Effingham is a county steeped in history. Not many places have such a rich historical heritage. Within the county’s boundaries of today was the early Mt. Pleasant trading post and town of the Native American Euchees — a place frequented by Carolina Indian traders long before the Georgia colony came into being.
Often celebrated are the Salzburgers who came seeking religious freedom, and who founded Ebenezer in 1734. There was also Abercorn — established in late 1733 — an out-settlement of Savannah, where 10 English families struggled for their existence, and where the first Salzburgers camped while Ebenezer’s first buildings were constructed. Still there was another early settlement not often remembered and celebrated — the vibrant German farming community known by the religious name "Bethany."
Bethany was not a town or village, but rather it was a farming community comprised initially of 50-acre farm plots, as well as a few of 100 acres. It stretched northward from Ebenezer Creek approximately eight or nine miles along the Savannah River and the early road to Mt. Pleasant and Augusta. In some old land records, it also was identified as the Bethany District of Ebenezer.
In Georgia’s early history, the land north of Ebenezer Creek — known as the Blue Bluff — was part of Euchee hunting grounds, and therefore settlement by European colonists was prohibited. However, in 1750, the Euchees having left the region, colonial authorities opened the Blue Bluff area for settlement.
At this very time, Germans from the Ulm region were arriving in Georgia — coming in three travel groups known in the colony’s immigration history as the first, second and third Swabian transports. These newcomers were Germans of the ethnic tribe known as Swabians, people who in the Middle Ages populated the geographic area that is today southwest Germany. These newly-arrived Germans were the primary settlers of the Blue Bluff.
At the center of the Bethany community and adjacent to the river were 100 acres of church land, identified on an old map as the “Glebeland.” On this ecclesiastical land stood the church, a school and also the schoolmaster’s house; additionally, the community cemetery was at this place.
Just south of the Glebeland on Michael’s Creek — a little stream known in former times as Michler’s Creek — was the community mill, owned by Johann Michler, an enterprising German who acquired large land holdings at the community center and northwest of Bethany. Approximately 20 years ago, Norman Turner, Henry “Sonny” Zittrouer and Walter Zoller located the site of the old mill. Key to identifying the location was finding part of the earthen dam that remains — a dam used to form a holding pond for the mill race that powered the mill’s wheel.
The flat top of the earthen dam indicates that it doubled as a roadway crossing over the creek to provide passage to farms located south of the little stream. This roadway, according to an old land record, was called the “Mill Lane,” and it ran to and along the west side of the church land.
Just north of the church property on the west side of Mill Lane was Johann Happacher’s place. He was a saddle maker. A little to the north of Happacher was the tannery of John Neidlinger. His family also had built and operated a tanning mill south of Ebenezer (new town) in the mill district.
Georg Gnann, who plied his old world craft of pottery making, settled on land several farms south of Michael’s Creek. The immigrant Jacob Gnann farmed the land on the south side of the church land, property that belonged to the widow Deppe whom Jacob married. She was widowed after her husband, Valentin, was bitten by a rattlesnake and soon expired.
At the south end of Bethany was a 100-acre tract where Michael Oechslin (Exley) practiced his old world gardening skills — the cultivation of kitchen vegetables that were valued by the Germans. Michael’s young brother Christian, a weaver, settled near the center of Bethany, west of the Augusta Road.
Also among the early settlers of Bethany was Conrad Rahn, who acquired land at the south end of Bethany next to that of Philip Paulitsch, a tapestry weaver. Rahn, who recently came from Pennsylvania, married Barbara Paulitsch, the daughter of Philip. Conrad Rahn soon became one of the leading citizens of Bethany; he also gained prominence as an officer in the colonial militia.
Several original Salzburgers in Ebenezer were among the first settlers of Bethany. Included among these were Balthasar Rieser (Reiser), Christoph Rottenberger and Matthias Zettler.
Three Buntz brothers, Ludwig, Georg, and Urban, were among the earliest landholders. Also Johann Hangleiter and Caspar Heck numbered among the early settlers, and a newcomer named Martin Dascher (Dasher) acquired his first land in Bethany; he soon acquired land in other places.
A young school teacher and merchant named Johann Adam Treutlen obtained a 50-acre grant in the southwestern section of the community. Treutlen soon acquired large land holdings north of Bethany to become the wealthiest planter of the region and a leader of the American Independence movement.
“From the Settlement of Bethany, the Province of Georgia begins its Era of Prosperity.” So wrote William Gerard De Brahm in a 1772 history of Georgia. While this assessment, no doubt, is an exaggeration, nonetheless it gives testimony that Bethany, upon settlement, quickly became a significant part of Georgia’s economy as old world Germans learned new world agriculture, as well as continuing to practice their traditional trades and crafts. De Brahm, best known as “His Majesty’s Surveyor General for the Southern District of North America,” was partial to the Germans of Bethany, because he had traveled with many of them to America in 1751 on board the sailing ship named the Antelope.
Writing about Bethany’s Germans approximately 20 years after their arrival in Georgia, De Brahm said: “very few of them has to this day learned as much English, as to make themselves tolerably understood, nor is there any English Family settled among them, and their Schools, as also Divine Services are all in the German Language.” He noted that the features of their faces were as hieroglyphics, which conveyed oppressions and hardships they suffered in their old country. However, their children born in America were of “a genteel attitude ... and some (having) very handsome countenances, and what is peculiar, all speaking English as easy as the German language.”
After the Revolutionary War, Bethany declined. The church there ceased to exist, and the Glebeland was sold by the Ebenezer Church fathers. However, in the 1980s there was renewed interest in Bethany, and the old historic cemetery was identified anew. In 1989 three memorial stones were placed at the burial site.
While today the Bethany story shines not so bright on history’s pages, there are many Effingham County citizens who descend from the first settlers of the historic farming community.
This was written by Vincent Exley of Marietta.