Academic journal article American Jewish History

Joachim Gans of Prague: The First Jew in English America

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Joachim Gans of Prague: The First Jew in English America

Article excerpt

Joachim or Chajjim Gans reached America in the summer of 1585 aboard one of Sir Walter Raleigh's ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville. On 26 June he arrived at the barrier islands near Cape Hatteras in what is today the State of North Carolina. On 29 June the pilot of the flagship, the Tyger, tried to get her to a safe harbor in the sound beyond the outward islands. The inlet was too shallow, however, and the ship ran aground. To set her free the crew had to jettison valuable provisions, including apparently some of Gans's heavy technological equipment.

Meanwhile Gans accompanied the English who spent most of July in smaller vessels exploring the coastal islands and the adjacent mainland of what they called Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth. They traveled about 80 miles south to the Pamlico River. Finally, on 27 July, they found a passable inlet for the Tyger through the chain of islands known as the Outer Banks. Immediately they began to build a fort and settlement on Roanoke Island, which is situated within the sound about equal distance from the barrier islands and the mainland. About 10 miles long and 1 to 3 miles wide, the island slopes from approximately 30 feet above sea level at the northern end to actual sea level at the extreme southern end. The settlement was under the command of Governor Ralph Lane, Raleigh himself being detained at home by the Queen who feared to lose him. (The settlement site has been preserved by the National Park Service as Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Manteo, North Carolina.)

Joachim Gans, a relative of the famous Prague scholar David Gans, arrived in America 35 years before the Pilgrims landed in New England.(1) He was the first technologist or material scientist in English America. The site of his technological work on Roanoke Island in 1585-6 has been called "America's First Science Center" or "the Birthplace of American Science."(2)

What prompted Joachim Gans, a German Jew from Prague, to take part in the premier English settlement in America? Why was he present at the genesis of the American nation? The English often relied on Continental experts in the field of minerals and metals. German specialists accompanied Martin Frobisher, the seeker of the Northwest Passage to China, in 1577 and 1578. At least one German metallurgist sailed with Sir Humphrey Gilbert when he tried in 1583 to establish the first English colony in what is today Canada. When Gilbert's half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, received a patent from Elizabeth to found a colony, he sent along the mineral expert and metallurgist Gans. It was probably on the recommendation of the Queen's Principal Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.

One of the primary objectives of the colony was to locate and abstract valuable metals for the investors and the Queen. Therefore Raleigh was anxious to employ the most up-to-date methods, using the top experts in the field. The eminent British historical archeologist Ivor Noel Hume believes that the men running metallurgical assays and other scientific tests on Roanoke Island were "a blue-ribbon team and like most scientific research efforts today, quality of mind brushed aside barriers of race, religion, or national origin."(3) David B. Quinn, the prominent historian of early English settlements, describes the mineral experts as follows:

   One group of specialists was of considerable importance, namely the
   "mineral men"--metallurgists and miners. The leading metallurgist in the
   list [of settlers] was Dougham Gannes, otherwise Joachim Ganz, a Jewish
   expert from Prague, who had been involved in the locating and working of
   copper mines in England.(4)

Gans had been brought to England by George Nedham, the clerk of the Society of Mines Royal, to improve its operations. Maxwell Bruce Donald, the historian of the Society, relates how in 1581 the German-speaking Nedham brought Gans "up to Keswick to explain and develop the brilliant new ideas he had about mineral dressing and smelting. …

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