American Jewish Historical Society
Inclusive Date: undated, 1761-1867, 1873, 1932, 1941 (bulk 1777-1778)
5 linear feet (11 binders; 6 boxes; 1 oversized folder in shared box; 1 folder in shared box)
The Mordecai Sheftall collection consists of family papers and business records of the American Revolution patriot, Mordecai Sheftall and the Sheftall family of Savannah, Georgia from 1761-1873 and a large collection of American Revolution provision returns (1777-1778) and some correspondence for the Continental Army and Navy of Georgia and South Carolina. The collection includes an original Works Progress Administration Guide to the materials.
The collection was donated by A.S.W. Rosenbach, circa 1927 and the Elsie O. and Phillip D. Sang Foundation, 1982.
Mordecai Sheftall was born in the town of Savannah on December 2, 1735 in the British land trust of Georgia to Prussian-born Jews, Benjamin and Perla Sheftall. According to John McKay Sheftall in "The Sheftalls of Savannah," Mordecai's father, Benjamin, was born in Frankfurt-on-Oder in 1692 and moved from Prussia to London some time prior to marrying Perla in 1730 or 1731. Benjamin and Perla landed in July 1733, and were among a group of forty-one Jews eventually granted permission to settle in Georgia by the British resident trustee, James Oglethorpe.The Sheftalls, along with the family of Abraham Minis and Jacob Yowel, were the only Ashkenazic Jews among the Sephardic families in the Portuguese and German group hailing from the Port of London. As citizens of Georgia, the land trust, Georgia, the colony, and finally, Georgia, the state, the Sheftalls established themselves not only as forefathers of the fledgling Jewish community and the greater community of Savannah but ultimately, as forefathers of the United States of America itself.
The Georgia trusteeship was established by Oglethorpe in 1732 with the purpose of assisting the worthy poor of England to "better their condition by giving them land in the New World, and assisting them in its cultivation by bounties or otherwise." The "worthy poor," those released from debtor prisons in England, never quite made it to the philanthropic-minded colony, and Georgia slowly became a haven for Scots with crafts and construction ability, poor English tradesmen and artisans, and Protestant religious refugees from Switzerland, France and Germany.Jews were not necessarily included as part of the "worthy poor" or religious refugees, but Oglethorpe did not, despite hesitancy from England, turn the Jewish group away when they landed.
At the time of Mordecai's birth, Georgia also served as a buffer zone for the English against the Spanish in Spanish East Florida. The frontier settlement of Savannah was little more than an outpost along the southernmost edge of the British Empire's new world. From 1640 on, the Spanish and British squabbled over control of the land with the British establishing South Carolina above Georgia and the Spanish maintaining outposts below it. The Spanish encroached upon English trading and Spanish Florida became a haven for runaway slaves.
All of the Sephardic Jews who landed with Sheftall or arrived later, fled Georgia when the War of Jenkins' Ear - which became part of the larger European War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) - broke out between the Spanish and British in the colonies and East Florida from 1739-1743. The Sephardics were aligned by birth to Spain rather than Britain (who were aligned with the Austrian Empire), while the Askenazic German Sheftalls stayed neutral.The British eventually won the larger war, but James Oglethorpe, who led the Georgian battles against Spain, lost control of the colony and sailed back to England in 1743, never to return. From 1741 to the late 1750s, only two Jewish families remained in Savannah, the Sheftalls and the family of Abraham Minis.
Benjamin and Perla had two children, the first of which, Sheftall Sheftall, was born on August 3, 1734, and died as a toddler. Perla was quickly pregnant again, having Mordecai a little over a year later. The birth combined with colonial living conditions weakened Perla considerably and she died eleven months after Mordecai was born, on November 2, 1736. Benjamin raised Mordecai for a few years by himself until he remarried Hannah Solomons in Savannah in 1738. Hannah hailed from Amsterdam and little is known about her life prior to arriving in Georgia. She had migrated to Philadelphia, and in what may have been an arranged marriage for the couple, moved to Savannah on October 5, 1738 with the nuptials held shortly thereafter, on November 20. The new couple went on to have two sons and half-brothers to Mordecai: Levi, born on December 12, 1739 and Solomon, born in 1741 and died in 1743.
Benjamin established himself in Savannah as a farmer, merchant and shipper, never accumulating real wealth and holding only five slaves at his death, though he did well at providing for his family. What he lacked in wealth, however, he gained as a leader in the community. In 1734 he helped translate for a group of newly-arrived, German-speaking Austrian Lutherans - the Salzburgers - who were expelled from Austria by Count Leopold and, along with other Savannah Jews, established the first synagogue in Georgia, Congregation Mikveh Israel (Kahal Kadosh Mickva Israel).In addition, Sheftall was one of the five founders of the inter-faith organization, St. George's (or Union) Society for the education of orphan children, and was inducted into the Savannah Solomon's Lodge, a Masonic Temple founded by Oglethorpe. When Benjamin died in 1765, he was buried in a small family plot created by Levi Sheftall that exists today. Mordecai Sheftall would go on to establish a more permanent Jewish burial ground for the larger community.
Though Benjamin was respected in the non-Jewish community, he was somewhat reluctant to engage fully in the communal life with them because he had grown up in European ghettoes with restrictions on Jews; limitations that his native-born and out-going son, Mordecai, did not experience in Georgia. Mordecai had only a few years of formal schooling and his bar mitzvah (the first recorded bar mitzvah in what would become America) was delayed as Hebraic books did not arrive in a timely fashion from England, but Mordecai was never denied the rights of citizenship acutely experienced by his father. As a native-born Jewish Georgian with young Christian friends, Mordecai developed the same feelings and opinions as a growing portion of his fellow Georgians regarding concepts of freedom and independence as the colonies moved steadily toward separation from their English leaders.
