Revisiting the Adams Colony Affair in Palestine

A former Mormon abolitionist set off from Maine in 1866 to build a community in the Holy Land. He failed spectacularly, but rattled the Ottomans

Revisiting the Adams Colony Affair in Palestine
A 19th-century etching of Bethlehem. (powerofforever/Getty Images)

The story involves a lapsed actor, former Mormon abolitionist and hard-drinking Zionist prophet who sets off from Maine in 1866 to colonize Palestine. He fails spectacularly and his followers, after facing disease, bandits and financial ruin, end up on a ship home with a highly amused Mark Twain.

Not surprisingly, the would-be colonists’ misadventure has attracted some interest over the years. After Twain described it as “one of the strangest chapters in American history,” subsequent accounts have appeared every few decades, usually in regional publications such as Down East or New England Magazine. Often written by authors from Maine, each retelling builds on the previous ones, adding a few new sources and adjusting the moral in keeping with current events and the writer’s own worldview. This is my contribution to the genre, complete with a few Ottoman documents and some political spin of my own.

First, the basics. In the 1860s, George Washington Adams was a sometime Shakespearean performer who had been looking for religious direction after taking the losing side in a dispute within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fate eventually took him to Maine, where, in rapid succession, he founded a spiritual community called the Church of the Messiah, a newspaper called The Sword of Truth and Harbinger of Peace and an overseas settlement society called the Palestine Emigration Association. He then proceeded to recruit, with the help of some embellishments, omissions and straight-up lies, a group of 156 locals to join him in founding a farming colony in Jaffa.

Their goal was ambitious on both theological and practical grounds: to “improve” the land, facilitate Jewish immigration and, in doing so, to hasten the return of the Messiah. At a time when many Americans were eager to colonize the West and proselytize in the Middle East — with little regard for the wishes of residents in either region — Adams was unique largely in how he recombined these impulses.

Partly as a result, controversy surrounded his effort from the outset, with local Maine papers viciously debating Adams’ integrity and the colonists’ prospects. Adams assured his followers that in the Holy Land they would find bunches of grapes so large they could live off them for days. He suggested that when the Jews returned, real estate prices would rise and they could sell their new land for a profit. People who didn’t see the opportunity were “stubborn fools.” Those who hesitated to liquidate their worldly positions and set sail were reminded of Abraham’s more accommodating attitude toward sacrificing his own son.

In August 1866, the newly constructed bark Nellie Chapin set sail from Jonesport, heading out through Moosabec Reach on the 5,000 mile journey to Jaffa. The families on board were singing hymns. The families on shore were happy to be staying home.

Jaffa, as the would-be colonists may not have known when they left Maine, lay on a low, malarial plain. The Ottoman government — and Adams may not have mentioned this to his followers — had refused them permission to settle. As a result, they all ended up camped out on the beach with little to protect them against fever and cholera besides Dr. Poland’s White Pine Compound and Coe’s Cough Balsam. Displaying the prejudices that were rife at the time, one wrote:

We were encamped on the seaside. In our rear was a graveyard. … The exhalations through the porous sand from such a vast body of decomposition was very bad. We were flanked by two dirty villages of Arabs. The shore was the world’s privy. Anyway, the butchers put their offal there which also gave off no heavenly smell. Decaying seaweed in front was not always pleasant perfume.

With the help of a local intermediary, the colonists were eventually able to purchase a slightly better plot of land. But matters only got worse. Adams’ drinking became more severe, factionalism set in and death threats were made. U.S. consular officials, ever more embarrassed by the situation, could do little to manage it. In January, a young farmer recorded in his diary that “Things are about as dark with the colony as they have been at all and that is quite black.” In April, he concluded that “we must have some help or go home or starve.” And by May, he wrote back to inform his brother about the “big humbug.” “I take pleasure in announcing,” he concluded, “that I have returned to my former faith and shall return to my native land, although rather chagrined at such a ridiculous mistake.”

Indeed, within a year of their arrival, 17 of the colonists were dead, and many others, now destitute, were looking for money to go home. They appealed to everyone from New England newspaper readers to Joshua Chamberlain, Gettysburg hero and governor of Maine. Finally, the local U.S. consul stepped in to help book their passage.

But on the journey home, there was one more cruel twist in store for them. By chance, the failed colonists ended up on the same deck as Mark Twain, who was returning from his own tour of the Holy Land. His account, published first in a series of newspaper columns and then in the book “Innocents Abroad,” set the tone for many of the derisive retellings to come.

