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Countdown to Savannah: The Salzburg Connection

Kathy Wood (kaydee)

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

Salzburg to Savannah

You may be surprised to learn that Savannah has a important connection with the beautiful alpine city of Salzburg, Austria, one of our family’s favorite cities in Europe.

But life was not always so pleasant in Salzburg. In the early 1730’s, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Salzburg issued an edict that all Protestants renounce their faith or be banished. This affected more than 21,000 people in the Salzburg area. Although the majority settled in East Prussia, about 300 Evangelical Lutherans from the countryside outside Salzburg were welcomed by the new colony of Georgia and were its first religious refugees. The first group of about 60 refugees arrived in the one-year old settlement of Savannah on March 12, 1734 after a stormy and difficult voyage from England. “The entire town turned out to watch their arrival, and several cannon were fired to salute Georgia's newest colonists.”

New Ebenezer

The group was greeted by General Oglethorpe, who offered them a site about 20 miles down the Savannah River. Oglethorpe also approved their choice of a name for their new settlement: Ebenezer, a biblical word meaning “stone of help.” Ebenezer became the the second town of colonial Georgia. The original site presented serious hardships, and many people died. In 1736, the settlers asked General Oglethorpe to let them move to a less swampy area nearby which they called “New Ebenezer.” Later, other German speaking people - mostly Swiss Germans, Palatines and Swabians - joined the Salzburgers at Ebenezer. All these Germanic people became known as "Salzburgers".

The leaders of the Salzburgers wanted to create a "spiritually pure and economically successful" colony that was different from other southern American communities, avoiding the dependence on slavery and plantation agriculture. Instead, New Ebenezer prospered with a saw mill, a grits mill and a rice mill, the first of each in the state of Georgia. The town had 2,000 citizens when the British captured it in 1779. The Salzburgers fled, and most of the community was destroyed. Today, just a few original buildings remain, and New Ebenezer is practically a ghost town at the end of the road on the banks of the Savannah River.

Jerusalem Church

The most prominent old building is the Jerusalem Church, which was constructed beginning in 1767, made of handmade bricks. One of the few local buildings to survive the Revolutionary War, the church is the oldest church building in Georgia and some say the oldest public building in the state. Jerusalem Church is still an active congregation and is the oldest continuing Lutheran congregation in America worshipping in the same building. The church bells were brought from Europe and are still rung before each service.

The Salzburger settlement had other impacts on the new colony of Georgia. The Salzburgers established the first Sunday School in Georgia in 1734. They also organized what is recognized as the first public orphanage in America, now named the Treutlen House. John Adam Treutlen, who was fleeing an abusive step-father, was one of the first beneficiaries of the orphanage. Treutlen later became the first elected Governor of the state of Georgia, and the center is now named in his honor.

Georgia Salzburger Society

Today, a group of descendants of the original settlers have joined together as the Georgia Salzburger Society. They operate a small museum near the church and support geneological research. Each year on Labor Day the group holds a Heritage Festival. Many people come to the festivities in native Salzburger dress.

In 1994 Salzburg, Austria gave the city of Savannah a monument to honor the Salzburgers who landed in Savannah in 1734. This monument—carved of stone from the Austrian mountains—is located in a small park (now named Salzburger Park) on Bay Street.

Our family has visited the New Ebenezer area a couple of times, and we were intrigued by the history of the settlement and its tie to Salzburg. Our daughter, Kelly, attended a French language camp several summers through Concordia Language Villages of Minnesota at their southern location at the New Ebenezer Retreat Center. If you are a descendent or have a strong interest in seeing the oldest Lutheran church, you can still visit the monument on Bay Street and pay tribute to these brave Salzburgers who started life anew in the Savannah area 250+ years ago.

Learn more about the Salzburgers here:

New Georgia Encyclopaedia: The Salzburgers
Effingham County history
Salzburgers in the New World
Ebenezer Creek and Jerusalem Church


All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)

Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2007

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