Pioneer Jewish Texans

Pioneer Jewish Texans

by Natalie Ornish

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With more than 400 photographs, extensive interviews with the descendants of pioneer Jewish Texan families, and reproductions of rare historical documents, Natalie Ornish’s Pioneer Jewish Texans quickly became a classic following its original release in 1989.
This new Texas A&M University Press edition presents Ornish’s meticulous research

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With more than 400 photographs, extensive interviews with the descendants of pioneer Jewish Texan families, and reproductions of rare historical documents, Natalie Ornish’s Pioneer Jewish Texans quickly became a classic following its original release in 1989.
This new Texas A&M University Press edition presents Ornish’s meticulous research and her fascinating historical vignettes for a new generation of readers and historians. She chronicles Jewish buccaneers with Jean Lafitte at Galveston; she tells of Jewish patriots who fought at the Alamo and at virtually every major engagement in the war for Texan independence; she traces the careers of immigrants with names like Marcus, Sanger, and Gordon, who arrived on the Texas frontier with little more than the packs on their backs and went on to build great mercantile empires. Cattle barons, wildcatters, diplomats, physicians, financiers, artists, and humanitarians are among the other notable Jewish pioneers and pathfinders described in this carefully researched and exhaustively documented book.
Filling a substantial void in Texana and Texas history, the Texas A&M University Press edition of Natalie Ornish’s Pioneer Jewish Texans brings back into circulation this treasure trove of information on a rich and often overlooked vein of the multifaceted story of the Lone Star State.

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Editorial Reviews

Houston Chronicle -

"From Jewish buccaneers with Jean Lafitte to Jewish patriots at the Alamo, Pioneer Jewish Texans is a rich look at an often overlooked aspect of Lone Star history."--Steve Bennett,

— Steve Bennett

Houston Chronicle - - Steve Bennett

"From Jewish buccaneers with Jean Lafitte to Jewish patriots at the Alamo, Pioneer Jewish Texans is a rich look at an often overlooked aspect of Lone Star history."--Steve Bennett,

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Pioneer Jewish Texans

By Natalie Ornish

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2011 Natalie Ornish
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-433-0



Conquistadors and the Search for Freedom

* * *

Those conquistadors who rode north, with banners and trumpets, to carry the rule of their king to the farther reaches of New Spain, included Jews whose role in American exploration, adventure, and settlement has often been overlooked.

They came to the New World to escape torture and death. Some became horse ranchers or cattle ranchers in northern Mexico, and a few crossed the Rio Grande and established themselves in what became Texas. They rode their stallions as far north as present-day San Antonio.

Some of the earliest of those Jews—the ones who landed with conquistador Hernando Cortés—became victims of the Inquisition.

In 1528, ninety-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, members of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico City burned a Jew, Hernando Alonso, at the stake. They charged him with being a "Judaizing heretic," a Spanish legal term then used to describe one who officially belonged to the Catholic Church but who allegedly practiced Jewish rituals or rituals that were allegedly Jewish. Conquistador Cortés had hired Alonso, a carpenter, to build bridges for Cortés's march across Mexico. It was Cortés and his men who defeated Emperor Montezuma II and ended the Aztec nation, capturing Mexico for Spain. Jewish history in North America, replete with dark tragedies such as Alonso's, also boasts of triumphs in settling the land and building industries and opportunities for new generations.

This continent's Jewish history began not in New England but with adventurers in Mexico and Texas, known at the time as New Spain. Alonso lived in the New World one hundred years before Manhattan Island was acquired from the Indians. One hundred twenty-six years after his death—in truth, murder—theSt. Charles sailed into New Amsterdam in 1654 with the first group Jews to land on the soil of what is now the United States of America. Both Alonso and the newcomers to New Amsterdam shared the common experience of persecution by the Inquisition, which punished Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. This work deals with only one aspect of the Inquisition, its handling of the Jews.

