The First Turkish-American Lawyer: The Grandson of an Ottoman Janissary

Ben Ali Mansion on 5th Avenue and 63th Street in New York
By Cemil Ozyurt - The New York Times carried an obituary in its September 13, 1914 issue. It was about James Ben Ali Haggin, who had died at Villa Rosa, his Newport residence, after an illness extending over a month. The paper says Mr. Haggin was buried in Lexington, KY,  and that he was the grandson of Ibrahim Ben Ali who was considered a pioneer member of America's Turkish community. Wait a minute. Who was Ibrahim Ben Ali and what was he doing in America in the 1790’s? How did his lawyer grandson James Ben Ali Haggin become a rancher, investor and multimillionaire? Let’s keep investigating.
The issue of the Dublin Literary Journal, which was published on March 1, 1844, in Dublin, had a biography of Ibrahim Ben Ali, the Christian Janissary. Ibrahim Ben Ali was a soldier, physician and one of the earliest American settlers of Turkish origin. He was born in 1756 near Istanbul. His father, Ali Ben Mustafa, was a man of wealth and prominence and his estate was situated about six miles from that city.

Through the influence of his father, he secured an appointment as captain in the Janissaries, a royal corps in the Sultan's army. After five years' service he reached a turning point in his life, undergoing a remarkable experience. Two companions, who slept next to him in the barracks, were murdered and suspicion at once pointed to Ibrahim, who was last seen with them. He protested his innocence and through the intercession of friends secured a reprieve of five days in which to establish proof of his assertion. On the fifth day a dish of black olives was sent to him, signifying that he must die on the sixth. In the prison was an old Spanish slave who advised him to convert to Christianity. Sitting down by his side, the Spaniard taught him to repeat the following words: "Turn Christian and recommend your soul to God through Jesus Christ, and He will save you unto life eternal." This he did at intervals during the long night and on the morning of the day set for his execution the jailer came to announce his pardon, saying that two other soldiers had confessed to the crime, for which they would immediately pay the penalty.
About the time of his release, Turkey became involved in a war with Russia and Ibrahim was forced to join the campaign. He was taken prisoner in the province of Wallachia, Romania on the banks of the Danube, and conveyed to Arzeniceur, about five miles from St. Petersburg, Russia where he spent two years, securing his liberty through the efforts of an influential lady whose sight had been restored by his treatment. The good treatment he experienced, his freely conversing with Christians of that place and rejoicing to hear of the Christian religion, strengthened his faith. Two fellow captives wrote to Istanbul, informing the authorities that Ibrahim had turned Christian, and that there was every reason to believe that he had proved a traitor to his country by delivering his troops into the hands of the Russians. Ibrahim was warned by his brother not to return to his home. He went to Denmark and at Copenhagen secured passage on a boat bound for England. He landed at Liverpool, England and then journeyed to Dublin, Ireland, where he met Dr. Adam Clarke, the Biblical commentator, by whom he was baptized. Ibrahim became strongly attached to the doctor and his family, accompanying them on their return to Liverpool, where he spent two years, and also went with them to Manchester, England. He lived for several years in that city and then sailed for America.

After his arrival he met and married an Englishwoman of the Baptist faith and established his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he engaged in the practice of medicine. He afterward moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Ben Ali contracted yellow fever while ministering to patients during an epidemic that struck Philadelphia and Baltimore, and he died in 1800. He was survived by his wife and infant daughter, Adeline Sally. The middle name, "Ben Ali" appears several times among his descendants. The Washington, DC based Richard Lounsbery Foundation was established in the name of Richard Lounsbery, who was the grandson of Ben Ali Haggin. The foundation aims to enhance national strengths in science and technology through support of programs.

According to the History of Kentucky, which was published by The J.S. Clarke Publishing Company in Louisville Kentucky in 1928, Ibrahim Ben Ali was the grandfather of James Ben Ali Haggin through his only child, daughter Adeline Sally. Haggin was born in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky. He made a fortune in the aftermath of the gold rush and was a multi-millionaire by 1880. Probably James Ben Ali Haggin was the first Turkish-American attorney in the U.S.

Haggin was graduated from Centre College at Danville, Kentucky, and began the practice of law in Shelbyville, KY, afterward opening an office in Natchez, Mississippi. On December 28, 1846, Haggin married Eliza Jane Sanders and his second union was with Margaret S. Voorhies, to whom he was married in 1897. By his first wife he had five children: Louis Terah, James Ben Ali, Jr., Margaret Sanders, Adeline Ben Ali and Edith Hunter.

In October 1850 he joined a recent acquaintance, Lloyd Tevis, a banker and capitalist who later served later as president of Wells Fargo & Company from 1872 to 1892, in opening a law office in Sacramento. They moved to San Francisco in 1853. Haggin and Tevis acquired the Rancho Del Paso land grant near Sacramento. The two invested in the mining business with George Hearst as one of their partners. Hearst, Haggin, Tevis and Co. became one of the largest mining companies in the U.S. They owned or controlled at various times more than one hundred mines. During the latter part of his life, Haggin acquired the Cerro de Pasco, one of the largest copper mines in Peru.

In 1880 he sought a new outlet for his energies and began breeding horses at the Rancho del Paso. In 1890 his interests had become so varied that he was compelled to seek a more central location and migrated from California to New York.

In 1897 he returned to his native state and purchased the Elmendorf Farm. On an elevation overlooking Elk Horn, Haggin built one of the finest residences in Kentucky, and included in his estate. He also built a model dairy farm and a greenhouse which he filled with exotic plants. Elmendorf Farm became one of the most noted estates in America. The horses from his stables raced on every prominent course and were known throughout the U.S. and England. He set a high standard and to him Kentucky is largely indebted for the fame of its racing stock. He reached the venerable age of ninety-one years, passing away on September 13, 1914, at his villa in Newport, Rhode Island.
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07