The story of the American Colony in Jerusalem begins with Anna and Horatio Spafford of Lake View, Illinois, and the involvement of their family in the 1873 shipwreck of the luxury steamer, the Ville du Havre. The majority of passengers traveling aboard the Ville du Havre lost their lives in that catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic. Among the drowned were the Spaffords' four young daughters.
The bereaved couple’s reaction to the tragedy and their way of coping with the personal losses they sustained led them in new directions in their Christian faith. Their increasingly visionary beliefs included a millenarian hope in the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which set them and a small group of fellow faithful on a path to a new utopian communal life in Jerusalem. The Spaffordites took up residence in a house in the Old City in 1881, and in the next decade moved to what was then the outskirts of East Jerusalem. They followed in the footsteps of other western and European religious pilgrims, as well as educators, tourists, archaeologists, business people and missionaries who had come before them earlier in the nineteenth century. Theirs was a long-lasting community, ecumenical in intent, charitable in acts, and appreciative of the various faiths, languages, and cultures of Palestine.
The American Colony waxed in size, activities, and functions from the time of the arrival of the first group near the end of the Ottoman Empire, through World War I and into the beginnings of the British Mandate. In these decades the Holy City, and the geographical and political landscapes of the regions around it, grew in population and changed, altered by revolt and war and British influence, and by Jewish in-migration and settlement. Over generations the colony community weathered outward criticism and internal dissent. It underwent its own internal changes in leadership, the composition of its membership, and its mission. Members offered hospitality to travelers and participated in the educational, commercial, and cultural affairs of the city, while contributing significantly to the social welfare of the poor, especially women and children. Throughout its history, from its founding to the present day, the American Colony has exerted a lively influence in Jerusalem life.