In the late 1400s, Spanish Jews became increasingly hated because of their commercial successes and because they allegedly assisted the Moors. The Dominicans called for the introduction of the Inquisition, and in 1492 the Inquisitor General in Spain issued an edict expelling all Jews. Many Jews accepted baptism, which produced a large group of "New Christians," although many other Jews remained loyal to their faith and practiced Judaism in secret. The Inquisition continued wherever the Spanish landed and conquered, in this instance in New Spain, which included Mexico and what is now called Texas. Besides Alonso, others kept their Jewish ancestry secret in New Spain during the 1500s, and a few traveled on horseback north into Tejas territory.

The story of the earliest Jewish adventurers in Texas embraces the lives of four men: two conquistadors, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa and Luis Carvajal II; one professional soldier, West Point graduate Samuel Noah; and a member of Jean Laffite's colony on Galveston Island with the Karankawa Indians, a pirate named Jao de la Porta. Each of their lives ended in tragedy. Though many other early Jews lived and traveled in Mexico/Texas, these four Jews became historically the most significant.

Conquistador Castaño is credited as being the first Jew to set foot on Texas soil. He served as the mayor (alcalde) of what is now called Monterrey, Mexico. He led a group of 170 colonists north into Texas looking for the Pecos River in 1590. Thus, a man of Jewish descent acted as "the law west of the Pecos" in the sixteenth century. Consumed by political jealousy, his enemies ousted him from control and then exiled him: He sailed toward the Far East, where he died a grisly death in the Philippines in a mutiny on a Chinese junk.

Carvajal II, also called Carvajal the Younger (el Mozo), anticipated succeeding his uncle, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a great captain and explorer almost the equal of Cortés, in governing a vast area of northern Mexico that included parts of Texas territory. The spacious empire sprawled from Tampico, Mexico, north all the way to San Antonio, Texas. Set up by charter on May 31, 1569, from the Spanish Crown, the empire covered land six hundred miles square and embraced both sides of the Rio Grande. It encompassed one of the largest, yet most dangerous, Spanish land grants. Later, Spanish authorities stripped young Carvajal of rights to his uncle's empire and burned him at the stake for following what he called "the law of Moses." He died a martyr's death in 1596, ending an unmatched Texas dynasty.

Two hundred years later, we find in Texas Samuel Noah, the first Jewish graduate of West Point. To help a college friend, he traveled to Texas and fought a major battle in Texas' earliest struggle for independence from Spain. When their Magee-Gutierrez expedition failed, he fled Texas and returned to New York, weary and disillusioned from the animalistic slaughter of humanity he had witnessed.

The fourth adventurer, Jao de la Porta, a pirate-patriot, rode the high seas as a free spirit with bands of adventurers. He worked as an official with Luis Aury, first governor of Texas under Mexico.

When Aury left Galveston, de la Porta served as secretary and trader under the swashbuckling Jean Laffite. When the pirates expanded their assaults on Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico to include American ships, the U.S. government pressured them to leave the bay at Galveston.

These are the men, the adventurers, who began to make Jewish history on Texas soil.

We know more about these men who walked on Texas soil four hundred years ago—how they thought,whom they loved, why they made war, how they sold slaves and lived with the Indians—than we do about most modern-day Texans. Spanish ordinances, including the Laws of Settlement of 1573, required all explorers to keep "a journal account of the expedition's day to day travel" for the governor who had dispatched the entourage.

Castaño kept a very detailed journal of his mobile colony. Carvajal, the sixteenth-century's Anne Frank, so to speak, kept a poignant diary as he languished in jail at the hands of the Inquisition.


[T]he Padres came
Upward from Mexico and the great river the Bravo
Over the many rivers, bruising the shallow land
Into a path for the king.

TOWNSEND MILLER, A Letter from Texas

Jews followed the rivers, too. They adventured west of the Sabine, west of the Trinity, west of the Brazos, west of the Colorado, west of the Pecos, and west of the Rio Grande.

In 1590 Castaño, a Portuguese by birth and by religion a Catholic (converted from Judaism), set forth on an expedition looking for the Pecos River in Texas—and silver as well.

Castaño was as rugged as Coronado, as idealistic and sometimes even as comic as Don Quixote. He guided his actions by chivalry, magnanimity, and morality, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous. When betrayed, framed, and captured, he embraced his traitor and remained loyal to his king. His brief life covered three continents and generated robust excitement and violence.

