Michigan's First Jewish Settler

            Ezekiel Solomons (as he called himself) was the first Jewish settler in what is now Michigan, arriving in Michilimackinac (now Mackinaw City) in September 1761. Family recollection puts Solomons’ birth circa 1735 in Berlin. Historian Sheldon J. Godfrey has speculated that Solomons might have been born in what is now the Czech Republic, “one of the many Bohemian Jews who were expelled by the [Habsburg] Empress Maria Theresa” from 1745 to 1748. Of Ezekiel Solomons’ birth family, nothing is known, except he had a sister named Esther, who married English merchant Moses Hart. Solomons’ last name was patronymic, the final “s” meaning “son of.” He included the suffix when he wrote his own name, although his wife and acquaintances generally did not, a practice of omission that has continued.


Business Successes and Failures

            During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) between France and Britain and their colonies and Native allies, Ezekiel Solomons was based out of Albany in British New York, part of a Jewish fur-trading group that comprised Gershon Levy, Kaufman (Chapman) Abraham, Benjamin Lyons, and Lucius Levy Solomons, who may have been a cousin. When French Montreal capitulated to the British in 1760, Ezekiel Solomons, followed by other firm members, immediately relocated there, enticed by the novel economic opportunity. He secured a fur-trading license and established one of the first Great Lakes fur-trading consortiums under British rule: Gershon Levy & Company. Despite Solomons’ centrality to the venture, the company was fronted by a British subject to avoid the trade restrictions levied on foreign-born residents who had not been naturalized. It would go on to establish outposts at Niagara, Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Thunder Bay, with supply lines stretching to England, the thirteen colonies, the Caribbean, and even the Pacific Ocean. It was so successful, Gershon Levy & Company provisioned the British army and conducted “almost one-half of the British fur trade on the Great Lakes”—until it collapsed in 1763.

            Despite the company’s success, not everyone was happy about the changeover to British control. Particularly angry were local Native peoples, long accustomed to France’s more generous trade deals and less coercive form of colonialism. Inspired by Odawa leader Pontiac’s siege of Fort Detroit in spring 1763, on June 2 that year, a group of Ojibwe men arrived outside Fort Michilimackinac and staged a game of baaga’adowe (a Native ballgame now known as lacrosse) to lure the British inhabitants outside the fort’s pickets without their weapons. Entranced by the game, the spectators realized too late its true purpose. The Ojibwe athletes consciously spared the French Canadians, but killed most of the British.

            Ezekiel Solomons had not left the fort to watch the game. As the cheers turned to shrieks and screams, he hid in a garret opposite his house. Although “a very unlikely representative of the British,” he understood what he symbolized: an outsider profiting at French and Native expense. As the hours crawled by, he watched through the chinks in the garret walls as French and Native men looted his home and store. At some point, his hiding place was discovered. A party of Ojibwes took him and three British men prisoner, stripped them of most of their clothes, and forced them to paddle a canoe in chilly fog toward Lake Michigan. Eighteen miles west of the fort, the canoe was intercepted by a band of Odawas, angry that the attack had occurred without their input. The canoe returned to Michilimackinac. The prisoners, including Solomons, were confined in the fort until mid-July, when they were transported to Montreal by Odawa guards and ransomed back to the British.

            Returning to Michilimackinac in 1765, Solomons was utterly ruined. The consortium had lost a staggering £18,000 worth of goods. The partners were unable to repay their creditors in New York and Montreal. Most went their separate ways. Ezekiel Solomons and Gershon Levy remained in partnership and tried to rebuild. Together, they purchased a two-room house inside the fort and set up shop. By 1767 the company exported the second-largest shipment of beaver pelts from Michilimackinac to Montreal. But this haul did little to offset the old debt. The following year, consortium members unsuccessfully petitioned the governor of Canada for bankruptcy protection. When that failed, Ezekiel Solomons, like the other partners, spent many years attempting to repay what the company owed.

            By the 1770s Solomons was back on his feet, sending canoes north of Lake Superior and participating with other merchants to open Michilimackinac’s general store in 1779. By the early 1780s, he had attracted the notice of his chief competitor, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which reluctantly labeled him the “master of all the Trading Houses in this part of the Country.” One exasperated official tried to downplay Solomons’ threat to the HBC monopoly, dismissing him as an “Illiterate Jew.” The charge was ridiculously untrue. Although Solomons may not have read English fluently, he certainly spoke it well enough to do business and give testimony. Given his life experience, he was undoubtedly a polyglot. He owned books written in Hebrew, Spanish, and English. He also read French. 

