An Early Melting Pot

Although Oglethorpe excelled at frontier defense and Indian negotiation, and his plan for the city of Savannah remains famous for its grid pattern and open spaces, he failed to see the consequences of trying to conquer nature with inexperienced settlers, most of whom had no knowledge of agriculture, town-building, or soldiering. As the colonists struggled to maintain their meager existence on Yamacraw Bluff, the Trustees struggled to find additional worthy settlers who could provide experience and labor. This not only brought in a myriad of peoples, it also required bending or changing the original principles on which Georgia was established.


Jewish Colonists

The summer of 1733 was extremely harsh on Georgia’s first settlers. Heat and polluted river water combined to sicken and kill many of the residents. This was the situation that Georgia’s first Jewish immigrants found themselves in after they arrived on the William and Sarah. Neither the Trustees in England nor Oglethorpe knew that forty-three Jewish men, women, and children set out for Georgia, but, despite the Trustees’ anti-Semitism, the pragmatic Oglethorpe did not deny their landing.

Immediately, Georgia’s first English settlers benefited from Oglethorpe’s decision. With the death of their only physician Dr. Cox, the illness of his replacement Noble Jones, and the failure of folk and Indian remedies, the colonists held little hope for survival until the timely arrival of the Jewish physician, Dr. Samuel Nunez. No one under his care died, and Oglethorpe soon informed the Trustees of this fortuity. Although the Trustees responded in typical anti-Semitic fashion by instructing Oglethorpe not to deed any land to the Jews, Oglethorpe again applied common sense to the situation. Oglethorpe granted property in Savannah to fourteen Jewish males because he needed more farmers, soldiers, and experienced tradesmen. Savannah’s first Jews established the Congregation Mickve Israel soon after their arrival, and their Gothic Revival synagogue, dedicated in 1878, stands on Monterey Square and still serves the congregation.

The Jewish community quickly asserted themselves as important and productive members of the new colony. Among the first Jewish settlers was Abraham De Lyon who was raised in Portugal and well-acquainted with grape-growing and wine making. The Trustees desired to begin grape and wine production in Georgia, yet did not send anyone trained to do so. Abraham De Lyon however accepted this role and grew grapes for wine. For the militia, Oglethorpe employed Benjamin Sheftall as his first lieutenant. Other Jews became successful planters, store owners, tavern keepers, and shipping merchants.

 

The Petition of Mordecai Sheftall, February 12, 1796. From the Mordecai Sheftall Papers,  MS 725.

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Mordecai, among the earliest children born in Savannah (2 December 1735) was the son of Benjamin Sheftall. This letter is representative of not only the Jewish, but all of Georgia’s earliest arrivals and their descendants who contributed, in one way or another to the fight for independence.


German Colonists

From First Lessons in Georgia History, by Lawton B. Evans, published by American Book Company (New York), 1913.From the Georgia Historical Society Rare Book Collection.

Before the Trustees established Georgia, they heard of the plight of a group of German Lutherans, expulsed from Salzburg by the Catholic archbishop Count Leopold..  The banished Germans marched through central Europe and gained considerable popularity among European Protestants.  In England, charitable donations provided funds for the Salzburgers, and with the help of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), some members of which also served as Georgia Trustees, the Germans found passage to Georgia.

Upon their arrival in March 1734, the Germans found only one person among the colonists who could speak fluent German: Oglethorpe’s Jewish lieutenant Benjamin Sheftall.  Sheftall and his wife, who also spoke German, befriended the new arrivals and provided them with many services, often asking for no pay in return.  In appreciation, some Salzburger men helped Sheftall in the cultivation of his fields.  The spiritual leader of the Salzburgers, the Reverend Johann Martin Boltzius, hoped to cultivate the Sheftalls’ spirituality and convert them to Christianity in return.  He did not succeed.

Print of Johann Martin Boltzius. From the George Fenwick Jones maps and photographs on Georgia Salzburgers, MS 1924.

Boltzius and the Salzburgers soon found a home in a place they named Ebenezer. Though the first Ebenezer became a failure, their second was more popular.  More Germans followed, often in response to initially overly-optimistic tales of the success to be had there.  Eventually Ebenezer was successful, though not by producing silk as originally intended, but

through dairy, grain, and beef production and from operating grist mills.  Boltzius and his community also established an orphanage which became the model for George Whitefield’s Bethesda orphanage in Savannah.  One of the children raised there, John Adam Treutlen, became the first elected governor of Georgia under the 1777 constitution.

Some later-arriving Germans, many of them indentured servants, also found a home at Oglethorpe’s southern defensive post Frederica where they earned a reputation as farmers.  At Frederica, a German pastor conducted the ceremony uniting Thomas Bosomworth and Mary Musgrove.  Most importantly, they helped defend Georgia’s southern frontier, and that of the thirteen English colonies, against the Spanish in Florida.  Serving with them was a hardy contingent of Highland Scots.

“Reliable Answers” by Johann Martin Bolziusl translated and edited by Klaus G. Loewald, Beverly Starika, and Paul S. Taylor. GEorgia: Georgia Salzburger Society, 1957-1958. From the Georgia Historical Society Rare Pamphlet Collection.


The Highland Scots

Scottish immigrants to the colonies in the eighteenth century outnumbered all others (the Germans were second). , Of the Lowland, Highland and Ulster Scots, the Highlanders had the reputation of being the best soldiers.  Oglethorpe and the Highlanders established the town of Darien along the Altamaha River and the settlement provided a company of infantry to Fort Frederica on St. Simon’s Island.

The Darien Scots maintained many of their cultural practices including their reliance on clan leaders, the Gaelic language, and their plaid attire for several years. Although the Highlanders served Oglethorpe well in defending against the Spanish, some of their most important contributions to the new colony were economic. This was in large part because they retained and adapted their Scottish heritage.  Hard work and agricultural experience combined to make Darien a successful settlement.  When the Highlanders found most of the soil unsuitable for crop growing, they quickly adapted themselves to timber production and cattle raising.  The timber industry in Darien continued to be a staple in the local economy for over 150 years.

Eventually distinctions between Scottish immigrants disappeared as they arrived from all areas of Scotland. Scots as a whole played important roles in the politics, economics, and military of colonial Georgia.  Their influence as merchants and planters grew most during the royal period of the colony. Their success stemmed from accepting that Georgia’s economy could not compete with its northern neighbor, South Carolina, without the use of slaves.

Letter from John Mohr McIntosh to Harman Verelest, June 24th 1741. From the John Mohr McIntosh letters, MS 1029.
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The Debtor Colony that Wasn’t

A New Theory to Consider

Actually, this is not a new theory, but misinformation continues to creep into classrooms and conversations. Although the Georgia Trustees’ original intentions did include the use of debtors to colonize Georgia, in reality very few – probably a dozen or fewer – ever came to Georgia. The Trustees instead sought the “worthy poor”, or those who could not support themselves or their families in England but had the skills or work ethic that might be beneficial to establishing the colony.