1733: Savannah, Georgia Gets Its First Jews, Not That It Wants Them

The newly minted Savannahites had been unwanted at home in London and weren't much more welcome in Georgia, but at least they weren't (shudder) Roman Catholics.

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Statue of James Oglethorpe, founder of Savannah, in Chippewa Square, completed in 1910 by Daniel Chester French. The picture shows the statue of the man leaning on his sword with his right hand, on a pedestal, shining in the sun and surrounded by trees,
Statue of James Oglethorpe in Chippewa Square (1910).Credit: Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons

On July 11, 1733, the first Jewish colonists arrived in Savannah, the first town in the fledgling colony of Georgia, after a difficult journey of more than five months across the Atlantic Ocean. Soon after their arrival, they formed a congregation, Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel. the synagogue they built is  the third oldest in the United States, and stands to this day.

Georgia, one of the colonies that became the original 13 United States, was established by James Edward Oglethorpe, a member of parliament and a social reformer who, in 1732, received a royal charter from King George II to create a settlement for indigent Englishmen where they could be receive a parcel of land and remake their lives by working it.

The first shipload of colonists arrived at what became Savannah, on the southeastern coast of North America, in early February of 1733, several months after landing in South Carolina. Before that first ship, the Anne, had even departed England, members of the Bevis Marks synagogue (the first in the United Kingdom) were already planning to send a group of impoverished Jews off to Georgia to join the pioneering British migrants.

At least they're not Papish

At the time, London was experiencing an influx of Jewish refugees from Portugal, most of them crypto-Jews who feared for their lives in the wake of a reinvigorated Inquisition in that country: Between 1700 and 1735, some 1,500 Jews fled Portugal for England.

Members of the Sephardi Jewish community already present in London were fearful that these new arrivals could become a drain on their own limited resources. Three men from Bevis Marks – Francis Salvador, Alvaro Lopes Suasso and Antonio da Costa – decided to organize to send a group off to the New World.

The vessel William and Sarah departed London in January 1733, with 42 Jews on board, of whom 34 were of either Spanish or Portuguese origin. The remainder were German, or Ashkenazi, Jews, from two different families.

After running aground on the coast of what is now North Carolina, the passengers of the William and Sarah arrived at Savannah on July 11, 1733.

The Savannah synagogue Temple Mickve Israel, built by the third-oldest congregation in America.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many of the colonists already present were not happy with the idea of Jews settling among them, but James Oglethorpe, for one, welcomed them. At the time, he noted that the charter for the colony banned the presence of Roman Catholics and of slaves, but that there was no legal basis for excluding Jews.

By virtue of their numbers, the 42 Jewish travelers on the William and Sarah automatically became North America’s largest Jewish community at the time.

The good doctor

One of the new arrivals was Samuel Nunes Ribeiro, a prominent physician who had recently fled Portugal for London, and traveled on to Georgia with his family. When Nunes arrived, large numbers of colonists were suffering from yellow fever. The course of treatment he prescribed saved many lives, earning himself the appreciation of Oglethorpe - and an appointment as official colonial physician.

Another member of the group was Abraham de Lyon, whose expertise in viticulture was much in demand when the Georgia colonists decided to try setting up a wine industry.

The arriving Jews had brought with them a Torah scroll (inscribed on deerskin) and a circumcision kit. They lost no time organizing as a congregation, then built a cemetery and a ritual bath. They called themselves Kahal Kadosh Mickva Israel (Hope of Israel Holy Community), and began renting space on Savannah’s Market Square. (The synagogue’s current majestic building dates to 1878.)

In 1742, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a local British-Spanish conflict connected to the larger War of the Spanish Succession, brought with it fears of an impending Spanish invasion of Georgia. That spurred all of the Sephardi Jews to quit Savannah for either Charleston, South Carolina or further north.

The initial ban on slavery and the policy of distributing land only in small plots both also made it impossible for settlers to set up large plantations, and thus also drove away both Jews and non-Jews from the colony. After slavery, the rum trade rum, and private land ownership all were legalized, many Jews came back to Savannah, and took on important roles as officials in the colony, and also fighting with colonial forces in the Revolutionary War.  

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