Aaron Isaacs: Unanswered Questions

Beth Davidson | October 22, 1998

If his background is a mystery, his marriage and conversion are even more so.

Aaron Isaacs, a Christianized Jew from Hamburg , came to East Hampton sometime in the early part of the 18th century. Tradition says he married a local girl, Mary Hedges, around 1748, and had 13 children, one of whom became the mother of John Howard Payne, the author of "Home, Sweet Home."

What was Isaacs doing in East Hampton? When did he convert from Judaism to Christianity? Why? Beginning with the Long Island Collection in the East Hampton Library, I visited 10 libraries and museums in my quest for answers.

A merchant and a peddler, Isaacs owned a boat that plied the inland waters from New York City to Nantucket. According to their own ledgers, his customers included the Gardiner family, whom he kept supplied with everything from nutmeg to mahogany chairs; Daniel Hedges, a shoemaker whose wares he took to New York City for sale; a Southampton Pelletreau, one of the family of goldsmiths and silversmiths, for whom Isaacs also acted as a middleman in New York City, and the East Hampton Dominys, makers of furniture, clocks, and windmills.

The Dominy ledgers turned up the information that, besides supplying them with household goods, Isaacs also brought them nails and tools. It has always been assumed by historians that the Dominys manufactured their own tools. However, between the years 1765 and 1790, Isaacs supplied them with, among other things, ". . . a tenot saw, six plane irons, a hammer, and a hand saw. . . ."

One of those with whom Isaacs traded was Aaron Lopez, a Jewish merchant from Newport, R.I. Some of the correspondence between them has survived.

A man of many trades, Isaacs also repaired watches and ran a local hauling service. In 1753, John Lion Gardiner's ledger shows he was transporting hay, as well as cattle and other livestock.

At one point, he was apparently in partnership with the only other known Jew on the East End - Joseph Jacobs of Southampton - because there are entries in John Lion Gardiner's ledger dated 1773 paying Isaacs and Jacobs for hauling services rendered.

It is interesting to speculate on the role Isaacs, a patriot, played in the American Revolution. He and his family lived in Haddam, Conn., for the duration of the war. Isaacs, a paid colonial courier, returned several times to Long Island during the war, ostensibly to pick up household items, as documented by safe-conduct passes from the Connecticut Colonial forces.

These visits to the Loyalist Island are cause for speculation. He would have had to dock in Sag Harbor, where at one point a British garrison was stationed. It is possible that he himself was spying on the British, or perhaps he was picking up dispatches from the celebrated colonial spy ring that operated out of Setauket and Stony Brook, and transporting information back to Connecticut along with his kettles and cows.

There is no way to prove this theory. It just seems a little incongruous that a businessman would make the Sound crossing several times and not make some kind of profit from it.

Whether or not Isaacs was doing courier work during the war, the entire Isaacs family returned to East Hampton in 1782.

Isaacs the man is much more difficult to recreate. He arrived in this country from Hamburg, Germany, in or before 1748, a date suggested by the records of Temple Shearith Israel in New York City, which lists him as a dues-paying member in that year. His family background is not known, nor his reasons for emigrating. He is thought to have been born in 1722, which would make him about 26 at the time he married Mary Hedges.

If his background is a mystery, his marriage and conversion are even more so. His name first appears in East Hampton Town records on July 5, 1750:

Died, a child of Isaacs ye Jew, age 7 months.

This would mean that the child was born in December of 1749. However, though a list of marriages performed in that year has survived, nowhere in the church or town records is there a record of a marriage ceremony between Isaacs and Hedges at any date.

Although the actual date is unimportant, the absence of any such record is strange. The only marriage that could have been performed would have been a religious one, and Isaacs was not converted until 1764, 16 years after the marriage would have taken place.

While it is possible that Isaacs was a double convert and that no record of the first conversion has survived, I am convinced, for three reasons, that he did not convert until 1764.

First, he is listed in the baptismal rolls for that year as "Aaron Isaacs - a Jew." Second, the Rev. Samuel Buell, who performed the baptism, writing to a fellow minister in 1764, states, "Most all our young people, as well as others . . . are now hopefully converted. Among the rest, we have a JEW, that I have Reason to think is now a true Believer in the Messiah, whom he always despised, 'till within a few days. . . ."

And third, many references to Isaacs before 1764 contain the phrase "Isaacs the Jew," which certainly doesn't sound as if he had already been converted.

