Chapman Abram

Detroit's First Jewish Resident

Historic Marker

            In the summer of 1762, Detroit’s first Jewish resident paddled into town.  His name, according to his ketubah, was Kaufman, son of Avraham Hacohen—better known as Chapman Abraham (although he signed his name Chapman Abram).  He probably had been born in Germany around 1723.  Little has survived of his family: a nephew (Isaac Abram) settled in Montreal; two brothers (Solomon Abram and Hart Abram) resided in Plymouth, England.

            In the early 1750s Chapman Abram was living in Holland.  After visiting his brothers in Britain, he settled in New York in 1756, falling in with a group of Jewish fur traders supplying the British army at Albany.  To comply with Britain’s legal code, the company was named for partner Gershon Levy, a British subject, although Ezekiel Solomons (who would become Michigan’s first Jewish resident in 1761) was the real head of the firm.  Solomons’ relation, Lucius Levy Solomons, and Benjamin Lyons rounded out the company.

            Soon after French Montreal fell to the British in 1759, the enterprising Gershon Levy Company upped stakes and relocated to Canada, keen to expand its business empire westward.  Using Montreal as its base, the firm sent its partners to other formerly French fur-trade outposts.  Ezekiel Solomons went to Michilimackinac, Abram (and later Lucius Levy Solomons and Benjamin Lyons) went to Detroit.  By 1763 the company also claimed trading privileges at Niagara and at Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, with supply lines stretching to England, the thirteen American colonies, the Caribbean, and even the Pacific.  The company was so successful, it provisioned the British army and conducted “almost one-half of the British fur trade on the Great Lakes.”

            The year after Chapman Abram arrived in Detroit, war broke out.  In 1763 local Native leader Pontiac was dissatisfied with life under the British regime, which had abandoned many of the social and diplomatic fur-trade customs common in the French period.  Pontiac hoped to orchestrate France’s return to power by laying siege to Detroit’s fort and encouraging the French to retake their former colony.  He was careful in his violence to target only the British.  Inspired by his bold plan, Pontiac’s Native allies captured other British forts around the Great Lakes.  During the conflict three of the five Gershon Levy Company business partners were taken prisoner—including Chapman Abram.  

            The fort at Detroit had been under siege since May 9, 1763.  Four days later, Abram and his employees were paddling five boats laden with merchandise up the Detroit River from Lake Erie.  Southwest of the fort, Abram was stopped by a Frenchman and told of what had happened.  Warned that Pontiac’s Native supporters “intended to kill all the English that would come up [the] Detroit River,” Abram knew his pro-British firm would be a threat.  He ordered his men to turn around and head back to Niagara.  Convinced the journey would be too treacherous, the employees balked.  Leaving his goods with the Frenchman, Abram tried and failed to find a hiding place.  A Frenchwoman offered her cellar, then evicted him and demanded his pocket watch and chain.  She chased him into the woods, where he was soon captured by a group of Hurons.  As he was hauled back to the Frenchman’s house, Abram noticed some of his own trade goods had been loaded into the man’s canoe.  It was his first realization that some of his French neighbors were profiting from, even complicit in, Pontiac’s scheme.

            How long Chapman Abram remained in captivity is unclear.  He did not mention the ordeal in his August 9, 1763 affidavit before the Military Court of Inquiry.  As evidence suggests he may also have been captured in New York in November 1759, his second captivity experience may have struck him as unremarkable.  In his affidavit, he was more focused on documenting which French residents had acquired his goods illegally.  

            In 1818—55 years later—Moravian missionary John Heckewelder published an account of the ritual torture Chapman Abram supposedly endured at the hands of Pontiac’s Ojibwe supporters.  A well-known yarn by the time Heckewelder heard it, he claimed that Chapman Abram had confirmed it personally.  While supposedly being burned at the stake, Abram became so hot and thirsty, he asked his captors for a cooling drink.  Instead, he was given a scalding hot soup. When he tasted it and burned his mouth, Abram “threw the bowl with its contents full in the face of the man who had handed it to him.  ‘He is mad!  He is mad’ resounded from all quarters. The bystanders considered his conduct as an act of insanity, and immediately untied the cords with which he was bound, and let him go where he pleased.”  A version of the tale was immortalized in Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1938 short story, “Jacob and the Indians.”