Castaño attained the rank of lieutenant governor of a vast province 600 miles north-south and 600 miles east-west, the New Kingdom of Leon (Nuevo Leon). This area, from the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico's Pacific coast, north to the state of Chihuahua, and east to San Antonio, Texas, became known as "Carvajal's tragic square." Castaño received his appointment as lieutenant governor from Governor Luis de Carvajal. Castaño and Carvajal had founded settlements together. Carvajal founded, and Castaño became mayor of, a village in Mexico called San Luis, renamed Monterrey. There Castaño owned a farm called the Enchanted Lady (La Encantada).

He later moved to the silver-mining town of Almaden (meaning mine), now renamed Monclova. When the silver ran low, he told the people of Almaden about mines to the north, appealing to the citizens personally, luring them by showing a large ingot. Equally, his desire to move may have been motivated by the knowledge that on April 13, 1589, Spanish officials had arrested Governor Luis de Carvajal in Almaden and charged him with being a secret Jew. On Monday, February 26, 1590, the governor began his sentence in the Royal Prison, where he died in a matter of months.

On July 27, 1590, Castaño set out to cross Coahuila in northeast Mexico and West Texas, seeking silver in New Mexico. The entire town enlisted to move with him.

That morning in late summer of 1590, the adventurers loaded a large supply of corn and wheat and located several Indian interpreters. The company of 160 or 170 men and women—together with their beef on the hoof, goats, and at least ten carts—marched north, seeking glory and silver for themselves and for the king of Spain, their sovereign.

Gaspar Castaño de Sosa traveled in the manner of a true conquistador. One of his men documented in their official journal, "He traveled along with his people in [military] order with flag flying high, and on gaining sight of the village he ordered the trumpets sounded which they had with them."

Here is most Spain
Here they the wanderers, the slow marchers northward
Remembering Spain in the long afternoons
Toledo, dusty Salamanca.

TOWNSEND MILLER, A Letter from Texas

It took forty-five days—slightly more than a full six weeks—from July 27 to September 9, just to get from Almaden (Monclova) to the Rio Grande, now the Mexico-Texas border. (Monclova to Del Rio is approximately 175 miles.) The final three weeks in September Castaño and company encamped on the low sandy hills and lush greenery on the banks of the Rio Grande, near modern Del Rio, Texas. Castaño had sent an urgent message to the viceroy, formalizing his request for permission to colonize the New World. He waited at the Rio Grande for a response, crossing the great river and moving camp to the east bank. This move stands as the first documentation of a Jew setting foot on Texas soil.

On October 1 the group broke camp, headed north-northwest, and two days later reached Devil's River. The crossing presented a supreme challenge; it took the party all day to ford San Pedro creek, a little north of what is today Texas Highway 90.

The journey continued during the month of October, with endless marching by foot, ox, and horse across West Texas, on past Cow Creek and Dead Man's Creek near present-day Comstock. They continued north-northwest between Devil's River and the Pecos, toward Live Oak Creek. The expedition finally sighted the waters of the Pecos River on October 26. They crossed the Pecos fifteen to twenty miles below present-day Sheffield, Texas.

No roads or towns existed in this rugged, rocky terrain. They used more than three hundred horseshoes as they penetrated the Indian territory between the Rio Grande and the Pecos. When the ordeal's obstacles mounted, several dissenters protested and wanted to turn back from the steep passages. Castaño in his own way became like Moses in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. Castaño's top aide, who always agreed with him to take the route he selected, was Juan de Carvajal, once arrested by Captain Juan de Morlete at Almaden.

They moved five to eight miles a day. Women, children, and cattle walked in the moving colony. Castaño led his group up the lower Pecos across what became these West Texas towns: Sheffield, Iraan, Abel City, Grandfalls, Pecos, Amo, and Orla. They journeyed across the Davis Mountains and the Delaware Mountains of Texas. Waters they passed later had colorful names such as Independence Creek, Comanche Creek, Cottonwood Draw, Salt Creek, and finally Red Bluff Lake on the Texas—New Mexico border.

Here Castaño climbed a bluff and saw in the distance the Guadalupe Mountains, which straddle the present Texas—New Mexico line. On November 29, 1590, the colony-on-the-move reached Willow Lake and crossed the present New Mexico border at Dark Canyon and Carlsbad. The expedition continued to present-day Santa Fe before it aborted.

