Salzburg, or "Salt Castle" Austria was founded on the banks of the Salzach River at the northern edge of the Alps. True to this name, the city was known for its abundance of salt, mined from its mountains and transported to the outside world via the Salzach. Salzburg was not originally part of Austria; instead it was first ruled by a series of Catholic archbishops. And it was one of these archbishops who tore apart his city.
In 1727, Archbishop Count Leopold von Firmian bought his office from Pope Benedict XIII and immediately got down to business—ridding Salzburg of Protestants. So it was no coincidence that on October 31, 1731, the 248th anniversary of Martin Luther's baptism, that von Firmian published his Edict of Expulsion (Emigrationspatent) that had this to say to the Protestants: renounce your faith, or get out.
Surprised by 21,000-plus citizens who stuck to their beliefs, the archbishop nonetheless pressed on with the edict. Land owners in violation of the new law were given three months to sell their property and leave--with von Firmian snapping much of it up for himself. Those who didn't own land were only given eight days. Unfortunately, on the eighth day there was a horrific snowstorm to greet this sudden band of refugees. Survivors migrated to Protestant areas that welcomed them, from Poland and Lithuania to Romania and the Netherlands. But there was a much smaller group who wound up in what was then literally a New World. These were Georgia's Salzburger immigrants.
King George II of England—himself part German Lutheran—heard about the Salzburgers' plight and offered them sanctuary in the Colonies. In 1733, a group of about 60 who agreed to go began their journey by forming their own congregation at St. Ann's Lutheran Church in Augsburg, Germany. From Augsburg they traveled to Rotterdam, then moved on to Dover, England, where they boarded the Purysbug and set sail for Georgia.
The storm-tossed ship took 63 days to reach land. During the worst weather, Pastors Johann Martin Boltzius and Israel Christian Gronau read passages from the bible to their terrified parishioners. One of the passages was 2 Samuel 7:12:
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebene'zer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.
Unbelievably, the Purysburg made it to Savannah, Georgia on March 12, 1734, with 37 Salzburgers still alive; they then traveled several miles to the settlement. They called their new home Ebenezer, "stone of protection."
Life was not easy for the newcomers. Their designated town was in a swamp, something completely foreign to these natives of the Alps. In the first year over half died; they then challenged Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe to move them to a more hospitable location. He relented, and 25 miles away, a town on higher ground was christened "New Ebenezer." It was New Ebenezer which would welcome wave after wave of Salzburgers in the following years.
Their religious leader was Pastor Johann Boltzius, who envisioned a tightly-knit, yet profitable spiritual community. To that end they took no part in slavery, and became a haven for others, such as the Moravians, who also escaped religious persecution. "They got along well with the others in Georgia," says Donald Hanberry, president of the Georgia Salzburger Society. "They spoke German, so it was a close community. But they traveled back and forth a lot to Savannah."
The Salzburgers also began quite a successful industry. A section of New Ebenezer, called the Mill District, boasted Georgia's first saw mill, salt mill, and grist mill. They were talented silk makers, producing over a ton of silk each year. And they were well-respected for their minds—Georgia's first elected governor, John Adam Treutlen, grew up in New Ebenezer. By 1765, its population had grown to 1,050.
But ultimately, this resilient and resourceful community would disappear. What brought its end was the Revolutionary War. Torn apart by politics and taken over by the British Army, who torched much of the settlement, the population dwindled, until by 1860 it had dispersed.
The spirit remained, however. In 1925 Richard Gnann, himself a Salzburger descendent, rallied other descendents to take an active role in maintaining what was left of their past. "They met and decided there was a valid reason to preserve things that were already getting away from them, like documents, land, and buildings," said Betty Renfro, Administrative Assistant of the Georgia Salzburger Society, One of their crowning achievements was maintaining the original church—the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dating back to 1769, it is still home to weekly services, and has the oldest continuing Lutheran congregation in the United States.
The Society also built the Museum of the Georgia Salzburger Society, which is a replica of the Salzburgers' original orphanage. In addition to artifacts such as clothing and maps, visitors to the museum will find a prized set of books called Georgia Salzburgers and their Allied Families. Begun by Pearl Rahn Gnann and continued by her granddaughter, Martha LeBey Lassiter, this four-volume set documents the original Salzburgers through the generations, culminating in over 100,000 names. Not only is it a terrific tool for the descendents, but as Betty points out, "it's useful for anyone researching their southern background. A lot of names pop up that you wouldn't expect." (If you can't make it to the museum, go to www.georgiasalzburgers.com, or call 912-754-7001 for more information on how to purchase the set.)
The Society welcomes new members, who receive a quarterly newsletter with updates on discoveries made about this courageous group. New information is found all the time—an archaeological dig two years ago uncovered musket balls from the Revolutionary War. What began as a small group has now grown to over 1,700 members from all across the United States, and reaching as far as New Zealand. It's a fitting tribute to the Salzburgers, unsung pioneers of early America.