Aaron Hart - Biography
Aaron Philip Hart (August 16, 1724 – December 28, 1800) was a businessman in Lower Canada and one of the first Jews to settle in the colony. He is considered the father of Canadian Jewry. He was one of the founding members of Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal (Shearith Israel), a wealthy man with numerous landed estates, and the married father of four sons, including the future politician Ezekiel Hart, and four daughters.
Aaron was born August 16, 1724, at London, England, to Yehezkel (Ezekiel) and Judah Hirsh, immigrants from Bavaria (they later changed their name to Hart, the English version of their name).
After a stay in Jamaica, in 1756, Aaron Hart went to New York City to live with his relatives. He was soon joined by his brothers Harmon and Bernard; his brother Leman stayed in London to supervise the organization of a distillery. He became a member of the St. Paul's Lodge of Freemasons on June 10, 1760, making him one of the first Jews in North America to become a Mason.
Some accounts say mistakenly that Hart crossed the Atlantic with Sir Frederick Haldimand during the Seven Years War between England and France. Hart was appointed commissary officer in Jeffrey Amherst's army, and he travelled north and entered Montreal with Amherst's army in 1760. He settled at Trois-Rivières in 1761. Hart supplied the British troops stationed there. He was appointed postmaster of Trois-Rivières in August 1763 at the conclusion of the war with the British victory.
One of the first Jews in Canada, in 1768 Hart was a founding member of Shearith Israel, the Sephardic synagogue at Montreal. He was an Ashkenazi Jew who spoke fluent Yiddish, but at that time, most of the British Jews were of Sephardic descent and ritual.
Marriage and family
On January 14, 1768, Aaron wed his cousin Dorothea Catherine Judah in Portsmouth, England. After the marriage, his cousins (and brothers-in-law_ Uriah and Samuel Judah emigrated to Trois-Rivières. The large family included four sons: Moses, Ezekiel, Benjamin, and Alexander (Asher), and five daughters, the latter educated by the Ursuline Catholic sisters in Trois-Rivières. One daughter, Chavah, married a Judah and two others, Sarah and Charlotte, married Samuel and Moses David respectively, sons of Montreal's Lazarus David.
Hart invested in the fur trade, then quite lucrative, and later acquired a vast amount of property, having more than seven seigneuries, notably the seigneuries of Sainte-Marguerite, Vieux-Pont, and Bécancour. He bought the fief of Bruyères, the marquisate of Le Sable, and numerous other properties in and around Trois-Rivières. He also owned part of Trinity Island, and the mouth of Saint-Maurice.
Hart also operated a store in Trois-Rivières, where he conducted a diverse wholesale and retail business. He made commercial and real estate loans throughout a wide area around the town. Prospering by these diverse operations, he bequeathed a huge legacy to his and Catherine's eight children; his four sons inherited the vast bulk of his estate, while his four daughters received £1,000 each.
At their residence in Trois-Rivières, the Harts received a visit from Prince Edward, the father of Queen Victoria. The first Papal Envoy to the country was also the guest of the hospitable Hart manor.
Hart participated in repelling Montgomery's invasion in the winter of 1775. He took an active part in the military operations during the American Revolutionary War.
Hart died at Trois-Rivières on December 28, 1800, at the age of 76. At his death he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in British Canada.
He was survived by his wife Catherine and four sons: Moses, Ezekiel, Benjamin, and Alexander, and four daughters: Catharine, Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Sarah. His will contained an impressive list of bequests to his wife and children. He left a seigneury to his sons, as well as land and a house in the center of Trois-Rivières. He left his family a thriving business and assets that his children would go on to expand.
A number of his descendants settled in New York, where they became members of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Most of Aaron Hart's children and grandchildren had remained Jews, but in later generations, Hart males intermarried with Christian women and gradually their descendants became Gentiles.
His second son, Ezekiel Hart, who entered into the family business at Trois-Rivières and later opened a brewery with his brothers, was elected to the legislative assembly. Later he was expelled from his seat because he was a Jew. His son Moses became a businessman at William-Henry (later Sorel) and ran unsuccessfully several times for a seat in the legislative assembly. His son Benjamin became an important businessman in Montreal.
Hart was originally buried at the Jewish Cemetery on Alexander Street in Trois-Rivières. He had designated this land (at the time part of his personal garden) for use as a burial ground for his family and for any member of Shearith Israel. Later the land was designated as a burial ground for any Jews.
In 1901, the cemetery was asked to permit removal of the bodies and draining of the land for "sanitary reasons". What later became apparent was that the owner of the adjoining property had manipulated officials to buy the cleared land. The new owner of the land had the remains disinterred for burial elsewhere. This was done in the presence of some Hart family members, but none was Jewish. The bodies interred in the old cemetery were removed to another field, Côteau. At that time there had not been a Jewish burial in Trois-Rivières for more than 40 years. Ezekiel Hart had established a second Jewish cemetery on Prison Street in the early 19th century, when available land for more graves in the original Alexander Street cemetery had become too scarce.
The Jewish community of Montreal was outraged by the maneuvers at the Jewish Cemetery in Trois-Rivières and protested vigorously. Finally the heirs of Ezekiel Hart and the Board of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation decided to move all Jewish remains from both the original Alexander Street cemetery and the Prison Street cemetery to Montreal for reburial in the Mount Royal Cemetery of Shearith Israel. The bodies and stones were moved and reinterred in October 1909, with Rabbi Meldola deSola officiating. The new plot consisted of 31 graves.