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Shinah Etting, early York matriarch

Said to be a portrait of Shinah Etting, location unknown

Since white Christian males dominate recorded York County history, I am always pleased to find some stories of the women and minorities who are also part of our heritage. Shinah Etting, who was Jewish, bore all of her eight children in York, where she was a vital part of the community.

When husband Elijah died in 1778, Shinah and family moved to Baltimore, where her descendants became successful in business, the military and society. See below for my York Sunday News column for more on Shinah and family:

The Engaging Mrs. E

Baltimore native Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi made news as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. Future historians should have no trouble finding information on her. Such is not the case concerning an earlier woman of Baltimore, one who spent many years in York: Shinah Solomon Etting. Two hundred years ago, women didn’t have much opportunity to make history, but Shinah made her mark with her vivacious personality and through the accomplishments of her children.

Shinah was the daughter of Lancaster Jewish merchant Joseph Solomon and Bilah Myer-Cohen Solomon. Her parents were married in London in 1738 and came to America before Shinah was born in New York in 1744. The family moved to Lancaster, where there was already a sizable Jewish community, around 1746. In 1759, 15-year-old Shinah married 35-year-old Elijah Etting, who had recently arrived from his native Germany. Elijah evidently prospered as a merchant and took part in the York community. Their oldest child, Reuben, was born in York in 1762, the same year his father signed a petition to have York incorporated as a borough. (Which didn’t happen for 15 more years.) Elijah purchased the east side of York lot 107 in 1760. That site is on the south side of West Market Street, about half way between Beaver and Pershing. In 1777 he also obtained an option on lot 631 on the southwest corner of George and Gay, today the site of the Tassia/BIG building.

Alexander Graydon wrote, in his Memoirs of a Life Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania, of meeting the Ettings during his 1773 visit to York. He counted his acquaintance with the “sprightly and engaging Mrs. E” one of the high points of his stay. He reported that she was high spirited and an agreeable singer. He greatly enjoyed pleasure trips to the Susquehanna taken in the company of Shinah and others. He notes that her husband was not as brilliant as she but that he “was always good humoured and kind.” Graydon tried to repay the Ettings’ hospitality by shopping in their small store. Upon returning to York in 1778, Graydon comments that the “Es” were no longer there and that he thinks he remembers hearing that they had moved to Baltimore.
Shinah had indeed moved to Baltimore. The move was prompted by the death of Elijah at age 56 in 1778. Several of the Solomons, Shinah’s brothers, had left Lancaster for Baltimore. The 36-year-old widow and her eight children, Reuben, Solomon, Joseph, Fanny, Elizabeth, Kitty, Hetty and Sally went to join them. Joseph died young, but the other seven became prominent in politics and social life in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Reuben reportedly joined a Revolutionary War company soon after arriving in Baltimore and was later elected a Lieutenant in the Maryland Militia. He may not have been commissioned because of a state-required Christian oath. Reuben was appointed U.S. Marshall for the Maryland District by President Jefferson in 1801. An oath professing the Christian faith was not a requirement for federal office.

His brother Solomon did become one of the first two Jews elected to public office in Maryland, that of Baltimore City councilman, after an 1826 bill modified the Maryland constitution. Solomon was one of the original petitioners in 1797 to have the requirement of a Christian oath removed. Solomon Etting was on the first Board of Directors of the B&O railroad, an organizer of the Baltimore East India Company, and helped establish the Baltimore Water Company in 1804. Etting Street in Baltimore is named for him. He was on the Baltimore Committee of Vigilance & Safety in 1812, and his son Samuel was slightly wounded as a member of the Home Guards defending Ft. McHenry during that war.

As happens when there is a relatively small pool of persons deemed suitable for marriage, the relationships between the Jewish families of York, Lancaster, Baltimore, and Philadelphia became quite entangled. Shinah was related through the Myer-Cohens, her mother’s family, to son Solomon’s first wife, Rachel Simon; his second, Rachel Gratz; and Reuben’s wife, Frances Gratz. (Frances’ sister, Rebecca Gratz, is rumored to have been the inspiration for the heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s tale, Ivanhoe.)

Shinah Etting, the lively young Jewish wife and mother from York, died in Baltimore in 1833. She left, through the memories of those who knew her and through the generations that followed, her mark on a wide area of the mid-Atlantic community, both Jewish and non-Jewish.