The French government permitted only Roman Catholics to migrate to its North American colonies. Not even French Hugonauts were allowed to journey to the New World. In 1759 and 1760, toward the conclusion of the French and Indian War, British troops defeated French armies at battles in Québec City and Montréal. The Union Jack replaced the Fleur de Lys in Detroit in November, 1760. The British had a more liberal migration policy and thus, at this point, a few European Jews migrated to Montréal to seek their fortune. The first congregation in Canada was founded in Montréal in 1760 by Sephardic Jews. One of the new migrants was Ezekiel Solomon. A State of Michigan Historical Marker commemorates him as the first Jewish settler of what is now Michigan. He established a trading business at the Straits of Mackinac in 1761. Another Jewish migrant to Montréal, and presumably a business colleague of Ezekiel Solomon, was Chapman Abraham who moved to Detroit in 1762 to establish a trading firm. Likely, he regularly made trips to Montréal or Québec City where he obtained manufactured goods to trade with Detroit area Indians for pelts. He may also have had a contract to supply goods to the small British militia stationed in Detroit. The Jewish population of Detroit grew very slowly and not until 1850 was the state’s first congregation, Beth El was established. Abraham remained in Detroit for several decades, although during the American Revolution, he apparently returned to Canada since he was a Loyalist who opposed George Washington and the Revolutionaries. I do not know if he took up arms to fight in the Revolutionary War. I presume that Abraham continued to live in Detroit after the end of the Revolutionary War since the British occupied this area until July 11, 1796 when Colonel Jean François Hamtramck and his troops peacefully took control of Detroit for the United States.
The most frequently reported story about Chapman Abraham describes his escape from Indians during the rebellion that Chief Pontiac led. There are many versions so I do not know how much of the tale is accurate. During the spring or summer of 1763, Chapman Abraham presumably sailed across Lake Erie and into the Detroit River with a boat full of goods purchased in Montréal for his trading business in Detroit. Perhaps he did not know that Chief Pontiac had laid siege to his village, beginning in May of that year. At some point on his journey, Indians overtook him, took his goods and held him captive, presumably in some location on the shores of Lake Erie that is now within Ohio or Michigan. He was able to escape once and found a friendly Frenchman who harbored him for some time. However, the Indians were looking for him, finally found him and held him captive once again. According to some versions of the story, they took him to Canada and decided to execute him by burning him to death. They tied him to a post and prepared to kindle their fire. The Indians had a tradition, apparently, of granting a last request to a prisoner they were about to execute. Chapman Abraham knew that Indians believed in possession and that they did not wish to be in the presence of a person occupied by demons. As the fire was about to be lit, he requested a bowl of hot soup or its equivalent. Indians gave hot broth to him, but he threw it in the face of the Indian who presented it to him and then acted as if he were a wild man completely possessed by demons. Some versions contend that the Indians became extremely frightened by being in the presence of a madman so they freed him. Other versions suggest that Abraham was able to loosen his ties and escape. The Indians apparently did not want to be around a possessed man so they left. Abraham made his way to Detroit was able to pursue his career as a merchant. There are versions of this story that contend that after he escaped the pyre, French residents of the area found the goods that Indians had taken from him and returned them to him.
There is no reason to believe that this historical marker is located near the location where Chapman Abraham ran his trading post in the 1760s. However, so far as we know, Chapman Abraham was the first Jewish resident of the city. I have seen references stating that his life span was from 1723 to 1783.
Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place in 2008
Photograph: Ren Farley; June 20, 2009
Description updated: February, 2014
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