closest part of the British North American colonies, it was only natural that the Sephardim of Barbados would play a major role in South Carolina’s early development.

Those with Cherokee or other Native ancestry who have found evidence of Sephardic ancestry through DNA are not only solving personal family mysteries, but are also helping to pave the way to a new understanding of our country’s early history. This is just one piece of the puzzle.

  1. John Camden Hotten (Ed.), The Original Lists of Persons of Quality, New York: Empire State Book Co., 1874. 

  2. SephardicGen Resources 

  3. Phyllis Cohen Albert and Frances Malino (Editors), Essays in Modern Jewish History: A Tribute to Ben Halpern, New York: Herzl Press, 1982. 

  4. Phyllis Cohen Albert and Frances Malino (Editors), Essays in Modern Jewish History: A Tribute to Ben Halpern, New York: Herzl Press, 1982. 

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Marilyn Rae is a writer whose poetry has been published in many journals over the years. She is also an experienced editor, and was, for several years, Editor-in-Chief of the well-regarded poetry journal, Romantics Quarterly. Holding a degree cum laude in Spanish Language and Literature from Boston University, Marilyn is also a translator and the author of St. John of the Cross: Selected Poems. In addition, Marilyn is an artist and a composer whose work has been performed in the United States and in Great Britain. Marilyn has had a lifelong interest in History, and became more deeply involved in researching Native American History while looking for answers to puzzles in her own family’s background.'

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1 Comment


    I have two families that should be Creek. Another, French Huguenot. My DNA does not support this. I am thinking of
    Doing another DNA test, but don’t know which to use.


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