Jack Gottlieb
Founder of World Jewish Travel

The Surprising Story of George Washington, Sephardic Jews and Ashdod, Israel

Joseph Pickett, Coryell’s Ferry, 1776, c. 1914–1918. Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons.
Joseph Pickett, Coryell’s Ferry, 1776, c. 1914–1918. Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the countless contributions that Jewish Americans have made to our country throughout history. A recent discovery using genetic genealogy is shedding new light on the impact of one Sephardic Jewish family on the founding of our country.

This story had its beginnings not in America but in the port city of Ashdod, Israel, 30 miles south of  Tel Aviv. It began with a simple question to my father-in-law, Joseph Sonego, who hails originally from Spanish Morocco, about his family roots. He replied that because his father was an orphan at an early age, there was not much family history to speak of. To shed light on the issue, I suggested taking a Y-DNA test, a relatively new technology to understand a family’s history. The Y-chromosome, like the patrilineal surname, passes down virtually unchanged from father to son.

The DNA results, unfortunately, raised more questions than answers. As expected, the Sonegos were related to other Sephardic families from all over Europe. What was unexpected was the vast number of Coryell families  from all over the United States that appeared in the results. Equally surprising, after some cursory research, was the fact that they were Protestant.

It was puzzling because the roots of the Coryell family are well documented, stretching back to Colonial America, but, curiously enough, nothing before then. Most prominent of the Coryells was John Coryell who played a key role in George Washington’s campaign against the British in the Revolutionary War. More on that later.

Fortuitously, unbeknownst to me, the same question was the subject of investigation by a collection of geneticists, historians and genealogists who were trying to solve the same puzzle: what could account for this pattern of intercontinental connections repeating itself itself time and again across all of these families in Europe and America?

After years of DNA testing, these researchers finally achieved a breakthrough and published their results  in the 2023 winter edition of American Ancestors entitled “The Surprising Origins of the Coryell Family in Colonial New Jersey”. Using genetic genealogy,  it was discovered that the Coryells of Colonial America and the  Kuriels of Europe were without a doubt related. John Coryell’s grandfather, Abraham Coryell, was a Sephardic Jew who arrived in Colonial America in the late 17th century, and like the other Kuriels, had fled Portugal to escape the Inquisition.

These findings shed new light on the role of Colonial Jews during the Revolutionary War. Until now, the emphasis of the contribution of Jews during the Colonial period has centered on finance and philosophy.  Much has been made of Haym Salomon’s loans  to finance the War for Independence; quite a bit has also been written about the impact of Jewish philosophy on the political thought of our founding fathers. Very little, however, has been written about of Jewish colonists directly participating on the frontlines in the War of Independence. 

1778 was a pivotal year for George Washington. After a series of defeats in the Philadelphia campaign, Washington hunkered down at Valley Forge for the winter of 1778 and sought outside help to convert what was charitably called a rag-tag army into some semblance of a professional fighting force. 

With his leadership in question, Washington then pinned his hopes on a victory at the Battle of Monmouth in order to restore confidence with both the capability of the Continental Army and his ability to command.  A key figure in Washington’s plans for the Battle of Monmouth which finally took place in June of 1778 was John Coryell, the owner of Coryell Ferry and Abraham’s grandson.

Located halfway between New York and Pennsylvania, Coryell Ferry was strategically placed to move Washington’s men, wagons, horses, and artillery across the Delaware. Washington showed his logistical talents by engaging Coryell to help him in March, months prior to the battle in June. Despite delays due to bad weather and difficulties in finding the right transport vehicles, Coryell promised in correspondence written in March that his “brave men” would succeed and he did. 

Aside from the Coryell connection, the researchers also discovered that the Spanish Moroccan Sonego family now living in Ashdod, Israel was also related to the European Kuriels, hence the shared genetics, thus accounting for the appearance of the Coryells in the DNA results. It is important to note that the  Kuriels were a prominent Sephardic Jewish family before and after the Inquisition. 

