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Since time began, water has trickled into creeks, creeks have gathered into rivers and rivers have flowed into the sea. Through the millennia, shores that once served oceans long since receded began to guide those creeks, tracing meandering paths back and forth between the Savannah and the Ogeechee rivers in what is now Effingham County.

The still black waters of Ebenezer Creek, one of such tributaries named for the first area settlers who came to this corner of the country seeking religious freedom, still flow through Effingham with its founders’ tale. The odyssey of these people began with Count Leopold Firmian’s 1731 Edict of Expulsion. Firmian, a Catholic prince, expelled one-sixth of the Lutheran population of Austria, having already threatened them with imprisonment and death. Alpine villagers from the Salzburg province, who became known as “Salzburgers,” packed what they could carry and fled into the fury of winter.

Barely 300 survived the bitter march through freezing weather to Germany. Once there, they met pastors John Martin Boltzius and Isreal Gronou, and traveled together to England where they found King George II was sympathetic to their struggle because of his German Protestant heritage. The monarch offered the refugees trans-Atlantic passage to the British colony of Georgia. Only 37 on the first boat made it to Savannah on March 12, 1734. A second boat arrived 10 months later. James Edward Oglethorpe, the English governor of the colony, offered the Salzburgers a low-lying creek-side area near what is now known as Log Landing Road. Oglethorpe’s choice was strategic, using the immigrants as a buffer between Savannah and the Indians and Spaniards. Unfortunately, the creek proved an inhospitable location for the settlers.

The spot was so far inland that no clear waterway to the Savannah River could be found because the shallows and seizes were too numerous for boats to pass. In order to gather provisions and supplies, an eight-mile road to the Scottish settlement of Abercorn, close to the present-day Chatham County line, was cut. The Salzburgers could traverse that road, which was often flooded, only by foot. The Lutherans named their initial settlement and the waterway Ebenezer, a biblical word meaning “stone of help.” But, their lives there were plagued with hardship. Within nine months of landing, nine of the original group had died as dysentery spread throughout the community.

By January 1736, 21 more had died. Crops couldn’t be sustained in the swampy area conditions, and livestock wandered into the bogs. Burying the dead and caring for the feverish took precedence over even the most mundane of daily chores. A Swiss guide assigned to the group began to scout a better location, though both Boltzius and Oglethorpe hoped the settlers would prevail at Ebenezer.

The guide found a high bluff near the mouth of the Savannah River, and left his supplies there under a stand of oaks. When the third group of settlers arrived on Feb. 7, 1736, the guide left them at the spot he had discovered. Ten days later, the surviving inhabitants from the original encampment moved to the new location. It became the quarter-mile-square township known as New Ebenezer. The group founded the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church, which still sits at that site today. The 1769 sanctuary walls are made of bricks crafted from clay dug from the Savannah River banks. Descendants of this stalwart group of settlers still worship there, making it the longest continuing congregation in the nation.

Once ensconced, the inhabitants at New Ebenezer began to flourish. They proved to be the forerunners of the industrial revolution, building the first water-powered gristmill in the country, and for a short time widows and orphans operated a profitable filature, producing more than a ton of raw silk annually for their English sponsors. Boltzius established the first orphanage in the colony. John Adam Treutlen, the first elected governor of the state of Georgia, grew up there. A replica of the orphanage serves as a museum, operated by the Georgia Salzburger Society, an independently operating genealogical and archaeological organization. Salzburger descendant and Effingham resident Edna Morgan, in conjunction with the Historic Effingham Society, has published a biography of Treutlen, detailing his role in the Revolutionary War and the birth of our nation. The English fortification of the silk filature and church sanctuary during the Revolution marked the decline of New Ebenezer because the citizens disbursed to the safety of the surrounding countryside. Later, New Ebenezer briefly served as the Effingham county seat in 1799, prior to Springfield assuming that distinction later that same year.

Today, adults and children alike can paddle canoes from Long Bridge or Tommy Long landings down the Ebenezer Creek to the Savannah River. The creek shallows hold a stone marker commemorating the first settlement. German names, such as Zettler, Kessler and Gnann dominate the landscape, telling the story of people who surmounted incredible odds to call Effingham home.Written by Ellen Harrison of SouthComm Publishing Company Inc. and reprinted by permission. 

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