Aaron Lopez

Thu, 12/01/2016 - 1:13pm -- lwhite

The Portuguese have played a crucial role in helping shape the city of Newport, Rhode Island. Rhode Island has one of the highest percentages of people who claim to derive from Portuguese ancestry. It has been documented that there have been Portuguese settlers in Newport since at least 1684. It was the Portuguese community that helped commissioned Touro Synagogue. In Touro Cemetery, half of the names carry Portuguese descent. One particular Portuguese man ended up becoming the wealthiest merchant in Newport – Aaron Lopez. 

Aaron Lopez was born Duarte Lopez in 1731 in Lisbon Portugal. He was raised in a family of conversos, those who professed Catholicism while practicing Judaism in secret. Duarte married a woman named Anna and together they had a daughter named Catherine.  Duarte’s brother came to Newport where he became a successful merchant. In 1752, Duarte, Anna and Catherine also moved to Newport, where they lived as Jews and lived under new names – Aaron, Abigail, and Sarah. Lopez had many business ventures; it was due to this diverse portfolio that he was able to obtain such wealth. One of his main business ventures was in the manufacturing of spermaceti, which was a wax extracted from whale oil used to produce candles.   Ezra Stiles, one of the founders of Brown University and seventh President of Yale, spoke highly of him, stating he was "a merchant of the first eminence."  During his time Lopez supported several Newport institutions, he even purchased books for the Redwood Library and Athenaeum.  He was also a contributor in helping build Touro Synagogue, he was given the honor of laying one its cornerstones. Lopez strove to become a naturalized citizen but his requests for citizenship were denied multiple times in Rhode Island.  He was eventually able to become a citizen in Massachusetts by temporary moving to the bordering town of Swansea.  Aaron Lopez is buried in Newport in a Jewish cemetery. 

After the American Revolution, only a few residents of Portuguese decent came back to Newport. It is interesting to note that in 1880, only about 250 people listed their birthplace as Portugal but in 1900 that number increased to more than 1,000. Many of the Portuguese immigrants from the nineteenth century came mainly from the Azores and Cape Verde and were usually Catholic. Currently Brenton Point in Newport, Rhode Island is home to the Portuguese Discovery Monument. The monument is dedicated to all Portuguese explorers and navigators who helped identify two-thirds of the world’s maritime routes.  

hoto courtesy of Beta Group:2014:The Cultural Landscape Foundation