Steaming across the Mediterranean, Twain reported the arrival on board of “30 or 40 of Old Adams’ American-colony dupes,” adding that “Their colony was a failure, and Christ did not come.” Adams had absconded with the colonists’ money, leading Twain to conclude that he had performed quite well as custodian of their funds, since he “has got them yet.” After talking with the passengers, Twain declared that he could “make neither head nor tail of [their] religion.” “I have been told all along that there was a strong free-love feature in it, but a glance at the colonists of both sexes on board this ship has swept that notion from my mind.”

Over the years, more earnest writers than Twain have tried to find something redeeming, even noble, in the story of Adams’ failed colony. A 1907 article entitled “A New England Crusade” begins, “Here and there down the ages, possessed of the restless spirit for adventure and moved by zealous religious enthusiasm, have various representatives of the Aryan race,” — and things do not improve in the subsequent paragraphs. After invoking the “high endeavor and sad disappointment” of the 13th-century Children’s Crusade, the author goes on to observe that “in the world-wide movement for cooperation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries more of good will and of blessing has been diffused by the dominant races of the world eastward as well as westward than in all the preceding centuries.”

The article never specifies which exact blessings George Washington Adams brought to the East. But it gamely concludes by noting that while the colony “ended in failure,” nevertheless “all that is best in Syrian life has been introduced” in its aftermath.

Though some of the egregiously racist rhetoric has vanished, Maine’s colonial venture has been rehabilitated more recently as well, with a handful of enthusiasts presenting it as an early example of American-Israeli friendship. In works such as “The Forerunners,” and “Dreamers of Zion,” preacher and historian Reed M. Holmes pushes back against the “wry comment” and “offhand dismissal” that began with Mark Twain. To show that “the Jaffa colony was not a failure,” Holmes quotes a descendant of one of the colonists saying that with the creation of Israel in 1948 “the dream of his forefathers” was belatedly realized almost a century later.

For Holmes, Adams was the “flawed person” that God used to “pave the way” for the return of the Jews to their homeland. In order to commemorate this achievement, Holmes erected matching plaques in Jonesport, Maine and Jaffa, Israel honoring the “157 American Christian Lovers of Zion” who sailed on the Nellie Chapin, a vessel he elsewhere compared with the Mayflower. Ultimately, a few of the Maine families had stayed in Israel, and several of the simple wood houses they brought with them remained standing in Tel Aviv’s American-German Colony neighborhood. Holmes worked to convert one of these into “The Maine Friendship House Museum,” which, like Adams, aims “not to missionize but instead to assist the Jewish people.” Photos on the museum’s website feature “19th Century farming equipment,” an “American-style basement,” and a “wooden board” with initials of the original owners.

What do Israelis make of all this? Opinions differ. Holmes’ wife told Down East magazine that visiting Israelis “are overcome with appreciation for the Jaffa American Colony.” In his book “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren presents Adams and his followers as an example of the latter two themes. Speaking to a Haaretz reporter, Jaffa historian Shmuel Giller concluded simply: “They were crazy.”

For my part, I first encountered the story of the Adams colony last summer while flipping through a curiously titled 1938 book called “Trending into Maine.” I briefly envisioned doing more research on the subject, tracking down back issues of the Machias Union or finding Captain A. A. Norton’s privately published “Moosabec Manavelins.”

This proved overly ambitious. In the end, my only contribution to the subject wasn’t even my own. Curious about the Ottoman perspective on the whole affair, I reached out to Mehmet Cetinkaya, a historian whose research explores immigration into the Ottoman Empire during the 1860s. He was kind enough to locate and translate several handwritten documents from the Ottoman archives relating to the Adams settlement.

In the first, from Oct. 13, 1866, the Governor of Jerusalem writes that “about fifteen or twenty days ago, a group of approximately forty families arrived at the port of Jaffa expressing their desire to settle in the districts of Jaffa and Jerusalem as American citizens.” Based on his inquiries, he reports:

[I]t is clear that they arrived here as immigrants, while still maintaining their American nationality. It is noteworthy that foreigners, particularly those of American citizenship, have been acquiring and investing in properties and lands throughout the territories of the Sublime State, especially in the Syrian region, by means of various concessions and utilizing various opportunities.

On Oct. 25, the officials of the Syrian Vilayet reported on the results of their own bureaucratic due diligence. Like those in Jerusalem, they were particularly attentive to the question of sovereignty: whether the new immigrants would be placing themselves under the authority of the Ottoman state or maintaining American citizenship.