While on the move, Castaño refused to allow his men to rape the land or the women. This great captain contrasted with other governors of the era, who indulged in their own trading ventures and enslaved Indians. Castaño brought the Indians meat, maize, ornaments, small knives, and other gifts as gestures of goodwill.

The journal entry for January 2 to 5, 1591, reads in part, "The Lieutenant Governor ordered ... that no harm should be done [the Indians' belongings], but that search should be made in the houses to see if some things that belonged to us could be found. This was done without any harm being done them." Castaño's insistence that nothing be taken from the Indians and that none of them be molested almost led to a mutiny near the end of the expedition's exploration on the Rio Grande.

The Indians' fear of the Spaniards seemed understandable, especially where there had been earlier slave expeditions. The journal describes one scene in detail:

They showed great fear at seeing us, especially the women, who wept very much. One [Indian] came to us with much fear, and the Lieutenant, in order to reassure them all, dismounted and embraced the Indian. And when he (Castaño) saw that there was a band of Indians in another place, he went to them, and they waited for him, and he embraced them. While they were touching him and placing their hands on the face of the Lieutenant and on his clothing, he kissed them, while they all caressed him and touched him with their hands.

At one point a horseman notified Castaño that one of the Indians in a pueblo was wearing much jewelry of precious stones; he suggested that Castaño go see him and take it. The journal reads: "He [Castaño] replied that it was not then convenient to do so as he did not wish the Indians to think that they coveted their things or believe that they came to their land for what they had.

The lieutenant governor only wished to see it and went to the Indian who had it. The said Indian was covered with beautiful buffalo hide. He reached him [the Indian] wishing to see it as has been said, but he [the Indian] did not want to show it. So the matter was dropped."

Castaño's expedition was unique. Unlike all other expeditions into the Southwest, his had no friars traveling with the party. Although it began hurriedly without advance sanction of the viceroy and without undergoing an inspection, the expedition complied with the laws of settlement. The laws permitted expeditions "in parts already discovered ... provided that notice of the settlement made in the discovered area be forwarded to us immediately."

After Castaño sent notice to the viceroy, his impatience caused him to start the trip without advance official sanction, hoping these papers would catch up with him. He had waited three weeks at what became Del Rio, Texas, on the banks of the Rio Grande.

But his hidden problem centered on an enemy he had made. Long before the trip, he had had a falling out with Captain Juan Morlete. Envious of the lieutenant governor, Morlete had written to the high court of Mexico requesting a commission to go and seize him. Previously, Morlete had acted as a scribe for the Inquisition.

Juan de Carvajal, previously arrested by Morlete and released before Castaño led the expedition out, and two other of Castaño's men were the first to warn him.

They "had come to call [on] the lieutenant governor because Captain Juan Morlete with fifty men had arrived in camp." When Castaño heard who they were, "this caused him to worry greatly." However, he did not heed his men's advice to flee but rode rapidly back to his camp. Several historians agree that jealousy and Castaño's "adherence to the ordinance" forbidding the infliction of injury on the Indians caused Morlete's conspiracy.

Throughout his expedition Castaño had sent detailed, documented messages to the viceroy and the king. He had done what no conquistador had done before: He had conquered the Pecos and pacified the New Mexico Indians. Instead of a garland of laurels, a warrant for his arrest awaited "by order of his majesty and the viceroy Don Luis de Velasco." "He was arrested not on the charge of having led an unauthorized expedition into [Texas and] New Mexico but on the accusation that he had attempted to raise rebellion in New Mexico and to make himself an independent ruler."

Castaño did not resist arrest. When presented with the warrant for his arrest and put in irons, "he placed the irons over his head first kissing them in the presence of said Juan Morlete and his camp as well as his own. All rejoiced greatly to see the great humility and obedience which the lieutenant governor manifested. The said Captain Juan Morlete, seeing the humility of the said Gaspar Castaño, praised him as was due to his character and merit. Both camps rejoiced."


Excerpted from Pioneer Jewish Texans by Natalie Ornish. Copyright © 2011 Natalie Ornish. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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