A landmark year for the descendants of Effingham County’s first European settlers is under way.
The Georgia Salzburger Society marked the 275th anniversary of Landing Day on Saturday — and they’re making plans for the annual Salzburger Heritage Day celebration on Labor Day weekend.
“We’re making this the kickoff to let the country know what Salzburgers are all about,” said Ann Purcell, the outgoing president of the GSS.
State lawmakers also are paying homage to the Salzburgers today — state House member and senators passed separate resolutions commending the Salzburgers and their achievements in a new land under often trying and arduous circumstances.
“They were instrumental in shaping this area, Georgia itself and their influence on the United States,” Purcell said. “We are strong in spirit and we are here to ensure future generations can enjoy what we have enjoyed today.”
The Salzburgers’ descendants pick the Saturday closest to March 12 to mark the landing of their forefathers, who stepped ashore in Georgia around noon that day on 1734. From their arrival in Savannah, under the direction of Pastor John Martin Boltzius, they made their way to the Ebenezer settlement in what would become Effingham County. They eventually left that for a more habitable and hospitable spot closer to the Savannah River.
“It’s a wonderful heritage to be a part of,” Purcell said. “We’re definitely a hidden secret. This county would not be what it is today without our ancestors.”
When the Salzburgers reconvene on Labor Day, they will be joined by the Austrian consul general in Atlanta and perhaps several of their distant relatives from Germany.
“We’ve been working on it. We’re looking quite forward to it,” said Julian Heyman, the incoming president of the Georgia Salzburger Society.
“We’re making it a large family reunion. It’s just a big celebration for us. We’re trying to get people to understand the history here and the people who started it.”
By Labor Day, the Salzburger descendants hope to have two big projects completed — the book of letters from Boltzius and a statue of the Ebenezer settlement’s leader. The book of letters had to be translated from an old version of German to modern German and then into English. The manuscript, 848 pages long, may turn into two volumes and also is expected to be printed in German.
Boltzius first met Gen. James Oglethorpe in Charleston, S.C., while the Salzburgers remained aboard the Purysburg.
“They sailed on a boat smaller than the Mayflower,” Purcell said.
From there, the short voyage to Savannah’s harbor was made longer as the ship hit a sandbar. Eventually, they resumed their journey and Oglethorpe greeted Boltzius in Savannah, granting the waiting Salzburgers permission to set foot on Georgia soil.
“They had been at sea for 104 days and they had survived only to shipwreck off Savannah,” Purcell said. “But they made it to Savannah.”
Yet their new home, far from the bucolic and picturesque Bavarian Alps, was unforgiving, as Scott Hodges, in the guise of Gen. Oglethorpe, said.
“It was by no means an easy existence,” he said. “But this was the beginning of a grand experiment. Georgia was different. It was an opportunity for the deserving poor to get a second chance at life and a precious few dared to take it. It was a chance for a permanent home based on hard work and religious freedom.”
The Salzburger settlement at Ebenezer served several purposes for the Georgia colony and Savannah — it was a military buffer and provided needed goods. Oglethorpe lauded the Salzburgers for their determination and a collective will bound by their faith.
“They would carve out of the Georgia pines a thriving and successful existence, not once but twice,” he said. “They produced an abundance of goods for Savannah and St. Simons Island.
“They were far away from their friends and families. They had the courage to succeed where others had failed. I had used Ebenezer to prove the theory the Georgia colony was a sound one. It is the German Salzburgers who became the agricultural backbone of the colony and its ultimate success.”
The reincarnated Oglethorpe also praised the Salzburgers of today for continuing to reach out to their past.
“Understanding yourself is an important part of understanding others,” he said. “I thank you for making your heritage an important part of your future.”
The Salzburgers will be honored today at the General Assembly as the resolutions are presented and read this morning.
“It’s going to be a grand day,” Purcell said.
As for the plans for later in the year, Purcell is confident the group can put together a worthy celebration.
“We’re Salzburgers,” she said. “Nothing is hard for us.”