The 115 English settlers who disappeared from Roanoke Island circa 1587 gave rise to the myth of The Lost Colony, an enduring mystery which invites speculation to this day. Perhaps as mysterious is the unknown fate of Joachim Gans, a Jew who arrived on Raleigh’s expedition of 1585 and disappeared from history in 1590.
Gans, as documents verify, was a native of Prague who had worked as a metallurgist in the Ore Mountains of Saxony. At the personal behest of Queen Elizabeth, he was among the German scientists brought to England by the Society of the Mines Royal to locate minerals and to smelt ore. He joined a small colony of mostly Sephardic Jews in a cosmopolitan London supposedly bereft of Jews. In 1585 when Sir Walter Raleigh organized his second expedition to Roanoke Island, Gans was sent as expedition metallurgist to investigate Indian artifacts and search for minerals. A previous expedition had returned with allegedly precious metals which turned out to be only useless rocks. Gans’ brick assayer’s oven, which archeologists have unearthed, is considered the first scientific laboratory in America. Gans is the first known Jew to have settled in British North America.
Gans returned to England a year later when Francis Drake’s fleet arrived. In 1589 at a tavern in Bristol, he argued theology with a mining company carpenter. Gans denied the divinity of Jesus. A minister was summoned to witness his blasphemy. The two contended at first in Hebrew, but then Gans responded in English, “What need has Almighty God for a son? Is he not almighty?” Gans was taken before the mayor and town council where he confessed that he was a circumcised Jew, never baptized. This “most wicked infidel,” according to the records, was sent to the Queen’s Privy Council in London. While imprisoned Gans wrote a manual on saltpeter which was needed to manufacture gunpowder. He dedicated his treatise to his sponsor Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of state and governor of the Mines Royal, “hoping thereby to be defended from all adversaries.”
Now the plot thickens.
What happened to Gans after his imprisonment? Walsingham, as luck had it, died in 1590, so Gans lost his protector. But he still had friends in high places, and his scientific skills were still needed by the crown. After all, only a year or so earlier British naval guns had repelled the Spanish armada.
Was he executed? The typical fate of blasphemers might be the rack, quartering, or burning at the stake. However, no record exists documenting Gans’ death. The execution of a blaspheming Jew would have been momentous and well noted in public records and independent reports. The public London execution in 1594 of Elizabeth’s physician, Rodrigo Lopes, a converso accused of being a secret Jew, was widely and gruesomely recounted, likely inspiring Marlowe and Shakespeare to depict Jews. Later, Sir Francis Bacon in his utopian novel depicted respectfully a noble Jewish scientist named Joabin, whom scholars speculate is modeled on Gans, hardly a portrayal worthy of an executed blasphemer.
Or could Gans have been quietly released? Was he the John Geynes who married Alce in Plymouth in 1589? Could he be the Joachim Gantz who purchased a house in a mining village in Bohemia in 1596, but his listed age doesn’t seem to align him with our Carolina colonist. The extended Gans family—the name is variously spelled—were prominent in Czech Jewry, famous for both secular and rabbinic learning. No Joachim Gans tombstone has been found although some speculate that he may lie among the Gans graves in the historic Prague cemetery.
More recently, Professor Deborah Harkness in researching The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution discovered documents locating Gans in King’s Bench prison in London where he continued to perform scientific experiments. Her research revealed that Gans continued to work with scientists—Clement Draper, a once wealthy landholder imprisoned for debt, who discussed alchemy with him, and Hugh Plat, who recorded a prison visit where Gans instructed him on treading water and sleeping outdoors.
That is the last verifiable word that we can find on Gans. As Harkness revealed, there may still be information to be discovered. Archives in London or Prague may still hold the secret of our lost Jewish colonist.
Photo credits: top State Archives of NC; middle NC Highway Historical Markers; bottom Fort Raleigh National Historic Park