First Jewish Settler in Michigan Informational Historical Marker

Fort Michilimackinac, Mackinaw City, Michigan

Ezekiel Solomon was born in Berlin in about 1735.  In 1756, the Seven Years War began in Europe as England, with a variety of continental allies, vied with France to be the dominant European power.  In North America, the concurrent conflict, that had begun in 1754, was known as the French and Indian War.  English settlers along the Atlantic seaboard saw themselves as surrounded by the French with their colonies to the north and to the West.  France had not only settled Canada but had erected forts throughout the Upper Midwest and the Mississippi Valley.  From 1854 through 1759 the French and English contested control of North America.  At some point during these wars, Ezekiel Solomon decided to settle in Montreal when it was, I believe, a French outpost. I suspect that he arrived there in 1759, but I do not have any evidence for that date.  By 1760, the French were defeated in North America and gave up control of all of their colonies with the exception of two small islands near Newfoundland—St. Pierre and Miquelon—that remain, to this day, components of the world wide French Empire.

American colonies were valuable to the European powers for their role in trade.  There were many French traders throughout what is now Canada and the upper United States Midwest exchanging European goods with Indians for furs, furs that were transported to Europe and sold at high prices.  Upon taking over the French colonies, the English announced new policies and licensing procedures that would give the English crown much greater control over trade with the Indians and ensure a flow of revenue.  In 1761, presumably shortly after he arrived in Montreal, Ezekiel Solomon and five other Jewish individuals obtained licenses to trade with Indians.  He selected the Straits of Mackinaw as the place for his post.  Antoine Cadillac had been there engaged in the identical activity some six decades earlier.  The British stationed a few soldiers in most of the dozen or more French forts in the upper Midwest, including Fort Michilimackinac.  It is unclear to me whether Solomon traveled the thousand miles from Montreal to Fort Michilimackinac solely for the purposes of trading for furs or whether he had an affiliation with the British military, perhaps an agreement to provide them with supplies.

Presumably, Solomon started his mercantile activities shortly after arrival at the Straits.  These were unsettled times, at least partly because Indians trusted French traders much more than they did the traders supervised by new British rules.  French officials usually presented Indians with generous gifts each summer in order to keep them as allies in their battles with the British.  The British let it be known that they would never pay any such tributes to Indians.  It is also possible that Indian leaders felt that the French and British were devastated by their years of warfare, giving the Indians an ideal opportunity to once and for all stop the Europeans from taking over the lands of native peoples.   Chief Pontiac is credited with leading a briefly effective conspiracy of a variety of tribes in 1762 and 1763, tribes that overran all of the British forts in the upper Midwest with the exception of the ones at Detroit and Pittsburgh, although the British fort at Detroit was under siege for the entire summer of 1763.  On June 2, 1763, Ojibwa Indians shrewdly captured the British fort at the Straits and killed 15 to 20 of the 35 British personnel stationed there.  Ezekiel Solomon escaped. He may have been protected by Ottawa who were not allied with Chief Pontiac.

The expansion of the American colonies was most severely threatened in 1763 as the Indian conspiracy reached its apogee.  The Indians captured most of the British forts in the Midwest, killing many of the soldiers stationed in them, including Fort Sandusky located at the mouth of that river on Lake Erie, Fort St. Joseph at Niles, Michigan, Fort Miami near Fort Wayne, Indiana, Fort Ouiatenon near present day Lafayette, Indiana’ Fort Edward Agustus near Green Bay, Wisconsin; Fort Venango near Franklin, Pennsylvania, Fort LeBoeuf near Waterford, Pennsylvania and Fort Presque Isle at Erie, Pennsylvania. By late summer of 1764, Pontiac’s Rebellion was over.  Perhaps he was unable to keep the various tribes united in their opposition to the British. The Indians also depended heavily upon their trade with the European merchants and the manufactured goods they supplied. The British reoccupied their fort at the Straits.  Although the records are not altogether clear, by 1765 Ezekiel Solomon and his partner, Gershon Levy, were operating the Solomon-Levy Trading House within the walls of Fort Michilimackinac.  By 1779, he and his partners managed a general store there.

At some point, Solomon married a local woman, Louise DuBois.  This was an interracial and interreligious marriage.  Louise DuBois was a Catholic and, I infer, an interracial woman since she was also known as Okimacinesikwe.  They raised either five or six children, one of whom, William, was hired by the British as an interpreter of Indian languages.

Realizing that their fort was in a precarious position and the United States would likely claim all of Michigan after their successful Revolution, the British decided to move their troops to a fort on the more easily defended Mackinac Island in 1781.  They remained there and fought off an attack from a small United States military contingent during the War of 1812.  Ezekiel Solomon moved his business to that island when British troops shifted their fort there. 

I have read that Solomon died in 1805 or 1808 or 1816.  Either he or his partners who probably ran his business after his death, did not wish to operate their enterprise within the United States.  At this time, the control of the many islands in the St. Mary’s River was unclear.  I believe that his firm left Mackinac Island after the United States took over in 1814 and moved to nearby St. Joseph Island.  When the United States claimed that island, the firm moved to Drummond Island which remained a British colony until 1828.

Descendents of Ezekiel Solomon apparently make efforts to highlight his accomplishments since he was one of the first non-French and, presumably, the first Jewish fur trader in the Northwest as well as the first Jewish resident of what is now Michigan.  He was also a member of the first Jewish congregation founded in Canada.  This was established in 1760 as the Shearith Israel Congregation but is also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal.  It is quite likely that he was one of the founding members of the Sephardic congregation.

State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: P23, 067 Listed August 8, 1963
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected: April 29, 1964
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Publication: Michigan Jewish History, Publication of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (November, 1964)
Photograph: Ren Farley, September 14, 2009
Description prepared: February, 2010

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