“Chapman Abraham: Detroit’s First Known Jewish Resident: Chapman Abraham arrived in Detroit in 1763. He was captured by the Indians and put to the stake to be burned, but miraculously escaped death. He resided and traded in Detroit for many years. H died in 1783 at the age of 72 in Montreal where he was a member of Canada’s first Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel.”
This marker, located on the Detroit riverfront in Milliken State Park, honors Chapman Abraham, one of the five Jewish fur traders who came from Montreal to Michigan to trade furs and goods. Among his traveling partners was Ezekiel Solomon, Michigan’s first Jewish resident who settled in what would become Fort Mackinac. Both Solomon and Abraham were German-born fur traders. Abraham arrived in Montreal around 1759 and began trading with Indians. A few years later, in 1862, he set up a trading post in the British-controlled Fort Detroit.
Abraham almost didn’t live to trade for long. Sometime around 1763, Abraham was taken prisoner by the Native Americans. He escaped but was soon recaptured. Tied to the stake, and about to be burned alive, Chapman begged for a drink to quench his thirst. As it was the Native American custom to give a prisoner a “last meal,” Abraham was given broth. Eager to quench his thirst, Abraham put the bowl immediately to his lips. The hot broth scalded his mouth. A man of quick temper, Abraham threw the bowl with its contents in the face of the man who handed it to him, and – as the story goes – he had a fit. Thinking he was insane, his captors untied the cords with which he was bound, and let him go. Stephen Vincent Benet used this story as the basis for his poem “Jacob and the Indians.”
Abraham lived to build a successful “business” in trade, and was eventually able to purchase a house on St. Louis St. in 1781. That site is located along the Detroit River, roughly near Hart Plaza. Abraham also maintained a residence in Montreal, timing his annual trips back there to sell his acquired furs to coincide with the Jewish High Holidays and attend services at Congregation Shearith Israel. Twice yearly, he canoed and portaged seventy-five days to and from Montreal.
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