            Like most eighteenth-century traders and merchants of means, Ezekiel Solomons also trafficked in human beings. Just four days after the Ojibwes’ attack on Fort Michilimackinac in June 1763, Solomons sold an enslaved Native person to Captain George Etherington, the commanding officer of Michilimackinac, for £50—while Solomons and Etherington themselves were in captivity. Thirteen years later in Montreal, Solomons sold for 140 Spanish piastres an approximately 20-year-old Black woman named Jurushy, a variant of Jerusha, the Biblical queen mentioned in Melachim II.  It was not uncommon for slaveholders to bestow regal or powerful names on vulnerable and exploited chattel slaves. Given Jurushy’s age, Solomons may not have named her. But as a Hebrew speaker and reader, he would have known her name’s etymology. Derived from the verb ירש (yarash), to inherit or take possession of, Jurushy’s name connoted her status as an object to be owned.


Ties to Shearith Israel

            When Ezekiel Solomons and his business partners worked out of Albany, they were within fairly easy reach of North America’s first synagogue: New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654, although a building was not erected until 1730. (Solomons spent the high holidays of 1804 there, where he made three contributions before dying soon after.) Known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel has adhered from its founding to the Western Sephardic minhag, although Ashkenazim have always numbered among its members.

            After French Montreal’s fall to the British in 1760, the city gained its first Jewish residents. Too few in number for a cantor, rabbi, hazan, synagogue, or cemetery, Montreal’s earliest Jews made due with a minyan and voluntary leadership. For the high holidays, those able voyaged down the Hudson River to Shearith Israel. But this arrangement was short-lived. During the American Revolution, as the British army was poised to capture New York City and many residents prepared to flee, Shearith Israel’s members voted in 1776 to dissolve the congregation. With nowhere to go and New York’s future uncertain, Montreal’s Jewish community raised funds for its own synagogue building—its own Congregation Shearith Israel. At least one scholar has speculated that the Montreal Shearith Israel was meant to house New York’s congregants in exile. Among those most visible in raising money for Montreal’s Shearith Israel was Ezekiel Solomons. He helped secure enough funds to complete the building in 1778 and purchase a Sefer Torah (handwritten Torah scroll) from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London.

            Like New York before it, Montreal’s congregation served a sparse population spread over hundreds of square miles. Jewish fur traders, including Ezekiel Solomons and his partners, practiced an unusual form of seasonal transhumance, arriving in Michigan as soon after the spring thaw as possible and leaving in late summer to be at Shearith Israel (whether New York or Montreal) in time for the high holidays. At best, Solomons resided in Michigan for a third of each year.


Family Life

            For most of his trading career, Solomons lived in Montreal. As Sheldon J. Godfrey has calculated, when the synagogue was constructed, Shearith Israel boasted about twenty (male) members. Of those, more than 25 percent had married outside the faith. Some members—even those active in the synagogue—baptized their children. All of the above applied to Ezekiel Solomons. In Montreal on July 23, 1769, he married Catholic resident Marie Elizabeth Louise Dubois (also called Okimabinesikwe). She has been identified variously as French-Canadian and, by virtue of her Anishinaabe name, Native. It may be truer to say she was métis (both).  

Dubois’s heritage was a significant asset to Solomons’ line of work. Marrying into French, Native, and/or Catholic kin networks provided cultural and linguistic outsiders like Solomons instant access to New World power structures. It was a common practice among fur-traders and merchants. Louise Dubois and Ezekiel Solomons’ interfaith marriage began with a religious compromise: their union was officiated by Anglican priest David Chabrand Delisle, then the only Protestant clergyman in town, and so early in Christ Church’s existence, it did not yet have a church building. Given Dubois’ non-Jewish status, at least five of the couple’s children (Samuel, Joseph, Ezekiel, Jr., Guillaume, and Elizabeth), all born in Montreal, were also baptized at Christ Church.

            Despite her ties to Montreal’s Anglican church, Louise Dubois remained committed to Catholicism and particularly to Catholic baptism, perhaps because her own children had been baptized Anglican. After moving permanently to Mackinac Island with the family in 1791, she became a “super-godmother” for Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church, promising in writing at various times, from 1794 to 1813, to oversee the Catholic education of twenty different catechumens, including five of her own grandchildren. For each baptism, she signed her name “L. D. Solomon,” “D. B. Solomon,” “D. Solomon,” or “Dubois Solomon,” suggesting she retained something of a separate identity from her husband, a rarity in that time and place. Even more unusually, she also conducted occasional fur-trading business for her husband, identifying herself as “Louise Dubois, wife of Ezekiel Solomon.”  In these instances, she may have been invoking the French legal custom of being a procuratrice, a “power of attorney that allowed her to operate on her husband’s behalf as his equal.” In short, ecclesiastical and commercial records are a testament to Louise Dubois’s education and high standing in the community.


