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Franks Family Papers

Identifier: P-142

Scope and Content Note

The core of the Franks Collection consists of 31 letters written between 1733-1748 from Abigail Levy Franks, and one from Jacob Franks, to their son Naphtali in London. The collection also contains business and personal material of other members of the Franks family. While the collection does not contain extensive information about every member of the family, the material, especially Abigail's letters, offers information about immediate and extended family members, and provides much insight into the life of colonial American Jews.

The letters contain Abigail's instructions and advice to her son, her personal feelings and dilemmas, family happenings and dynamics, business, references to Jewish holidays and dietary laws, gossip, politics, and news of the day. Abigail Franks' letters convey her classical education, offer a glimpse into the active mind of a Jewish society woman of Colonial New York.

In addition to the letters, this collection includes legal documents, wills, poetry, land holdings and speculation documents, a copy of a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) Box 1, Folder 5, bills of sale, military records, and correspondence pertaining to business and personal affairs of various Franks family members.

Of special note is a Bible owned by David Franks, inscribed "David Franks, my book, 1732-33," which was possibly a gift upon his becoming Bar Mitzvah. The collection also contains various items relating to the Revolutionary War service of members of the Franks family, including a letter from Myer Hart, an agent for David Franks, certifying that the British prisoners under David Franks' care had been treated well, a handwritten copy of a narrative of Isaac Franks' Revolutionary War activities, and a Revolutionary War bill and cash account of Major General Benedict Arnold listing David Salisbury Franks as a payee.

Included in the collection are the handwritten notes and research of Professor Leo Hershkowitz, conducted in order to publish the edited version of the Franks Family letters.

This collection is valuable to researchers studying the Franks family; Jewish-Christian relations; politics; business; Jewish involvement in the Revolutionary War; Jews in elite colonial social circles; and the Jewish community of cColonial New York.


  • Creation: 1711-1821, [1965-1968]


Language of Materials

The collection is in English and Hebrew.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Biographical Note

Franks Family

Bilhah Abigail Levy (circa 1696-1756), called Abigail, was born c. 1696 to Moses and Rachel Levy, German Jews who immigrated to London, and then to North America, at the turn of the 18th century. It is uncertain whether Abigail was born before or after her parents' immigration to North America, but soon after their arrival, Moses Levy became a pillar of the Jewish community, a wealthy merchant, and owner of a fleet of trading ships.

Abigail Levy Franks received a formal, classical education, which was rare for a Jewish in the 18th century. Abigail prided herself on her attendance at Shearith Israel, her strict observance of the Sabbath, and dietary laws. Suspicious of the kitchens of relatives, she even sent kosher food to her son Naphtali in London. Though highly involved in secular society, Abigail Franks always remained conscious of her identity as a Jew and tried to teach her children the same.

Jacob Franks (1688-1769) emigrated from England to New York in the 1700s, and boarded in the Levy household. In 1712, Franks wed sixteen-year-old Abigail Levy. They were married for forty-four years and had nine children. The Franks family was one of the leading families in Colonial New York, not only within the small Jewish community but also within the larger elite secular social circle comprised of prominent Protestant families such as the Livingstons, DeLanceys, and Van Cortlands. Jacob Franks was acknowledged as a linguist, Judaic scholar, and as an eminent and wealthy merchant who engaged in the slave trade, privateering, general commerce, and shipping. He was also very involved in the Jewish community and the construction of the Shearith Israel synagogue, sercing as President of that congregation in 1730.

Naphtali Franks (1715-1796), called "Heartsey," a Yiddish nickname meaning "dear heart," was the eldest son of Jacob and Abigail Franks. In the 1730s, his parents sent him to stay with his father's relatives in London to enter the family merchant business, and to ensure that he married a Jewish woman. He married his first cousin, a daughter of Jacob's brother, Isaac Frank (d. 1736), and became an important member of the London Jewish community.

Phila Franks (1722-1811), daughter of Jacob and Abigail, shocked her parents with the revelation that she had secretly married a non-Jew. Her husband, Oliver DeLancey, was a wealthy merchant, a famous politician, and a member of one of New York's most powerful families. DeLancey remained a Loyalist during the American Revolution, serving as a senior officer in the British Army. After the war, the DeLanceys moved to England, where Oliver died in 1785. Phila continued to live in England after his death. There, her daughters married prominent men, and her sons made names for themselves.

Phila and Naphtali's sister, Richa, close in age to Phila, was born before 1717. She was courted by a member of the Gomez family, a leading Sephardic family in New York, however, her mother regarded the man as a "stupid wretch," and Richa rejected his proposal. She also rejected the proposal of a Christian man. Whether or not Richa ever married is disputed.

Jacob and Abigail's fourth child, a son named Moses (1718-1789), was known as the artist of the Franks family. He participated in the family merchant business, and later moved to London, where he moved in elite social circles. Moses also married a first cousin, the daughter of Jacob's brother Aaron Franks (1692-1777).

David Franks (1720-1793), youngest son of Jacob and Abigail, was born in New York on September 23, 1720. He moved to Philadelphia as a young man, where he became a successful businessman, and a member elite society. He married into one of Philadelphia's Christian families, remained a Loyalist during the American Revolution, and was jailed for a short time as an enemy to the American cause. After his release he went to England, and then returned to Philadelphia to continue in his brokerage business. By most accounts he died in October 1793 from a yellow fever epidemic; according to others, he died in England in 1794.

