From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Frontier, fur, and a fistfight

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – As our society becomes more sensitive to animal suffering, fur coats are no longer the conspicuous status symbol that they once were. Nonetheless, the quest for fur-bearing animals was one of the principal motives for European colonization of America from the seventeenth century, and it continued to be a mainstay of the Canadian economy until well into the nineteenth century. The heated rivalry between France and England over control of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries was motivated largely by the concern with maintaining access to the abundant stores of fur-bearing animals in the interior regions.

In that early era of North American settlement, there were scarcely any openly Jewish residents in France itself; and the 1627 charter that established the colony of New France explicitly excluded all non-Catholics.

The situation changed crucially in 1763 with the British victory in the Seven Years’ War and the transformation of Quebec into a British colony. Many European Jews were attracted by the prospect of migration to the New World where they would enjoy civil rights and opportunities to exercise their entrepreneurial skills. In fact, they would be allowed greater rights in America than in England, where non-Christians were still subject to onerous restrictions.

A noted example of this pioneering breed was German-born Ezekiel Solomon (or: Solomons) who settled in Montreal in the latter eighteenth century and was a partner in the prominent firm of Gershon Levy & Company who were a major player in the fur trade. The firm was perhaps the first, following the British conquest of New France, to establish trading stations in strategic centres of the Great Lakes area formerly under French rule. The consortium controlled almost half the regional market, and they evidently had ambitions to cast their net as far west as Manitoba and “la mer du Quest.” However, their fortunes took a fatal turn with the outbreak of an uprising by the Native Tribes under Chief Pontiac who had been allied with the French and wanted to drive out the British. At Michilimackinac, Michigan, Solomon was captured by Chippewa warriors and eventually ransomed. His merchandise and property were completely lost and he was forced into bankruptcy.

For much of his career, Ezekiel would spend most of his days in Montreal, and occupy his Michigan residence for only a few months each summer.

The rugged temperament that was necessary for life on the frontier also came into play in Solomon’s dealings in the urban setting, as we may infer from an incident in 1775 when a marble bust of King George III, donated by His Majesty himself and exhibited prominently in Place des Armes, was vandalized. The numerous religious, ethnic and political factions were quick to accuse each other of the treasonous deed. An individual by the name of Sieur Le Pailleur cast the blame on the Jews, provoking a fistfight at which Solomon was arrested for knocking down his opponent.

What kind of Jew was Ezekiel Solomon? What role did his religion play in his life?

Attempts to answer these questions reveal extreme contradictions. On the one hand, Solomon and his fellow Jewish fur traders were all listed as active members of Montreal’s orthodox Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese) synagogue. He was in fact one of the synagogue’s founders, organizing a subscription for its establishment and soliciting donations from abroad for the purchase of Torah scrolls. In 1778 the synagogue honoured him as “hatan Torah” on Simhat Torah.

On the other hand, in 1769 he married Marie Elizabeth Louise Dubois, a Roman Catholic, in a ceremony held at an Anglican church. Their six children were all given Catholic baptism. The spouses continued to practice and support their respective religious traditions, and Dubois was actively involved in the family trade. Some records assign her a name “Okimabinesikoue,” which might suggest Indigenous ancestry.

When their young son died in 1778, Ezekiel petitioned Shearith Israel to allow his burial in their cemetery, in spite of his being a baptized, uncircumcised child of a Christian mother. The request was granted.

A different picture emerges from Solomon’s life on the Great Lakes frontier. The crude house that he inhabited seasonally at Fort Michilimackinac from 1765 to 1781 has been subjected to intensive archeological excavation, owing to its historic importance as the residence of Michigan’s first known Jewish resident. The cellar storehouse that was discovered there provided glimpses into the daily lives of traders on the frontier, but very little information about any spiritual or ritual dimensions. The absence of identifiable Jewish artifacts can perhaps be explained on the premise that their owner would not have abandoned them when vacating the residence.

Adherence to a traditional Jewish religious regimen is often more accurately measured by the food that is consumed. In the present instance, the remains indicated little difference between the menus at Solomon’s house and those of his Christian neighbours, including pig, beaver and hare. It has been suggested that a decline in his consumption of pork during the later, more affluent years of his life might indicate an inner desire to return to his ancestral tradition once his situation became more secure.

Such were the ambiguities and contradictions that marked the lives of those Jewish pioneers as they planted their roots in North American soil.

The medieval “Book of the Pious” tells a curious tale of a Jew whose good and bad deeds were weighed by the heavenly authorities. It turned out that his sins outweighed his virtues, which would have blocked his acceptance into the next world. However, a sympathetic angel insisted that they load the man up with animal pelts until the additional burden tipped the scales in the direction of his admission to paradise.

It was explained that those furs had earned him credit when he had offered them in payment for the Jewish community’s taxes.

Perhaps a similar arrangement could be negotiated for the likes of a certain flawed Canadian fur trader.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.


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