There’s an incredible 742 page compendium available in its entirety as an ePub book online titled Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace. The Guide was published in 1937, compiled by a Federal Writers’ Project for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.
Even if you’re a native Philadelphian, you’ll glean much information from the guide that you may have never known or have long forgotten. The original inhabitants were through to be Indians of the Lenni-Lenape tribes, and the names they bestowed are still borne by many of the locations they identified before William Penn arrived. These range from Manayunk (“where we go to drink) to Pennypack (“still water”), with an even wider compilation available through this Phillymag link. Although no one seems quite sure how the Schuylkill River got its name, one thing is certain. If you know how to spell it properly you’re likely a Philly native.
But what caught my eye was what the guide describes as an intimate picture of the American Indians living in and near Philadelphia provided by William Penn in his letter to the Free Society of Traders in 1683. In essence, Penn speculates that the Lenni-Lenape were of Jewish origin.
To selectively quote: “For their persons they are generally tall, straight, well built and of singular Proportion. They tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty Chin … Their eye is little and black, not unlike a straight-look’t Jew … Their Language is lofty, yet narrow; but like the Hebrew in signification, full … Their Government is by Kings which they call Sachama, and those by succession, but always on the Mother’s side … For their Original, I am ready to believe them of the Jewish Races.”
Although the multi-ethnic discussion throughout the Guide makes for fascinating reading, the writers lend particular insight to the early influence of Jews in the City. In the section titled The Imprint of Nations they write:
“Little is known of the Jews in Philadelphia prior to the Revolution, although the first Hebrew congregation, Mikveh Israel (Hope of Israel), was established here in 1747. Many prominent Philadelphia citizens and American patriots have been members of Mikveh Israel. Among them were Simon Gratz, merchant prince and philanthropist; Isaac Moses, who subscribed three thousand pounds to the Bank of Pennsylvania so that the Continental Army might be provisioned for two months; and Haym Solomon, banker and broker, who came to the Colonies from Poland and negotiated all Revolutionary War securities from France and Holland on his own personal security without loss of a cent to America. When Solomon died in 1784, the United States was indebted to him to the extent of $300,000. This debt, although acknowledged by the Federal Government, has never been paid.
Because the laws of many European countries forbade Jews to own land, the early Jewish immigrants had little agricultural knowledge. In 1726, a special act was passed in Pennsylvania permitting Jews to own land and engage in trade and commerce. This act was indirectly responsible for much of Philadelphia’s industrial and commercial growth.
Numerous European countries had also denied cultural and educational advantages to the Jews, and, because of this, their appreciation of both became more acute. Since such restrictions were not maintained by William Penn, the Jews emigrated hopefully to the New World colony he founded.”