get to knwo the history behind this little known and almost never visited historic cemetery
It was July of 1733, just five months after Georgia’s Founder, James Oglethorpe arrived, when 42 Jewish immigrants landed off the coast of Savannah. They had sailed from England on the ship William and Sarah and were welcomed by Oglethorpe. They began to settle around what is now knows as Ellis Square. They formed the first Jewish congregation in the South, Congregation Mickve Israel. As the Jews settled, making Savannah their home, the need for a Jewish cemetery grew.
The City of Savannah actually has two Old Jewish Burial Grounds. The first was established as a gesture of goodwill by James Oglethorpe shortly after the Jewish immigrants’ arrival to Savannah in 1733. Oglethorpe set aside a plot of land to be used as their burial grounds. The property, just south of the then city’s limits at South Broad Street, is on what we know today as Oglethorpe Avenue.
The second came to the Jewish citizens by way of King George III. In 1762, Mordecai Sheftall, the son of Benjamin Sheftall, one of the original passengers on the William and Sarah, asked King George III to grant him land to create a cemetery. A parcel was granted that “shall be, and forever remain, to and for the use and purpose of a Place of Burial for all persons whatever professing the Jewish Religion.”
In 1773, Mordecai Sheftall founded The Jewish Community Cemetery just outside the city walls.
It was October 1779, and the French and American forces were determined to recapture Savannah from the British. General Lincoln ordered, “The second place of rallying, or the first if the redoubt should not be carried, will be at the Jew’s burying ground, where the reserve will be placed.”
The Siege of Savannah is considered the second deadliest battle of the Revolutionary War. When French and American forces stormed into Savannah, they began to advance as far as the Jewish Community Cemetery. “The reserve corps, commanded by M. le Vicomte de Noailles, advanced as far as an old Jewish cemetery, and we placed on its right and a little to the rear the 4-pounders,” Captain Antoine-Francoise Terance O’Conner, a military engineer serving with the French forces.
Things didn’t go in their favor. The Cemetery, located on a bluff, the perfect spot, they thought, to watch and plot the Battle of Savannah. But there was a lack of natural coverage, and they were overpowered by British gunfire.
The month-long Siege ended on October 18, 1779. Swedish Count Curt von Stedingk managed to reach the last trench, “I had the pleasure of planting the American flag on the last trench, but the enemy renewed its attack, and our people were annihilated by cross-fire. The moment of retreat with the cries of our dying comrades piercing my heart was the bitterest of my life.”
In 1765, Levi Sheftall, Mordecai’s brother, reserved a 25 x 40-foot walled plot on the land that King George III had granted to Mordecai —designated exclusively for the use of his family: the Sheftalls, the de Lyons, and the De La Mottas. Mordecai’s father, Benjamin Sheftall (1702 – 1762), was the first to be buried behind the walls.
Legend has it that when a Jewish visitor to Savannah suddenly died, Levi Sheftall declined to allow the visitor to be buried within the Sheftall family plot. Mordecai then stepped in and allocated 1.5 acres of the 5 acres granted to him by King George III. He deeded the land to the trustees for the use and purpose of a place of burial “for all persons whatever professing the Jewish religion.” Levi’s walled family plot is next to Mordecai’s Jewish Community Cemetery.
The Cemetery saw eighty-four burials between 1769 and 1881, including Mordecai Sheftall, his wife Frances, and other members of the de Lyon and De La Motta families. Abigail Minis, one of the original Jewish settlers who arrived in 1733, is also buried in the Sheftall Cemetery. Her son Philip, the first caucasian male child to be born in Georgia, is buried with her.
The exact number of those buried in the cemetery is unknown. However, there are forty marked graves in the cemetery.
The historical Levi Sheftall Burial Grounds found itself, victim, to modern-day vandalism. Impoverished citizens of Savannah’s community broke into the cemetery and stole headstones from the graves. It is said that the headstones were used for doorsteps and sidewalks. Unfortunately, none of the headstones were ever recovered.
Today, the Jewish Community Cemetery and the Levi Sheftall Burial Grounds are locked to the public, but not forgotten. The cemeteries are landmarks honoring the contribution the Jewish community made on Savannah’s rich history. They remind us of the influence and leadership the Jewish immigrants brought to the colony, their new home.
James Oglethorpe’s contribution to the Jewish settlers is the first known Jewish burial plot in Savannah. However, there aren’t any records of the individuals buried there or the number of internments in the cemetery. But historians believe that seventeen individuals call the Original Jewish Burial Plot their resting place.
The cemetery was in use from 1733 to 1765. In 1983, during the 250th anniversary of the founding of Savannah, the Trustees of the Mordecai Sheftall Cemetery Trust paid respects to the location with a marker in the median of Oglethorpe Avenue.
The Old Jewish Burial Ground, Sheftall’s Family Cemetery, and the Jewish Community Cemetery are located at Cohen and Spruce Streets. Please keep in mind that they are typically locked and have security present, but you are more than welcome to go and visit the grounds. Plaques are commemorating the individuals thought to be buried there.
The first known Jewish burial plot allotted by James Oglethorpe in 1733, is located in the Historic District of Savannah. It is located on the Median of Oglethorpe Avenue, near Bull Street, and is available for a visit anytime.