The History of the Gomez Mill House
The Hudson Valley boasts the oldest standing Jewish residence in North America
This month, Jews around the world celebrate Passover to commemorate when Moses led his people out of bondage in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. It took his tribe 40 years to find the Promised Land — but it then took them another three millennia to find the Hudson Valley. Wouldn’t you know, the Jewish man who discovered this promised land was also named Moses.
His full name was Luis Moses Gomez, a Sephardic Jew who was a successful merchant and trader in New York City when, in 1714, he purchased 1,000 of what would eventually grow to about 4,000 acres of untamed wilderness in what is now Newburgh. There he built a fieldstone blockhouse to serve as his trading headquarters in the Mid-Hudson region. Now known as the Gomez Mill House, it is the oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America and the oldest historic house in Orange County.
Gomez was far from the first Jew to come to the New World — indeed, Jews may have even helped discover America, as there are unconfirmed reports that at least one Jew sailed with Columbus. It is certain that Jews predate the Puritans. Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, a Spanish-Jewish conquistador (now there’s a Mel Brooks screenplay begging to be written), rode into what is now Texas in 1570. In 1584 and 1585 a Jew named Joachim Gaunse (or Gans or Ganz) sailed onto and then off of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, which was Great Britain’s first, but ultimately unsuccessful, colony.
Jews had greater success with the Dutch, who were more interested in business acumen than religious beliefs. Many Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th century ended up in the Netherlands and helped set up shop in their New Amsterdam colony. When the British took over in 1664, they allowed the Jews to stay, and more began to come over in search of opportunity. One of them was Luis Gomez.
“The Onions Are Beginning to smell”
The first permanent Jewish settlement in North America was established in 1654, when 23 Spanish/Portuguese Jews, refugees from the Inquisition, arrived in New Amsterdam from Brazil. Without resources of their own, they were supported by Jews working with the Dutch West Indies Company in Amsterdam. Within four years, one of the group’s leaders, Asser Levy, owned real estate as far north as Albany, and by 1678 another, Jacob de Lucena, was trading in Kingston.
Gomez’s family was still back in the old world. He was born in Iberia in 1660, where his father was an adviser to King Philip IV of Spain. The elder Gomez had a deal with the King, says Ruth K. Abrahams, Executive Director of the Gomez Mill House. “If the Inquisition got too hot, Philip would give him warning,” she says. “The code was, ‘The onions are beginning to smell.’” When the onions did indeed begin to smell, the Gomez family fled, first to France, then to England.
Luis Gomez followed his father into business and eventually traveled to Barbados and Jamaica. His first wife died during this time, and he remarried; he had five sons in all. In the late 1690s, already a successful member of the bustling Atlantic Basin trade of sugar, cocoa, and spices, he ventured to New York. In 1705 he was granted an Act of Denization from Queen Anne of England. This Act afforded him the right to do business, own property and live freely within the Colonies without pledging his allegiance to the Church of England. (The Mill House contains the original document; “The language in it is remarkable,” Abrahams says.)
Gomez purchased land on the Hudson Highlands in 1714, where existing Native American trails converged, to set up a trading post on what was then the wild frontier. He built a single-story fieldstone blockhouse where he and his sons oversaw their trading operations in fur, limestone and milled timber. Though they never lived there permanently, future owners, including American Revolutionary patriot and Orange County civic leader Wolfert Ecker; 19th century conservationist William Henry Armstrong; Arts and Crafts artisan and paper historian Dard Hunter; and 20th century social activist Martha Gruening all did, building upon the original house and creating a 300-year, religiously diverse historic legacy.
But its roots are unquestionably Jewish. Gomez was not only a businessman. In 1727 he was the financial leader behind the construction of the Mill Street Synagogue in lower Manhattan, America’s oldest Jewish congregation. He served as the first president of the Congregation, which totaled 300 to 400 families at that time. “His descendents remained important in the community through the early 19th century,” says Abrahams.
Photograph by Richie Rosencrans
The New Exodus
Gomez died in 1740, still a Jewish pioneer in the New World. Jews comprised fewer than 2,000 of the total population of about 2.5 million Colonial Americans at the time of the American Revolution. Most were still in the City, with a few settled on Long Island and in Westchester. After the War of 1812, as it became easier to travel thanks to steam ships and the Erie Canal, Jews joined Gentiles in populating the hinterlands. A wave of German-Jewish immigration in the 1830s and 40s saw Jewish communities forming in Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Hudson, and Troy, and farther north and west. Reform Judaism was partially begun in Albany in 1846, when Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, its driving force, allowed for mixed seating in synagogues and other reforms.
By 1860 there were 20 congregations in the state; by 1877, 53. In 1880, estimates listed 60,000–80,000 Jews living in New York State. With the massive Eastern European immigration over the next few decades, the number reached 1,835,500 by 1928. A few fortunate Jews escaped the tenement squalor of the Lower East Side to form congregations in towns such as Haverstraw (1896), Ossining (1891), Peekskill (1894), New Rochelle (1880s), Liberty (1880s), Spring Valley (1901), Yonkers (1860s), Mamaroneck (1890), Suffern (1880s), and Tarrytown (1887). At the outbreak of World War II, 90 percent of the state’s 2.2 million Jews still lived in the city, but after the war they joined everyone else in the mass suburban Exodus to Nassau and Westchester counties, and beyond.
That’s when Gomez’s house was first recognized for its historic significance. It was bought in 1947 by Mildred and Jeffrey Starin, who lived there with their family for 50 years. Mildred Starin, a renowned Hudson Valley preservationist, restored the buildings and got the property listed on the National Register in 1973. She also established the New York City-based Gomez Foundation in 1979, which now owns the house and operates it as a museum.
That, as Luis Gomez and all the Jews who have followed him into the Valley over the past 300 years would say, is a mitzvah.
The Gomez Mill House opens for the 2016 season on April 17. For more information, visit www.gomez.org.