After escaping from Portugal the Kuriels spread throughout Europe. They were bitterly persecuted in Portugal during the Inquisition and were forcibly converted in 1497. At their first opportunity, most of them converted back to Judaism and fled to, among other cities, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Saloniki and Constantinople where they used their prestige and ingenuity to build prosperous businesses and to further Jewish interests.

A Passover seder in the Amsterdam home of Alvaro Nunes da Costa, alias Nathan Curiel (grandson of Jacob Curiel). Presumably Nunes da Costa is the man on the left distributing matzah, a role for the individual designated to lead the annual Passover seder. The Passover of the Portuguese Jews, engraved by Bernard Picart, is from Jean Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart, Religious Ceremonies of the World (Amsterdam: 1723) Wikimedia Commons.

This wealth and political power was instrumental at a key moment in Colonial Jewish History. The Dutch Kuriels owned 25% of the Dutch West India Company and overruled Peter Stuyvesant’s anti-Semitic decision in 1654 to refuse 25 Brazilian Jewish families fleeing Portuguese persecution  from entering New Amsterdam. The refugees managed to land and establish the first synagogue in the United States, the Shearith Israel Synagogue, which still exists in mid-Manhattan.

Unlike the other Kuriels who fled to Europe through Amsterdam, Abraham Coryell by 1700 made his way to Colonial America and was the progenitor of a large family. Family Lore had it that he was the only resident in this desolate area in what is now Lambertville, New Jersey when he bought his land, set up a ferry and built an inn and claimed, of all religions, to be a Hugeunot, a French Protestant.

While family lore might be disputed, it is indisputable that Abraham Coryell’s direct  descendants played an important role in the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation. Other Coryells fought and died in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Still another was a Texas Ranger named James Coryell who died in 1837 while fighting indigenous Americans; Coryell County, Texas was named in his honor.

Statue of James Coryell on display in the rotunda of the Coryell County Courthouse. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Nonetheless, despite Washington’s early preparation and the Coryell family’s heroic efforts, the Battle of Monmouth on June 28 of 1778  was not a victory for Continental Army but neither was it a defeat. What was important about the battle was psychological. Washington proved that  the Continental Army could go toe-to-toe with the British due to the new training methods adopted in Valley Forge. Lack of a victory, notwithstanding, did not deter the Continental Congress from congratulating George Washington for the  “important victory of Monmouth over the British Grand Army” and thereby dispelling doubts about his leadership capabilities. 

Coryell’s Ferry played a significant role in the battle, and the story so inspired an American painter named Joseph Pickett that he memorialized it and George Washington in a painting titled “Coryell’s Ferry,” which now hangs in the Whitney Museum (see picture above).

George Washington held the family in high esteem and even chose one of John Coryell’s sons George, a Lieutenant in the Continental Army, to be a pallbearer at his funeral. When that son died at the age of 94 in 1850, his tombstone bore the honor of having been a pallbearer for the first President of the United States.

Courtesy of The Historical Marker Database

The saga of the  Coryells and Kuriels is part and parcel of a greater story occurring in that time period: that of the virulent religious persecution–and not just of Jews–occurring in Europe and the sanctuary that Colonial America provided for the fleeing, oftentimes, desperate refugees. 

These two families shared more than just genes; both families embodied a pioneering spirit of adventure and bravery in the face of stark adversity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Joseph Sonego Z”L, Courtesy of the Sonego family

Unfortunately, my father-in-law Z”L, died a few months before the publication in American Ancestors. He never knew of his connection to the Kuriel family or the Coryell family; He never knew of the wealth and power wielded by the Kuriels to advance Jewish interests in Europe and America. He never knew of his genetic family’s contribution to George Washington’s campaigns against the British.

The story of the Coryell family is just one example of the way in which Jewish Americans have contributed to Colonial American history and helped to build our great nation. The contribution and sacrifice of Colonial Jews was not  just financial and philosophical; at times, they paid the ultimate price defending our values and freedoms-a good thing to remember on Memorial Day weekend!

About the Author
Jack Gottlieb, founder and president of the World Jewish Travel, is an American businessman highly involved in philanthropic causes, who spends most of his time in Israel these days.
Related Topics
Related Posts