            Despite Benet and Heckewelder’s endorsements, the sensational incident probably did not happen.  It is certainly possible that Abram was traded from Huron to Ojibwe captors.  But neither tribe was known for ritual torture and certainly not by burning at the stake.  But even if they had made an exception and tortured Abram in this particular way, it is improbable that he would have been released.  Ritual torture—far more common among the Iroquois—was a spiritual experience meant to bring catharsis to a devastated tribe.  Catharsis required a sacrificial victim who performed a courageous death.  Chapman’s bold defiance likely would not have been interpreted as insanity and grounds for release, but rather as confirmation that the torture would produce the desired outcome: a brave and dramatic death.  Afterward, the tribe would have ingested the victim’s bravery, eating his heart to absorb his power.

            But Chapman Abram did not die of ritual torture at the hands of Pontiac’s supporters.  He would live another 20 years.  It is far more likely, as a trader closely allied with the British government, that Chapman Abram was worth more alive than dead.  Like his captured business partners were, he was probably ransomed back to the British.  But a redeemed return to colonial society was not an honorable outcome, especially for a man.  Men were expected to elude capture or die trying.  This captivity story may have been Abram’s, or at least the community’s, way of spinning the weak truth into something more heroic.  By 1818 not many eyewitnesses could have contradicted it—not even Chapman Abram, who had died 35 years earlier in 1783.

            All five Gershon Levy Company partners survived the War Called Pontiac’s.  The business, however, lay in ruins.  The firm had lost a staggering £18,000 worth of goods and could not meet its obligations to creditors in New York and Montreal.  Ezekiel Solomons and Gershon Levy remained in partnership at Michilimackinac and tried to rebuild the firm.  Chapman Abram, Lucius Levy Solomons, and Benjamin Lyons split off on their own, trying individually to pay off their shares of the debt.  In 1768 the former partners collectively petitioned the governor of Canada for bankruptcy protection.  They were denied.

            After 1763 Chapman Abram remained based out of Detroit and tried to pull himself back to solvency.  Although he collaborated briefly with Benjamin Lyons in 1765, two years later Abram formed a trading company in his own name.  Over time he expanded it to Michilimackinac and beyond.  He never matched the success of the Gerson Levy Company, but he did well enough to buy and sell several properties in Detroit.

            Despite the disintegration of the business, the former associates would have continued to see each other with regularity.  The closest synagogue was Shearith Israel in New York City.  It had been founded in 1654 by 23 mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jews.  Michigan’s Jewish fur traders structured their entire lives around attending high holy days there each year.  They left their fur-trading posts at least six weeks in advance of Rosh Hashanah—at the height of the fur-trading season—to make the 600-mile journey by canoe.  They wintered in New York, before venturing back west each spring.

            During the American Revolution, the British army occupied New York City.  Like most merchants and traders, most Jews sided with the British.  But as New York became a garrison town, filled with outsider soldiers, the Jewish community voted to disband the synagogue in 1776.  In its place, a new synagogue sprang up in Montreal, also called Shearith Israel.  Some historians speculate that it was created to house New York’s Jews in exile.  At least four of the former Gershon Levy partners (Chapman Abram, Ezekiel Solomons, Lucius Levy Solomons, and Benjamin Lyons) were founders of Montreal’s Shearith Israel.  They all rerouted their lives, trekking to Montreal for the high holy days during the Revolution.

           When the Continental Army began its ill-fated invasion of Quebec in September 1775 to “liberate” British Canada and stir up support for the War of Independence, Chapman Abram (then in his early fifties) was in Montreal.  He watched the city fall on November 13.  He owed enough of his life and livelihood to the British government to feel called to action.  For the next nine months, he threw in with the Canadian militia, fighting the Americans around the province.  He witnessed the defeat of the American army in Quebec City in December 1775.  He then fought at the battle at Trois-Rivières in June 1776 and took pride as American forces retreated to the United States a week later.  He wrote jubilantly to a friend, “The yankees have been drove out of this place.  Tho Stated themselves Liberty Boys: but their liberty turned to robbery and a great many People has suffered by them as allso [sic] their own friends they plundered before they went off.” 

