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Tracing the roots
Salzburgers celebrate Heritage Day
09.06 Salzburger 5
Robby Godby lets a rare Eastern indigo snake get up close and personal. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Salzburger 1

Georgia Salzburgers make their way into Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church on Salzburger Heritage Day.

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The “stone of help” has been the foundation for the Salzburgers for nearly 275 years. On Monday, descendants of the Salzburgers celebrated the 82nd Salzburger Heritage Day at New Ebenezer.

“Look around,” Georgia Salzburger Society President Ann Purcell said to packed Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church. “We are preserving our heritage. We were part of that colony and 273 years later, we’re here.”

The Salzburgers fled Austria, went to Germany and settled in England, where they set out for the New World and the fledgling Georgia colony. Gen. James Oglethorpe gave them land west of Savannah.

But the land was difficult to cultivate, and the Salzburgers pleaded with Oglethorpe to relocate them from their Ebenezer — which means “stone of help” — settlement. There, the Salzburgers acted as a buffer for Savannah. Oglethorpe relented, and they founded New Ebenezer near the banks of the Savannah River.

“Oglethorpe wanted us to move inland,” Purcell said. “He wanted to use us as a military force.”

The Lamar Institute has been conducting archaeological digs around the New Ebenezer settlement  for nearly 20 years, and their findings are extensive. The settlement grew to 100 houses and 800 people, Lamar Institute president Dan Elliott said. Parts of the town remain unexplored, but more than 73,900 artifacts have been unearthed.

The larger excavations began in 1989. Researchers have discovered 188 features and 12 areas of the town have been sampled.

“It’s hard work,” Elliott said, “but we have fun.”

The extensive work also makes him feel as if he’s come to know the original Salzburgers.

“We’ve made lots of friends from the 18th century,” Elliott said. “We feel like they are our best buddies now. I try to bring them back to life as best I could.”

Another project of the Georgia Salzburger Society could reveal even more about the day-to-day challenges of their forebears. The letters of Pastor John Martin Boltzius, the leader of the Salzburger settlement, are being collected. Written in what is now arcane Germany, they have to be transcribed into modern German and then translated into English.

Boltzius’ letters are extensive and very detailed, according to Purcell, recording all the hardships of the settlers and all their success and foibles. Work on the letters has been going on for a year and a half.

“We are now engaged in one of the most important projects in the history of our society,” Vince Exley said.

There are 150 of Boltzius’ letters in the archives of the Francke Foundation, where they have been well preserved, according to Exley. Another dozen were recently discovered in a Berlin museum.

“There are two letters of 20 pages or more, full of information from New Ebenezer,” he said.

The transcriptions of the letters is complete, and the GSS hopes to have the book of letters sometime next year.

“Some of our ancestors were not always on good behavior,” Exley said.

The Lamar Institute has other digs it wishes to conduct, including one on a fort built in 1756 and the silk filature.

“Boltzius was proud of it,” Elliott said of the silk filature. “It’s a unique resource in North America. It was one of the first industrial sites in North America. It was a factory building before there were factory buildings.”

This summer, nearly a dozen of the Salzburger descendants went to Austria and Germany and despite the language barrier, were warmly welcomed, Purcell said.

“We felt we were truly walking where our ancestors walked,” she said.

At a church service, “only Vince Exley and a couple of others understood what was being said,” Purcell said. “But when they learned we were Georgia Salzburgers, there were the biggest smiles.”