Chapter V: The Denization of Luis Moses Gomez

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This year marks the 300th anniversary of Gomez House in Marlboro, NY, the oldest known Jewish residence in the United States. To honor the occasion, we publish Michael Feldberg’s account of how Luis Moses Gomez and his family acquired the right to build it.

On April 18, 1705, Queen Anne, “by the grace of God, Queen of England, Scotland France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith,” issued a patent to “Luis Gomez … who, although born across the sea, is hereby made our faithful subject and will ever be our licensed denizen.” The patent promised that Gomez’s heirs “are and will be licensed subjects, and he and his heirs are to be held reputed, treated and governed as our faithful subjects [as if they were] born within the Kingdom of England, and he and his heirs may hold, possess, use and enjoy all property and acquisitions of whatever kind or nature in whatever places and jurisdictions within our Kingdom of England.” With this proclamation, Luis Moses Gomez, one of the early Jewish settlers of New York, was officially allowed to own and bequeath property to his heirs. What it did not do was recognize Gomez as a full citizen.

Luis Moses Gomez was born in Spain in 1660 and lived in France and England before emigrating to New York City in 1703. In 1714, Gomez, now protected by the denization patent, purchased 6,000 acres of land near Newburgh, in Orange County, New York. There, he built a fortress-like house and water mill on what became known as Jews Creek, where he and his sons conducted trade with local Indians, sawed lumber and ground grain for their neighbors.

Until his denization, Gomez was, under law, an alien with few rights and many civil disabilities. Perhaps his greatest handicap was his inability to acquire or bequeath real property. To correct this problem, Gomez found it necessary to receive—or more precisely to purchase—his personal denization patent.

Denization is a term no longer in common usage. Currently, under American law, a lawfully admitted resident alien may own property and engage in business and is, with some exceptions (such as voting in elections), equal to U. S. citizens in the eyes of the law. But 18th century colonial Americans recognized a number of now non-existent legal statuses, each of which reduced the rights of their holders to less than full citizenship: indentured servitude, slavery and denization among them.

An alien could acquire the right to own property in the English realm by one of two means: naturalization by a special act of Parliament in London or, more quickly, by the purchase from the crown of a denization patent. Luis Moses Gomez paid 57 pounds for his patent, as much as $40,000 in today’s currency. Gomez’s patent refers to him as a “licensed subject” of the crown, but not a full citizen. In 1715, to assure their right to inherit their father’s estate, Gomez’s four oldest sons purchased patents from Anne’s successor, George I.

Luis Moses Gomez’s denization carried specific responsibilities and limitations. His patent required that he pay “the lot and scot (customary taxes) in the same manner as our subjects do.” At the same time “said Luis Gomez and his heirs shall pay and contribute … the custom duties and subsidies for materials and merchandise, just as immigrants and aliens are always required to do.” Under current American law, such discriminatory taxation would be considered dual jeopardy.

The patent did provide Gomez and his heirs with some civil liberties accorded full English citizens. It provided that Gomez “may peaceably, freely and fully have, possess, use and enjoy each and all franchises and privileges as any of our loyal citizens born within the kingdom … without trouble or annoyance by ministers and Officials … of the [Anglican] Faith.” Queen Anne did not explicitly grant Gomez the right to public Jewish worship but she did allow him the same rights possessed by Puritans, Quakers and Catholics to own property for religious purposes. Thus, in 1729, Gomez exercised his right to own land by purchasing a plot in lower Manhattan and donating it for use as the first cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Sephardic congregation in New York that is the oldest in the United States.

The denization of Luis Moses Gomez and his four elder sons reflected the legal and economic acceptance of Jews in England’s American colonies. Gomez fathered two sons after his denization, and they were by birth full citizens under English law.

Today, the Gomez Foundation for Mill House operates the Gomez family home as a museum and teaching center. The building is the oldest extant Jewish residence in North America. In 1998, the Foundation acquired the original Moses Gomez denization patent, inscribed in Latin, from the estate of a private collector. Visitors may view the document by visiting the house in Marlboro, NY, an hour north of New York City.

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