The Ballad of Old Mordecai

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend, 1814

Credit:The New York Public Library, Digital Gallery

This is the story of the first Jew in the state of Alabama. Abraham Mordecai wasn’t born a Southerner. No, he was born to a Jewish merchant family in Philadelphia in 1755. But the life of “Old Mordecai,” as he would come to be known, would follow many of the famous historical developments of the America he called home.

During the Revolutionary War, Mordecai served for three years in the American army, taking part in every battle that occurred in New Jersey and Delaware. After the war, he headed to Georgia, setting up a trading business in a town called Buzzard Roost. There, he traded with the Creek Indians, becoming close with the tribes, first speaking to them in Hebrew, under the mistaken assumption that the Israelites’ language was the basis for their own. After time, though, he learned the local customs and language, which allowed Mordecai to rescue many women and children who had been abducted by the tribe.

Around the turn of the century (to the 1800s), Mordecai moved to Alabama, where he ran a cotton gin. He also continued his trading with Indian tribes, living in buildings left behind by the Spanish long before, and trading skins, furs, and plants with the Creek. He could speak Spanish quite well, and was completely fluent in the Native American languages of the area. But despite Mordecai’s closeness to the local tribes, one incident cost him his ear, and nearly his life, with two explanations recorded for the altercation.

One story goes like this…two of Mordecai’s horses strayed into a cornfield belonging to the local chief. The chief turned down Mordecai’s offer of financial compensation and instead attacked. Mordecai, although short, was a strong and stocky man, and held onto the chief, but the rest of the tribe began beating him until he lost consciousness, taking his ear as a grisly souvenir and leaving him in the care of his Native American wife.

The second story also features a Native American woman, this one not Mordecai’s wife, but the wife of another. In this explanation, the chief made off with Mordecai’s ear after a fight over said married woman who Mordecai had paid attention to. Either way, Old Mordecai lived in relative peace with the local tribes until they were removed during the Trail of Tears. Although he was Jewish, Mordecai’s whiteness allowed him to remain, where he lived with his wife until her death in 1836.

Already a Revolutionary War veteran, Mordecai also served during the War of 1812, as well as the Creek War (pictured above). And he remained in Alabama, as the state’s first Jewish resident, where he died in 1850 at the age of 95, and was buried in the coffin he had built years before and which, until his death, he had used for a dining room table. And that is the story of not only a pioneer and a patriot, but an early Jewish American who helped make our country what it is today.

Tags: Abraham Mordecai Alabama American Jews History United States

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