Living a Jewish Life

            Despite his High-Church family, Ezekiel Solomons was a lifelong active synagogue member and a “professing Jew.”  He helped write Montreal’s Shearith Israel’s bylaws. In 1778 he was elected hatan Torah, reading the final portion of the Torah that October.  He served on the congregation’s three-member board in 1779. He was jailed briefly in 1775 for punching a Frenchman who made an antisemitic remark, knocking him to the ground.

            In Michilimackinac, without synagogues, rabbis, cemeteries, or even a minyan, being observant was more difficult. Archaeological digs at Solomons’ home with Gershon Levy have turned up no Judaica, suggesting only that he left none behind when he moved to Mackinac Island in 1791. It is unlikely he would have had a mezuzah on his seasonal Michigan home. It is also unlikely Solomons was able to keep Kosher, regardless of how closely he might have followed dietary law. Analysis of the faunal remains recovered at the Solomon-Levy residence indicates someone in the household ate pork and other treyfe. Although it may have been consumed by a non-Jewish laborer residing there, statistical analysis indicates the percentage of unpermitted foods was significantly higher at the Solomon-Levy house than at other houses in the fort in the same period. Moreover, egg-laying chickens constituted only a “small” part of the faunal remains recovered at the house.

            Regardless of his ritual observance at Michilimackinac, in Montreal Ezekiel Solomons’ religious position and philanthropic tendencies seem to have given him unusual latitude. When his young son (probably Joseph, born in 1774) died in the fall of 1778, Solomons wished him to be buried in Shearith Israel’s cemetery, “according to the rules and customs of Jews.” Baptized, uncircumcised, and born of a Catholic mother, Solomons’ son was not a candidate for interment.  And yet, Solomons succeeded in convincing the congregation of “several circumstances favorable” to himself, ultimately securing permission for the boy’s burial. Despite the victory, the board also unanimously ruled that “no man or boy whomsoever shall be, after sixty days from this date, be buried in the burying place of this congregation unless circumcised.” Notably, with so many of its members in interfaith marriages, the board said nothing about baptism or non-Jewish mothers.

            After the close of the American Revolution, with the United States’ victory over Britain confirmed, New York’s Shearith Israel was reestablished. No longer under intense pressure to serve New York’s displaced Jews, Montreal’s Shearith Israel, in turn, reverted to a minyan. Ezekiel Solomons’ life changed too. In 1781—this time with his wife and children—he moved permanently to what would become northern Michigan, painstakingly packing up the Michilimackinac residence and settling in the new and more defensible British fort on nearby Mackinac Island. In time, sons Guillaume, Samuel, and Ezekiel, Jr., at least two of whom would take Native wives, would all join their father in the fur-trading business. Sometime shortly after his 1804 high-holiday contributions to New York’s Shearith Israel, Ezekiel Solomons died. He is believed to be buried in the cemetery at Montreal’s Shearith Israel. Louise Dubois died sometime after June 23, 1813, when a witness reported she was bedridden and “dependent upon friends to bring in her food.” Her burial place is unknown.


Ezekiel Solomons’ Descendants

            Periodically, descendants of Ezekiel Solomons gather at Fort Michilimackinac to honor their ancestor. In 2003 more than 60 convened, with one attendee estimating there may have been more than one thousand descendants alive at the time.  The journalist covering the reunion was struck by the group’s racial and geographic diversity:

            The gathering included a few Catholic clergy and nuns, as well as some people with French Canadian ancestry and members of the Métis, Ojibwa and other native groups. Descendants of several area lighthouse keepers were also in attendance. Many came from towns in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario, while a few traveled from more distant cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Miami.

            Also in attendance, by special invitation, were historians Sheldon J. Godfrey and Judith C. Godfrey, whose 1995 book, Search out the Land, continues to be the go-to resource for information on Ezekiel Solomons—including for his descendants. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency journalist present for the gathering noted, “The Godfreys carried the additional distinction of being the only Jews at the reunion.”



Learn More: Chapman Abram

back to top