My friend Justin's discovery of his unexpected link to the Deep South took him down to Mississippi, where he saw a number of locations associated with his family, including the Jewish cemetery in Summit, MS.
There, he found two of the graves he had been looking for, those of Ben & Rosa Phillips Hilborn, grouped with a marker for someone he hadn't heard of, an Abraham Phillips. "Our father," read the base of his tombstone.
When he told me this story over lunch earlier this year, the clue that most intrigued me was that Abraham's tombstone listed his birthplace as Philadelphia.
"A Jewish man born in Philaelphia in 1808..." I thought to myself. "There's only one way that happens..."
You see, there were very few Jews in the U.S. that early. And those that there were descended from the Sephardim, Spanish or Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition (whereas the vast majority of the American Jewish community today are Ashkenazim from Europe).
So, I had a hunch that through Abraham, Justin was descended from some of the earliest immigrants to the U.S., an extreme rarity in the world of Jewish genealogy where the first wave of immigration was in the 1840s and the vast majority came in the late 19th/early 20th century.
But could I prove it?
Operating under this hypothesis, I went digging into Malcolm Stern's First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654-1988, which is fully searchable online. It listed six Abraham Phillipses, and one by one I had to exclude them 'til I came to one born on November 21, 1808 in Philadelphia, exactly matching the date on the tombstone Justin had found!
There's other circumstantial evidence to suggest these are the same Abrahams, so let's continue from there.
According to Stern, Abraham's mother was Rachel Pettigrew Phillips, and her parents were Lt. James and Judith Hart Pettigrew. Stern indicated that Lt. James was born in Scotland.
It turns out that the marriage between James and Judith was a scandalous intermarriage! A Treasury of American-Jewish Folklore relates how the two met at a party in 1782 to honor General George Washington. Within a few months, Judith was pregnant. Rachel's uncle performed the marriage against the norms of the day and was called before officials of Mikveh Israel to explain himself (not the last time he'd be in that position).
Lt. James Pettigrew was a member of the Society of Cincinnati and a Revolutionary War veteran (DAR Ancestor #A089862).
But it's through Judith Hart that we can continue tracing back Abraham's Sephardi ancestry. Judith's parents were Myer Hart (Texeira) and Rachel de Lyon Hart. Now, these names were finally starting to sound Sephardi!
Much is known about Myer's life in colonial America. He was one of the founders of Easton, PA!
It was with Rachel's parents that I finally hit paydirt. She was born in Savannah, GA to Abraham & Esther de Lyon. He was the ancestor I had been looking for who fled Portugal during the Inquisition! He went first to London, then to Savannah, where he was one of the town's founders.
But he wasn't the only ancestor of Justin's to have fled the Inquisition. His wife and her parents, Dr. Samuel and Rebecca de Siquiera Nuñez, did as well. They also went first to London and then to help found Savannah.
Much information survives about Dr. Nuñez's life. His family had fled Spain a century-and-a-half prior to live as secret Jews in Portugal. Dr. Nuñez was doctor to both King John V of Portugal and the Grand Inquisitor. It was the Grand Inquisitor's need of him that freed his family from prison after they were caught celebrating Passover, and these same skills got his family into Savannah, where the leader of the colony would not permit Jews until an epidemic brought need of a doctor.
So, my hunch was right. Amazingly right! Justin was descended from the equivalent of American-Jewish royalty!
Because all of this information was online, it was only a couple hours after we parted that I sent him an email with all of this information. Naturally, he was flabbergasted. "I can't even come up with superlatives to express how stunned I am by these revelations," he responded.
Of course, these additional five generations multiply the amount of work Justin has to do. So, here is where I excuse myself and bid my friend good luck & happy hunting!