[B]ased on the current situation and the available information, it is understood that the arrival of these families is in the form of a colony, aiming to maintain their original nationality without renouncing it. … Therefore their settlement and the settlement of future arrivals have been temporarily suspended until the necessary authorization is obtained, with the understanding that they do not engage in land acquisition, agriculture, or cultivation without the permission of the Sublime Porte.

The Ottoman Foreign Minister expanded on some of these same concerns a month later, telling the U.S. Resident Minister in Istanbul why the colonists would not be allowed to settle. Writing in French, he explained:

I don’t need to tell you, Mr. Resident Minister, that the Imperial Government has always been eager to give all sorts of aid to foreigners who arrive in the Empire either for reasons of travel or to engage in industry and commerce; but the goal of emigration of a large number of families at once is obviously to colonize a part of the Empire and to claim ownership of the land. If such a precedent was accepted, land ownership and agriculture in one of the most important provinces of the Empire would be transferred to the new colonies that would certainly follow the first. This would happen to the detriment of the indigenous population. The Imperial Government thus believes that its duty in the interest of the populations of the Empire is to inform the Legation of the United States that it cannot consent to the establishment of these families in Palestine.

In his brief response, the U.S. Minister does not seem inclined to press the matter. If anything, it suggests he might be quite content to move on, having fulfilled his duty by simply asking.

I had the honor of receiving the note from November 28 … and I have already transmitted a copy of this note to my government. Please believe, your highness, in the assurance of my perfect consideration.

For the Ottoman government, questions of nationality and sovereignty were of particular importance at this time. During the 19th century, European imperial powers had increasingly taken advantage of treaties that insulated their citizens from Ottoman laws. By extending citizenship to a growing number of Ottoman Christians, these powers had cast a cloak of extraterritoriality and begun to erode Ottoman sovereignty. On the heels of developments like the Greek War of Independence and the French annexation of Algeria, this seemed particularly ominous to the Porte.

In 1853, Russia’s efforts to expand its protection of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land helped spark the Crimean War. With the resulting Treaty of Paris, European states pledged their commitment to the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity, but they also reconfirmed the extraterritorial privileges they claimed for their citizens. In response, the Ottoman government undertook a series of legal measures aimed at forcing residents to choose between the benefits of foreign and Ottoman nationality. As discussed by Lale Can in her book “Spiritual Citizens,” Ottoman concerns over foreign settlement in religiously sensitive regions quickly reached the point where even non-Ottoman Muslims were forbidden from purchasing land in the territory surrounding Mecca and Medina.

In this context, the orderliness, sobriety or theological commitments of Adams and his followers were not the Ottoman state’s chief concern. Rather, it was the question of whether they intended to become Ottomans subjects or maintain their American nationality. (Ironically, at one point Adams sought to adopt an Ottoman legal identity so as to put himself outside the power of the U.S. consul.) The Ottoman government never viewed the United States as a threat in the same manner that it did France, England or Russia. But officials clearly felt that the precedent regarding foreign land ownership was important to uphold regardless.

It is striking to see that what Mark Twain viewed as an odd and amusing folly, the Ottoman government saw as a potentially existential threat. Indeed, reread right now, the whole story and its aftermath take on a more serious, even sinister aspect. With the world watching in horror, wondering how long the U.S. government will continue to provide cover for Israeli war crimes, plenty of new morals suggest themselves. One need not dismiss the entire phenomenon of evangelical Zionism as a fanatical delusion to marvel again at its peculiarity and power. And one need not embrace reductionist rhetoric about settler colonialism to recognize the concept’s continued relevance.

A few differences stand out as well. The 19th-century Ottoman empire has all too often been either romanticized for heroically resisting Western imperialism or written off as an already irrelevant sick man. But it appears here, at least, as a capable and conscientious defender of its citizens. If nothing else, in 1866 the Sublime Porte could still hold its own against America in the Holy Land. And in this case, the only suffering the Americans brought was upon themselves.

As for Adams? When his colony failed, he simply moved to England and insisted it hadn’t. First in Liverpool and then East London, he kept searching for new recruits, promising them soil so rich it produced four crops a year. One account alleges that just before leaving Jaffa, he secured funding from a wealthy English traveler for a nonexistent American college, then sent the man off to Jerusalem to teach there. Adams’ misdeeds never caught up with him, but they never did him much good either. He died in Philadelphia a decade later, preaching in a run-down church and denying any association with Maine’s colonial foray in the Middle East.

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