Early U.S. Colonialism in the Holy Land



WARDER CRESSON came from an evangelical Quaker family. He was convinced that the redemption of the Jewish people was a necessary condition for the Christian Salvation. His friends appealed to Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, to appoint him U.S. consul in Jerusalem. Cresson set out in 1844, but American officials became aware of Cresson’s controversial character, and the appointment was rescinded by the U.S. government a month later. Cresson continued to represent himself as the American consul and conducted himself with appropriate aplomb. In 1848, he converted to Judaism, changed his name to Michael Boaz Israel, and divorced his wife. Cresson returned to Jerusalem, remarried, and worked to develop agriculture as a way of improving the condition of the Jews. He died in Jerusalem in 1860 and was buried on the Mount of Olives.

Abraham Lincoln Endorses a Proposed Counsel at Jerusalem, October 29th, 1861.

The Spoils System and Consul Appointments

After the failure of Warder Cresson’s appointment, the post remained vacant for 13 years, until 1857. The United States government’s preoccupation with domestic issues in the mid-19th century was one of the reasons the post was neglected. A serious problem with the selection process was the American “spoils system,” whereby the victorious political party distributed jobs and other largesse to its supporters. Despite the gradual shift toward a merit system in the later years of the century, consuls continued to be appointed on the basis of their closeness to the administration or to intermediaries, or sometimes simply because they wanted the position for their own reasons. Most of the Jerusalem consuls served for particularly short terms; their lack of professional diplomatic experience obstructed the enhancement of the American presence in the Holy Land.

Wooden houses, brought from Maine to Jaffa by American settlers, early 20th century Courtesy of Peter Hoffman and Shay Farkas.

America in Zion: The American Colonies

Alongside the U.S. diplomatic activity that gradually began to establish an American presence in the Holy Land, a series of colonies were set up by American religious groups in the second half of the 19th century. Clorinda Minor led the group that established Mount Hope, near Jaffa, in 1855, and George Adams, a preacher from Maine, brought his followers to the same area in 1866: both colonies were abandoned within a few years. In 1881, Jerusalem’s so-called American Colony was founded by a group led by the Spafford family of Chicago. Wooden houses imported from the United States began to appear in the Jaffa cityscape, and Fourth of July celebrations in the American Colony were soon a fixture on Jerusalem‘s local calendar. The American colonies and their residents became the concern of the U.S. consuls, for better or for worse.

President Franklin Pierce Appoints the First United States Consul to Serve in Jerusalem

JOHN WARREN GORHAM, a physician and scion of an established Boston family, was appointed as the first official U.S. consul in Jerusalem in 1856, in recognition of his support of President Franklin Pierce. The most significant incident during his term of office was the attack on the small American colony of Mount Hope, near Jaffa. The consul rushed to the aid of the Americans there and attended to their needs. The rest of his stay in Jerusalem passed uneventfully. Overcome by boredom, he began drinking heavily, and was recalled in 1860 by President James Buchanan.

The Outrage at Jaffa

In 1855, a group of German and American millennial Christians established a farming community called Mount Hope, near the port town of Jaffa. They were led by Clorinda Minor of Philadelphia; but when she died in 1855, some members of the community left. Two families, related by marriage, remained: the Prussian Steinbecks and the American Dicksons. The settlers suffered from malaria and from constant harassment by nomadic Bedouin and Arab villagers in the area. On the night of January 11, 1858, the settlement was attacked by five Arab robbers. Friedrich Steinbeck was murdered, and his wife, Mary, and mother-in-law, Sarah Dickson, were raped. Gorham, the American consul, hurried to Jaffa, where he took evidence from the victims. A U.S. Navy vessel approached the shores of Palestine to encourage the authorities to undertake a thorough investigation of the incident and bring the guilty to justice.

"...They caught my daughter, Mrs. Steinbeck, by the arm; she caught hold of me; they struck her with the breech of their guns, and forced her to let go her hold.  She then caught hold of the bedstead, and they pulled it over; in the bed were my daughter and Mrs. Steinbeck's two children.  They took her away from the bed and dragged her out of doors.  One man staid [sic] in the house and four went out; they came back in about half an hour.  While Mrs. Steinbeck was out of the house, the remaining man dragged Mrs. Dickson into the adjoining room..."


- From the testimony of Walter Dickson to Consul Gorham, Jaffa, January 16, 1858

From the 1858 “Outrage at Jaffa” to the Lecture Platform: A Broadside Advertising “Dickson’s Palestine Museum”

What was left of the traumatized Dickson family left for the United States, albeit son Henry stayed behind a bit, to wrangle with the American Consul in Constantinople over possible restitution. This broadside, advertising his lecture on the “Customs, Ways of Living, Houses, Dress, Language, of which he has perfect knowledge, Treatment of Women, Modes of Conveyances, annoyances, &c” of Arab life, suggests that Henry might have needed money on his return. Dressed as “an Arab,” smoking a hookah, and exhibiting such rarities as matzo and pomegranates, Dickson took to the stage – until at least, the outbreak of war, when he enlisted at the first call for troops.