Why did Isaacs convert, and why did he wait so long? Perhaps the conversion was truly religious; then again, there may have been other factors.

It certainly could have not been easy for Isaacs as the only Jew in East Hampton. He was virtually cut off from the only two sizable Jewish communities nearby, not only by geography but also because both Temple Shearith Israel in New York and the Truro Synagogue in Newport were congregations founded by Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Isaacs was an outsider, an Ashkenazi Jew of German descent. Relations between the two groups were not always friendly.

Whether Isaacs converted for religious reasons or because he decided that it was easier to be a Christian among Christians, he did convert. It was in the same year that his first son to survive infancy was baptized, and this may also have influenced his decision.

(All the Isaacs children born before 1764 had been baptized as well. Only one parent had to be a communicant for the children to be baptized.)

The number of children born to Aaron Isaacs and Mary Hedges is in question. Jeannette E. Rattray states [in "Up and Down Main Street"] that they had 13. My research found 11 positive births documented by baptismal records, and one child who was, I believe, baptized twice - which was not uncommon. The 13th child remains an enigma.

In any case, the Isaacs children who survived past infancy married into most of the East Hampton families, including branches of the Mulford, Jones, and Miller families. One daughter, Sarah, became the second wife of William Payne and the mother of John Howard Payne.

Sarah Isaacs met William Payne in East Hampton, where he was teaching at the Clinton Academy, the oldest chartered academy in New York State. (Aaron Isaacs played a role in the founding of the academy, and donated 40 pounds when it was established.)

Aaron Isaacs died sometime after April 2, 1798, the date his will was made in the presence of three witnesses. He left not only personal possessions to his heirs, but also sums of cash and tracts of land. Here is his will:

"Know all men by these presents that I Aaron Isaacs of East Hampton in the County of Suffolk and State of New York, Merchant, do make and ordain this to be my last will and testament first after all my legal debts are paid I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife Mary Isaacs and to her heirs and assigns forever all my estate both real and personal and mixed."

"Item, I give to my son Aaron Isaacs and his heirs and assigns forever; eleven hundred and twenty five dollars it being the sum which he owes me for money advanced him to purchase the house and lot on which he now lives and in consideration of this gift I order him to pay his mother Mary Isaacs the sum of Ten Dollars per annum during her life and at her decease if my daughter Mary should survive her I order my said son Aaron to pay to my daughter Mary the sum of fifty dollars."

"Item, I give my son Isaac Isaacs, to his heirs and assigns forever (after the decease of his mother) my house and lot where I now dwell and in consideration of this gift I order him to support my daughter Mary during her life in a decent becoming manner and also to pay my daughter Ester the sum of one hundred and twenty five dollars which said daughter I also give a residence in my said house during her unmarried state."

"Item, I give to my son Samuel Isaacs and to his heirs and assigns forever, after the decease of his mother, my Northwest plain close, my right in the commons of the Town of East Hampton, my right in the mill known by the name of Robert Parsons mill, and my right in the wharf at Sag Harbor."

"Item, I give my daughter Elizabeth Jones the sum of twenty five dollars. Item, I give to my daughter Sarah Payne the sum of $25. Item, I give to my daughter Ester two good feather beds and bedding and I also order my Executers to pay her one hundred and fifty dollars when collected from money due from my son in law Mr. William Payne and in consequence of his paying this sum to give him a discharge in full of all demands that I have against him."

"Item, to my daughter Mary I give a good feather bed and bedding. Item, to my grandson Samuel Jones I give my silver watch as a token of my love to him and lastly I do hereby constitute and appoint my wife Mary Isaacs, my friend Daniel Hedges, my son Aaron Isaacs, and my son Isaac Isaacs to be my executors. Signed sealed and acknowledged in presence of the witnesses present this second day of April 1798."

Aaron Isaacs
Nat. Gardiner
John Lyon Gardiner
William Hunting

Isaacs left his wife well cared for and insured that his unmarried daughters would not be left penniless or homeless. I wonder, however, what his other grandchildren had done, not to be mentioned at all.

According to local legend, Isaacs's tombstone bore the inscription "An Israelite in whom there was no guile." Unfortunately, the original stone has been replaced. If the story is true, it is, I think, ironic that the last mention of Isaacs once again labeled him as a Jew.

Rabbi Beth Davidson of the Port Jewish Center in Port Washington wrote this in 1977 for an independent study project at East Hampton High School.