Joachim Gans: A Remarkable Life of Discovery

By on May 12, 2024

Joachim Gans historic marker. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb/OBV)

Arriving on Roanoke Island in 1585, he created the first science center in the New World

By Kip Tabb  |  Outer Banks Voice

There’s a historic marker at the entrance of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site that bears the name of Joachim Gans. The inscription is short—there is, after all, only so much that can be written on a highway sign.

 “Scientist: Jewish native of Prague. Led metallurgy experiments, 1585-86, at the first Roanoke colony near here. Part of Lane’s English expedition,” it reads.

Behind that brief description lies a remarkable tale that opens a window into life in 16th century England.

Joachim Gans was the first practicing Jew to come to the New World. At that time, in 1585, it was illegal to be Jewish in England, although under some circumstances they were certainly tolerated. In Joachim Gans of Prague, written for Jewish American History, writer Gary Grassl points out that “Queen Elizabeth was far from fanatical in religious matters. She tolerated Jews—her personal physician had been one.”

Joachim Gans was one of the best metallurgists in Europe. England in the 1580s was lagging behind the other countries of the continent in working with metals. At that time, the most knowledgeable metallurgists were often Bohemian with the aptly named Ore Mountains on its northern border. Bohemia is now part of the Czech Republic.

In 1581, Gans was invited to England to advise the country on how it could improve its copper production, which he did, reducing the time it took to go from raw ore to finished copper from sixteen to four days. And he showed his English hosts that byproducts of the smelting process could be used for clothing dyes.

His work with copper was done at the Mines Royal in northern England. One of the investors in the operation was the Queen’s Elizabeth’s Secretary of State Francis Walsingham, and that was significant.

Queen Elizabeth, anxious to counter the growing dominance of Spain in the New World, granted Sir Walter Raleigh a royal patent to begin a colony that would become the Lost Colony. Walsingham was an investor in Raleigh’s colonial plans.

The first voyage to the New World was an exploratory trip in 1584 when Roanoke Island was identified as a possible location for a colony. That was followed by the 1585 scientific, military and diplomatic expedition.

It is unclear if Walsingham ordered or requested Gans be a part of the science team, but in any case, he set foot on Roanoke Island on July 13, 1585.

Captain Ralph Lane, the leader of the expedition was heavy handed and violent, and his actions led directly to the open hostility of the local tribal nations to the English presence on Roanoke Island. Although there were other factors involved in the failure of the 1587 Lost Colony—drought and crop failures played a role—Lane’s brute force approach and lack of diplomatic skills created a level of distrust that could not be overcome.

But if the diplomatic and military aims of the expedition were unsuccessful, the scientists, under the leadership of Thomas Harriot, produced an exceptional body of work and Gans was an integral part of it.

It was Gans’ job to determine if there were usable deposits of metal in the New World, and he was successful. Harriot wrote that at one location it “was found to hold Iron richly.” There is also very clear evidence that Gans identified silver and copper in addition to the iron. How much he found in the ground is uncertain. The native peoples valued copper especially as a sign of status and higher-ranking nobles of the nations would wear beaten copper jewelry.

Gans’ contributions had been known of some time, but it was not until 1990 that an archeological dig at Fort Raleigh found his lab. Led by archeologist Ivor Noel Hume, shards of glass, crucibles, pieces of a distilling apparatus used in metallurgy and evidence of a forge and traces of molten materials were found.

Subsequent work at the site has found what appears to be the building where Gans worked, which would make it the first science center in the New World. Excavations have also found bricks that were evidently made by Gans.

And that may be one of the most remarkable parts of this story. There is reason to believe Gans made his discoveries using makeshift equipment, and that he made his own smelting oven.

Uncovered among the metal residues were the remnants of the bricks needed for an oven to heat metals to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The bricks were made on-site and did not come from Europe with the expedition.

It is highly unlikely that Gans left England without his assay oven. The most likely reason that the oven did not make it to Fort Raleigh is that it was thrown overboard to lighten the Tyger, the flagship of the fleet after it had run aground off Cape Hatteras. There is no record that the oven was thrown overboard, but it would have been a heavy, bulky item and was probably given to the sea before the cattle and horses that were also jettisoned.

Gans returned to England with the other colonists on June 9, 1586, when Lane agreed to evacuate Roanoke Island when Sir Francis Drake arrived with his fleet.

Returning to England, Gans settled in Bristol where he continued to work with English smelting operations. He also taught Hebrew, which in the end got him expelled from England.

Knowing Gans was Jewish, Richard Curteys, Bishop of Chichester, conversed with him in Hebrew, then asked in English if Jesus was the son of God. Gans, as a Jew, answered that he did not believe that. Based on that statement, he was arrested. Local officials, knowing he was in favor with high-ranking officials, sent him to London for trial.

It was decided his remarks were blasphemous—showing a lack of reverence to God—but could not be considered heresy—rejecting official religious doctrine—since he had never embraced Christianity.

The difference between the two punishments was banishment or death.

It is believed Gans left England in 1589, most likely deported, although there is no record of that. The consensus among writers who have studied his life is that he returned to his native Prague, but after leaving England no additional references to him have been found.

(The following sources were used in preparing this article:  The NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources website; Joachim Gans of Prague: The First Jew in English America published by American Jewish History; and Ivor Noel Hume’s book, The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne.)


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  • Glenn

    Fascinating story! Thanks for sharing!

    Sunday, May 12 @ 12:45 pm
  • Travis

    Fascinating peek into the life a man and his time that were pivotal in budding European expansion in the New World. And a good reminder that societies haven’t changed all that much in the last 500 years. Scientists and technological pioneers still skate on thin ice when they tread on religious values or norms. Gans was lucky in a way. Might be one of the few times in history that being Jewish actually saved someone’s life instead of costing them their life.

    Sunday, May 12 @ 1:15 pm
  • Michael

    As a local at the time, I worked this dig as a wheelbarrow runner with Ivor Hume, Nick Luccketti and the other archaeologists who impressively and carefully excavated the site at Fort Raleigh in just a couple of weeks. It certainly ushered in a lot of excitement in historical circles. They also contended with the Halloween Storm that blew in where some of them were staying in South Nags Head.

    Sunday, May 12 @ 3:18 pm
  • Bill

    Kip, thanks for that great story tease, I’m sure there’s a lot more of it. Living here on Roanoke Island and learning more about the past is an ongoing wonder. Just the families alone and speculating on how all these generations endured the trials of life here, including the native people is something in itself. I’m always amazed at this special place on earth.

    Wednesday, May 22 @ 10:10 am
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