Joachim Gans, the First Jewish Pioneer

    March Passover 2007 Edition            
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Joachim Gans, Jewish Pioneer

By Gary Carl Grassl

Joachim Gans, was the first Jew in English America and probably the first documented, non-baptized Jew in the New World. He was the chief technologist at what National Geographic Magazine calls "America's First Science Center." Joachim was a relative of the famous Prague Renaissance genius David Gans.

Joachim Gans was born in Prague around the middle of the 16th century, during the golden age of Prague Jewry. He arrived in England in 1581, where he introduced a new quicker and cheaper method of smelting ores. In 1585, he took part in Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition to establish an English settlement in what they called "the Newfoundland of Virginia." Gans was the chief metallurgist at this First English Settlement in America. However, when the flagship, the Tiger, ran aground in the shallow sound, the sailors threw his metal assay oven overboard. On Roanoke Island, in today's North Carolina, he was constraint to put together a substitute furnace from locally fired bricks. Here he tested for silver content copper obtained from the natives. The bricks of Gans' assay oven and two copper nuggets smelted by him are the only relics from the First English Settlement. They are also the sole remaining artifacts made by Elizabethans in the New World.

Every school child has heard of "the Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island. It must be pointed out, however, that Gans did not take part in this colony but in the earlier one. He was here before "the Lost Colonists."

"One group of specialists was of considerable importance, namely the 'mineral men'—metallurgists and miners. The leading metallurgist in the list of settlers was Dougham Gannes, otherwise Joachim Ganz, a Jewish expert from Prague, who had been involved in the locating and working of copper mines in England…" wrote David Quinn, the leading English authority on early English colonization. "Gans was to find and test the metals that were to make everyone's fortune," wrote Ivor Noël Hume, the leading American authority on early English settlements.

"The small band of Europeans in the American wilderness was far from home, but Joachim had come farther than any. Moreover, he was a foreigner among the English and a Jew among the Christians…. Therefore, the burden of adjustment may have been greater for Gans than for his companions, yet he adapted himself well and made his technological contributions…" (First English Settlement, p. 115).

According to the U.S. Government, Gans' assaying work was "a means to evaluate the possible economic benefits of settling the New World." And "his presence is representative of England's emergence into European commerce and technology" (FES, p. 244).

On his return to England, a Christian minister goaded him into publicly denying the divinity of Jesus Christ. He was sent to the highest court of the land, the Queen's Privy Council. Around this time, he dedicated to Sir Francis Walsingham a manual on the production of saltpeter. An essential ingredient of gunpowder, saltpeter was vital to the defense industry. Gans hoped "thereby to be defended from all adversaries…" by Walsingham, who headed the Privy Council. The adversaries he was facing was the English inquisition. Here the trail ends and speculation begins.

The Search for the First English Settlement in America: America's First Science Center by Gary Carl Grassl describes in detail Gans and includes illustrations of European assay ovens, crucibles and balances of the type used by Gans and excerpts from Gans' manual on saltpeter. His life is described in detail in Appendix F, "Joachim Gans in England Before His Journey to Virginia" (FES, pp. 221-225) and Appendix G, "A Postscript for Joachim Gans" (FES, pp. 226-243). This paperback may be obtained for $14.95 at


from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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