Jonas Phillips Levy was born on January 14, 1807, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Michael Levy and Rachel Phillips. He was the youngest of ten children. Levy never finished his formal education, instead preferring to take various apprenticeships. He began his career as a seaman in 1823, when he signed on as cabin boy on the schooner Sygnet heading for New Orleans. Jonas worked various odd sailing jobs, on both steamboats and ocean vessels for the next few years, saving money, and in 1836 he opened his own store in New York City.
Levy's New York company only lasted one year because a fire destroyed his warehouse, costing him $15,000 in damages. Levy relocated to New Orleans in 1837, and again set himself up as a merchant. He fared marginally better in New Orleans than in New York, but filed for bankruptcy in January 1843. Jonas, along with his brother Morton, chartered the schooner Sea Bird in May 1843, heading towards Lerma, Mexico, carrying machinery, provisions, and alcohol. On the ship's arrival in Mexico, Senor Don Thomas Marine and Gen. Ampudia re-routed it and its cargo to Laguna. Levy's arrival in Laguna is the basis for his first claim against the U.S. government; Lewis Vargas, the port collector, requested duties for goods that Jonas claimed should be exempt because he classified his cargo as provisions. Levy also claimed that, during his stay in Laguna, the Mexican government illegally seized provisions from Levy's merchandise, and coerced him into contributing money to the Mexican government.
Levy moved to San Juan Bautista (present day Villahermosa), Tabasco, Mexico, after conducting his business in Laguna. In 1846, Jonas, his brother Morton and his family, and other Americans residing within a specified distance of the coast, received notice from the Mexican government that they would either have to remove themselves further inland or leave the country because of the U.S. declaration of war on Mexico. The Mexican army seized large portions of iron frames, among other abandoned heavy machinery, under Levy's ownership in San Juan Bautista, and submerged them in the Tabasco River in a vain attempt to stop Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s pursuit. After his experience in Laguna, Levy briefly returned to Washington, D.C., to prepare for his case against the U.S. and Mexico.
In late December 1846, Secretary of War William L. Marcy ordered Levy to report for service in the United States war with Mexico. Levy purchased the transport ship American and served as its captain. United States General Winfield Scott ordered Levy to sail to Veracruz, Mexico, where the American moved small surf boats carrying American military personnel and munitions to the port of Veracruz. Following the capture of Veracruz, General Scott appointed Levy captain of the port of Veracruz, effective April 1, 1847. Levy did not stay in Veracruz long, leaving for the United States on April 15, 1847. He married Frances A. Mitchell on November 22nd, 1848, and they had five children: Isabella, Jefferson Monroe, Louis Napoleon, Amelia, and Mitchell Abraham Cass.
By the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States took on the responsibility of paying claims to American citizens for damaged property during the war with Mexico. On July 14, 1854, the House of Representatives passed an act (33rd Congress, 1st session) stating that the Treasury Department was to "examine, adjust, and settle the claims of Jonas P. Levy and José Maria Jarero, for indemnity against the government of Mexico." Levy's claims totaled $90,800 in damages, before interest, for illegal duties; the value of provisions taken by the Mexican military; forced contributions in Laguna; the value of the iron houses; and personal wrongs, injuries, and losses of business by illegal expulsion from his location in San Juan Bautista.
Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Stephen Pleasonton originally awarded Levy $54,669.40 on August 23rd, 1854, but Comptroller of the Treasury Elisha Whittlesey had reservations regarding the basis of Levy’s claim. Whittlesey called for further investigation into the matter. After examining Levy’s documents, Whittlesey accused him of suppressing essential materials to the case, and rejected any payment by the United States. According to Whittlesey, Levy's claims had little factual basis, and did not have enough evidence to warrant payment. Following his rejection at the Treasury, Levy brought his case to the U.S. Court of Claims, but they rejected it in May 1858, based on lack of evidence. Levy's claims met with a series of rejections in court from 1858 to 1873. In May 1873, after numerous requests for retrials, the Fifth Auditor's Office at the United States Treasury informed Levy that they were closing his claim, and that they would not reopen it without further legislation, thus marking the end to Levy's court proceedings.
In conjunction with pursuing his own claims, Levy interested himself in the affairs of the Pedrigal Mining Company; the Pedrigal mines were located in Taxco, Mexico. The previous owners presented a suit against the United States for losses of business and ownership of the mines during the United States war with Mexico. Levy gained power of attorney from Matilda and Nicholas Rappleye, owners of the Pedrigal mines, to look into their claim against the U.S., on the condition that Levy could have half of Mrs. Rappleye's shares on the event that he could legally secure her claim to the mines. The claim for Pedrigal mines against the United States totaled one million dollars, but Levy was ultimately unsuccessful in this claim.
During the Civil War, Levy attempted to relocate to Mexico, but only made it as far south as Wilmington, North Carolina. He set up a store there, which the Union Army later occupied as headquarters for the Camp Jackson Hospital. After the Civil War ended, he moved back to New York and continued his long campaign for payment for what he viewed as great injustices and oversights perpetrated by the Mexican and American governments. Levy lived in New York City until he died in 1883, after a long illness.