            The invasion behind him, Chapman Abram resumed his seasonal migration to Detroit, working the fur trade and buying and selling land there through the late 1770s and early 1780s.  Curiously, in 1781 he decided to marry.  Through Montreal’s Shearith Israel, he met his bride, Eliza (sometimes Betsey) Judah.  They wed at the synagogue on July 18, 1781.  He was roughly 58, she was 21.  Eliza Judah had been born in London in 1760 to prominent parents, Zelda and Abraham Judah.  A founder of Shearith Israel, her father served as the liaison between it and Qahal Kadosh Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue.  Abraham Judah lived mostly in London, but sent his children to be part of Montreal’s small, but well-connected Jewish community.  

            Chapman Abram’s marriage to Eliza Judah substantially improved his social standing.  Remarkably, it does not seem to have altered his financial position.  Eliza Judah contributed a dowry of 50 shekels of silver, plus 500 Halifax pounds (a devalued currency worth less than British pounds sterling).  Remarkably, Chapman Abram contributed another 50 shekels of silver, plus 1000 Halifax pounds.

            The marriage also did not change the cyclicality of the bridegroom’s work.  In October 1781 Abram sold all his Detroit goods, including “snuff tobacco, mustard and silver works” to the firm of Pauling & Burrell and leased the partners his Detroit “house, shop, cellar and room” for six months.  The extra income may have helped the couple set up their Montreal residence.  And it was no loss to Abram, who was not likely to have resided in Detroit from fall to spring anyway.  He was back in Detroit in the fur-trade season that followed.

            Eliza Judah and Chapman Abram’s life together was brief.   By early March 1783, at the age of sixty, he was in a “weak and low State of body” and began to organize his affairs.  From his sickbed in Montreal he detailed his final wishes: to be buried in Shearith Israel’s cemetery and to have his body be accompanied by his fellow freemasons.  Eliza Judah Chapman, pregnant at the time of the will, was bequeathed the furniture in her bedroom and the dining room, along with bed and table linens.  A nephew received Abram’s clothes.  One witness was given fifty pounds for his “kind and friendly attention” during Abram’s final days.  The funds raised from the sale of the bulk of the estate—furniture, books, plates, linen, and movables—were to be placed in trust for Eliza and Chapman Abram’s unborn child.  As there was no recorded birth, the funds presumably were reallocated, according to the terms of the will, to Abram’s brothers in Plymouth.  By April 7, 1783, Chapman Abram was dead.

            After four years as a wealthy, young widow in Montreal, in 1787 Eliza Judah Chapman married Moses Myers, a New York merchant with ties to the Caribbean who had been down on his luck.  Her considerable assets set up her second husband in business.  Together, the couple moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he rebuilt his import/export firm.  They built a fine home there in 1792 and had twelve children, nine of whom survived to adulthood.  By 1812 Moses Myers was the leading merchant south of the Potomac and also held high-profile posts in banking and government—thanks to his wife and her first husband’s good fortune.


To learn more:

Benet, Stephen Vincent.  “Jacob and the Indians.”  Tales before Midnight.  New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1939.  pp. 74-94.

Eidelman, Jay M.  “Kissing Cousins: The Early History of Congregations Shearith Israel of New York City and Montreal.”  Not Written in Stone: Jews, Constitutions, and Constitutionalism in CanadaDaniel J. Elazar, Michael Brown and Ira Robinson, eds.  Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2017.  pp. 71-83.

Godfrey, Sheldon J. and Judith C. Godfrey.  Search out the Land: The Jews and the Growth of Equality in British Colonial America, 1740-1867.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

Heckewelder, Rev. John.  History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States.  Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1818.

Katz, Irving I.  The Beth El Story with a History of the Jews in Michigan before 1850.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1955.


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