Oldest Colony of Austrian Families in America
Next year will mark the 275th anniversary of the arrival of the Georgia Salzburgers in the New World, where they have continued to be the oldest existing colony of Austrian families to have settled in America. Activities will be held throughout the year to celebrate this anniversary and one of its founders, Pastor John Martin Boltzius. His correspondence has recently been translated and will be published with the help of the Francke Foundation. A large life-size statue will be erected during next year’s celebration and many Georgia Salzburgers are expected to attend.
As the President of the Georgia Salzburger Society, Ann Purcell, explains, the organization of descendants has today about 1,700 members throughout the U.S. and overseas. Every year they commemorate their ancestors, and they continue to preserve and celebrate their achievements and their significant contribution to the State of Georgia and the United States.
The history of the Georgia Salzburgers began during the Catholic Counterreformation when the Edict of Expulsion issued by the Archbishop of Salzburg forced some 20,000 Protestants to leave their homeland. Tradesmen were given eight days to dispose of their goods and land owners were given three months to sell and leave. Sixteen thousand left Salzburg for Prussia, two hundred went to the Netherlands and three hundred came to the United States of America.
King George II of England, who was of German Lutheran extraction, provided a new home to those Salzburgers who had moved to the Southern area of Germany near Augsburg allowing them to settle in the new Colony of Georgia. On January 8, 1734, thirty-seven families left England for their voyage to America aboard the ship Purysburg. After sixty-three tumultuous days at sea, the first Salzburger immigrants landed at the mouth of the Savannah River on March 12, 1734.
Some 25 miles inland, on swampy land, near the lands of the Uchee Indians, a site was chosen and given the biblical name Eben Ezer, or stone of help, a monument to God’s protection. The town is now known as Old Ebenezer, Georgia. Originally from the Austrian Alps, the new settlers were unaccustomed to the demands of their new environment. Rivers and streams frequently flooded at Old Ebenezer in the winter, and the soil was not very fertile for growing food. Colonizing the area proved very difficult. The swamps and river deltas of of their new home were infested by mosquitoes which bred malaria and typhoid. By January of 1736, twenty-one more settlers had died and this mortality, known as “seasoning,” made the struggle to survive and grow more difficult. With time the Salzburgers asked permission of the English administrator, General Oglethorpe, to relocate the settlement to a high bluff of red clay bordering the Savannah River. They settled permanently on the new site which was known as New Ebenezer.
The Salzburgers played a prominent role in the affairs of Ebenezer and throughout the colony because of Ebenezer’s strategic location in the defense of Savannah. Their town was modelled after Savannah, and by 1741 the population had grown to 1,200. They were highly industrial and very successful in agriculture, animal husbandry, lumbering and the promotion of the silk culture. Within the colony of Georgia, they constructed the first sawmill (1738), the first grist mill (1740), the first church (1741) and organized the first Sunday school. They were also responsible for the first protestant orphanage in America (1738), and the first rice mill (1740). In 1769 they formed bricks with clay dug from the Savannah River banks for a new church, the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church. Some of their descendents still worship there today, making it the longest continuing congregation in the nation.
The Salzburgers also brought to their new lands the Austrian Pine, called Black Pine, the seeds having allegedly been brought in their baggage. Some also credit them for introducing the brilliantly colored Azalea. They also built the market squares in Savannah to sell their wares. Today, the church, the cemetery and one home are all that remain of the original town due to the destruction and desertion of the Revolutionary- and Civil Wars.
Today’s Descendants of the Georgia Salzburgers
Descendants of the first Salzburgers have played an important role in the history of the State of Georgia and the United States. They have distinguished themselves through their service and contributions to the economic, social, civic, religious and political life of the country. The first Governor of Georgia, John Adams Treutlen, was from New Ebenezer. The Georgia Salzburger Society established in 1925 promotes historic research and preserves important cultural traditions. The two most important events celebrated every year are ‘Landing Day,” March 12 and ‘Heritage Day’ (first Monday in September), when members dress in original costume and craftsmen display tools used by the early settlers, as well as the old skills of crocheting, weaving, soap and candle making. Many historic artifacts are on display for visitors at the Georgia Salzburger at museum in Ebenezer, Georgia. During the last twenty years ties between the City and Regional Government of Salzburg in Austria have grown closer. In 1994, the Governor of Salzburg, Hans Katschthaler, commissioned the Austrian artist Anton Thuswaldner, to sculpture a monument. It was brought to Savannah and dedicated on Labor Day 1994. Known as the Monument of Reconciliation, the City of Savannah dedicated the small parcel of ground on which the monument rests, naming it, officially, Salzburger Park. Recently the “Georgia Salzburger Museum” of Ebenezer loaned the Salzburg Museum in Austria a number of religious artifacts to display in the city’s museum, located a few blocks from Mozart’s birthplace.
The current President of the Georgia Salzburger Society, Ann Purcell, who served as a representative in the Georgia General Assembly for fourteen years, announced that many projects are being planned for the future: genealogical records continue to be compiled tracing families that came to America based upon lists of passengers on the arriving ships. Families are being asked to submit any known information on their ancestors which can be used for this purpose. Georgia Salzburgers continue to take great pride in remembering their ties to Austria.
Names such as Schweighoffer, Reisser and Zoller reflect that many descendants of the Salzburgers still live in Effingham and Chatham counties today. Norman Turner, who inherited the Reisser-Zoller Farm, granted a place on the National Historic Register, traces his ancestry back many generations to the Paulus Schweighoffer and Reisser families who settled in Effingham Country. The original farmhouse was built in 1874 and for five generations has remained in the same family.
By the late 1970s the old farm had become an attraction with well-preserved old barns, old buildings, a blacksmith shop, the old Farmers’ Union Store and a farmhouse. It became a legend through filming of the movie, “The Lincoln Conspiracy” (1977), the CBS movie special, “The Ordeal of Doctor Mudd” (1979) and a television mini series, “East of Eden” (1980) on its grounds. The farmstead was also the site for filming the recent movie, “Undertow” (2003). The Reisser-Zoller Farm was listed on the National Historic Register in 1989, designated a Georgia Centennial Heritage Farm in 1993 and was declared the “third most significant historical farmstead in Georgia” in 2001.