Abigail and Jacob had two other daughters, Rebecca (circa 1733-1803) called Becky, and Poyer (circa 1734) possibly named Abigail, although virtually nothing is known about them. Two additional children, Aaron (1732-1738) and Sarah (1731-1733), died in childhood.

David Salisbury Franks (circa 1740-1793), son of Abraham Franks, was one of the first Jews to settle in Montreal. (The precise relationship between the Montreal Franks and the New York Franks remains the subject of much scholarly debate). David Salisbury Franks joined the American colonists in their battle against the British in Canada. Following the colonists' defeat there, he retreated to Philadelphia and joined the Continental Army. David Salisbury Franks served as an aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, the military governor of Philadelphia, and was later cast under suspicion of disloyalty when Arnold's treason became known. Franks was subsequently cleared of all charges, promoted, and took part in numerous highly important diplomatic missions for the United States, including one to Paris where he delivered to Benjamin Franklin the treaty that officially ended the Revolutionary War and established American independence. However, his association with Arnold continued to plague him, and his political enemies were able to use it to have him dismissed from the diplomatic corps in 1786. Franks fought to have his reputation restored, and did subsequently hold other government positions. He died in poverty from yellow fever in 1793, and was rescued from Potter's Field by a Christian neighbor, who had him interred in Christ Church's Burial Yard in Philadelphia.

Isaac Franks (1759-1822), cousin to the Levy-Franks, fought in the battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War, and was an aide-de-camp to George Washington, with whom he maintained a lengthy relationship. He later settled in Philadelphia, where he was involved in numerous business endeavors. It was to his house in Germantown, PA. that Washington relocated the seat of government during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. In 1794, Franks received a Lt. Colonel's commission from Pennsylvania's governor, henceforth becoming known as Colonel Franks.

John Franks (dates unknown), of Halifax, may or may not have been related to the Franks family.


Adler, Cyrus, and A.S.W. Rosenbach. "David Franks." Jewish Encyclopedia Online. 2002. Jewish Encyclopdedia. 28 July 2003. />.

Feldberg, Michael. "The Temptations of Marrying Out... In Colonial New York." Jewish World Review. 2001. 24 July 2003 />.

Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck. "An Old New York Family." Art in America. vol. LI, no. 3. June, 1963.

Hershkowitz, Leo, and Isadore S. Meyer, eds. The Lee Max Friedman Collection of American Jewish Colonial Correspondence: Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748).

Karp, Abraham J. The Jewish Experience in America. 5 vols. New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1969.

Marcus, Jacob Rader. Early American Jewry. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951-53.

Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Colonial American Jew, 1492-1776. 3 vols. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970.

Smith, Ellen. "Franks, Bilhah Abigail Levy." Jewish Women in America. 2 vols. Ed. Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Moore Dash. New York: Routledge, 1997.


0.5 Linear Feet (1 manuscript box, 1 oversized folder)


Originally from England, the Franks family were colonial merchants who settled in New York City in the 1700s. This collection documents parts of their life through correspondence, legal documents, and financial records. The correspondence is primarily written by Abigail Franks in New York to her son, Naphtali, in England. Also included in the collection are the notes and correspondence of Dr. Leo Hershkowitz, who co-edited a book on the letters of the family entitled the Lee Max Friedman Collection of American Jewish Colonial Correspondence: Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748), written with Isadore S. Meyer in 1968.


The material is arranged by famile member, Professor Hershkowitz' notes are in a separate file, and the summary of the Franks family letters is arranged chronologically. order.

Physical Location

Located in AJHS New York, NY


The majority of the collection including Abigail Franks' letters was donated by the Estate of Dr. Lee Max Friedman in April 1957. Various other items were donated by Mendes Cohen, Bert Handelsman, M. Jastrow, Simon Rosendale, and the Elsie O. and Philip D. Sang Foundation. George Crogan letter to David Franks was purchased by the Society.

Digitization Note

Portions of collection were digitized and made available as part of a METRO Digitization Grant in 2008. Collection was digitized in its entirety by Adam Matthew Digital in 2010 and made available for research by the American Jewish Historical Society, on the folder level, in 2016.

Related Material

AJHS Archives:

Papers of Max Kohler (P-7)

Lee Max Friedman, Franks Family Research Collection (P-619)

AJHS Library:

Herskowitz, Leo and Isadore S., eds. Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748). Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1968


The collection is open to the public. The collection has been digitized and is linked through the collection finding aid and the Center for Jewish History's Digital Collections, please use digital surrogates or photocopies of materials.

Guide to the Papers of the Franks Family, 1711-1821, [1965-1968] *P-142
Processed by Rachel Pollack and Deena Schwimmer
© 2003
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Edition statement
This version was derived from FranksFamily02.xml

Revision Statements

  • March 16, 2005.: The collection was partially reprocessed and the MS-Word finding aid was revised and updated by Deena Schwimmer. The electronic finding aid was updated by Tanya Elder to reflect these changes. In addition, boilerplate entities were removed and a new stylesheet attached.
  • January 2009.: Links to letters and transcriptions added by Marvin Rusinek.
  • May 2016.: Revisions and additions to dao links and folders by Eric Fritzler.
  • April, July 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States