In August, a plaque was unveiled on the edge of a highway in North Carolina commemorating Joachim Gans, a Prague-born metallurgist who was the first practicing Jew known to have settled in what would later become part of the U.S. Andrew Lawler writes:
Gans grew up in 16th-century Prague, then a center of innovation in mining and metallurgy. England was [at the time] desperate for help in extracting copper and tin. . . . Jews had been banned since 1290, but a courtier of Elizabeth I secured Gans a kind of Tudor H-1B visa. Soon after, Sir Walter Raleigh sought a credible scientist to join England’s first venture to colonize the Americas on what is now the North Carolina coast. In Gans, Raleigh saw the perfect candidate for the specialized job of sourcing and analyzing metals.
Gans arrived on Roanoke Island in 1585, along with a motley crew of more than 100 men that included French, Portuguese, Belgian, Irish, and Scottish colonists as well as English soldiers and merchants. The Prague Jew, who made no secret of his religious background, quickly constructed a state-of-the-art chemistry lab outfitted with Bavarian crucibles and a high-temperature furnace. He tested metals brought to him by local Algonquian-speaking tribes and tramped through the swamps in search of mineral deposits. Though he failed to find gold, despite Raleigh’s hopes, there is evidence he isolated iron, silver, and copper in his experiments. That was promising news for an England eager to access metal deposits.
Hunger and conflict with the indigenous population drove the settlers, including Gans, to catch a ride home aboard a passing fleet the following year. . . . The last known mention of the metallurgist has him facing trial in London for denying that Jesus was the son of God. Jews would not be officially allowed in England for another generation.