In 1752, Georgia became an official crown colony of Great Britain.Land grants had been a problem prior to the designation between the trusteeship citizens and England due to lack of family inheritance rights and the inability to mortgage land, but with colony status these rules changed. Citizens naturalized under British rule could petition the crown for at least fifty acres of land and while Benjamin reluctantly filed for land, Mordecai wholeheartedly applied for his first plot in 1753.This petition began a lifelong passion for acquiring land by Mordecai and Levi, both of whom ultimately bought or petitioned the colony for thousands of acres, though many of their requests were denied and most of their holdings lost after the American Revolution.
Mordecai followed his father's footsteps into the merchant and trading business, establishing himself in a variety of businesses including warehousing, tanning, and ranching, but mostly the mercantile trades of import and export. In 1759, he petitioned for and received land along the Savannah River and built a dock and warehouse. With this warehouse established and family ties to the mercantile industry in England, Charleston, Philadelphia, and the Caribbean Islands, Sheftall was able to grow his business, acquire more land and slaves, and by 1776 had made numerous trips to the Caribbean and at least one trip to England.Levi initially worked in the mercantile business, but eventually settled into the work of tanning, sawmilling, and ranching. As Mordecai became financially grounded, he married Frances Hart (1740-1820) of Charleston, South Carolina, on October 28, 1761 in the home of Frances' brother, Joshua Hart, a prominent Jewish merchant in Charleston and friend of Mordecai's. Together Mordecai and Frances had five children who lived to adulthood: sons Sheftall (named after Mordecai's deceased brother), Benjamin, and Moses, and daughters Perla and Esther. A sixth son, Elias, died in infancy. Levi married Sarah De La Motta of St. Croix in 1768. Sarah was fourteen and Levi twenty-eight and together they had several children.
By 1771 a little fewer than 2,000 residents, including Negros and "infidels" (Native Americans), lived in Chatham County with Savannah as the county seat. Notes from the files of former American Jewish Historical Society librarian Isidore Meyer (who worked on the original Works Progress Administration Guide for the Sheftall papers), report that a Chatham County ecclesiastical census by the Rev. Mr. Frink listed the residents by religion: Church of England, 1,185 residents; Lutherans, 193 residents; Presbyterians and Independents, 499 residents; Jews, 49 residents; Negros, 40 and Infidels, 30.Since the Jewish community had grown, Mordecai, as head of the Jewish community, reestablished the Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1774 and also established a larger Jewish cemetery as well. The Sheftalls lived in Savannah in relative comfort as their businesses were thriving, they were land and slaveholders, and were respected in the community. However, the upcoming political strife between the British crown and its colonies in America upturned their economic and home life. Mordecai was a devout and firebrand Patriot who wholeheartedly joined the Sons of Liberty and Savannah's Parochial Committee and became known as a rabble-rouser by the British. Like many Georgians at the start of the Revolution, Levi was more cautious and reserved on the coming conflict. While he was in favor of independence, circumstances would later forever taint his reputation after the war and ultimately cause a permanent rift between the otherwise close brothers.
B.H. Levy notes that prior to 1763, Georgia was the southernmost and youngest frontier colony as well as the poorest and weakest though it was ruled well by Royal Governor James Wright. Wright, governor from 1760-1776, was generally well-liked and respected as a resident farmer and slave owner in the colony, and was Georgia's third royal governor since the dissolution of the trusteeship. Georgia had fared well for the most part under the English who protected it from Indians and Spanairds on the borders. Georgian colonists whose parents, mostly British by birth, were not necessarily against taxation without representation, but against the taxes themselves levied by the Stamp and Sugar Acts.The Stamp Act was particularly onerous as the tax had to be paid in gold or silver, which was in short supply in Georgia.From 1764 to 1767, the passage of the Stamp, Sugar, and Townsend Acts were all used to raise revenues (or in the case of the Townsend Act, also punish some colonies for disobedience) for the British Crown as they had depleted their coffers during Europe's Seven Years War and America's corresponding French and Indian Wars (1754-1763). These taxes sapped the profits of the increasingly successful Georgia colony, even though the war was mostly fought to secure and defend the American colonies from French and Spanish encroachment. Levy notes that Georgia was more reluctant to fully enter the fray than its fellow colonists, but joined when needed as a series of incidents surrounding the Acts ignited the revolutionary flames of Georgians.
In addition to the tension that British-born Georgians and their American-born children brought to the fore, Georgia became increasingly difficult for Governor Wright to rule as the colony's legislative Assembly bodies - the upper Council and lower Commons - consistently were at odds with each other over Continental support. The upper house contained primarily loyalists to the crown while the lower house mostly those in favor of succession. Wright dissolved the Commons more than once in several years of unrest and at times refused to seat certain members voted to the Assembly. In late 1765, Wright officially declared that the Stamp Act was in effect and closed the port of Savannah to await the arrival of the Stamps and Stamp Master. When both arrived and Stamps were affixed to goods and shipped out, tensions arose between South Carolina and Georgia legislators and merchants who felt that Georgia should have put up a stronger fight against the use of the Stamps. Trade was temporarily halted as Governor Wright contended with the newly-established Carolina Sons of Liberty who destroyed two ships attempting to leave Charleston for Savannah shortly thereafter.The Sons of Liberty sprang up after the passage of the Stamp Act and not only were they vocal in their calls for boycotts of British imports, but willing to back up their words with acts of sabotage and rebellion. Ten years of continual strife and incidents from 1765-1775 took their toll and war between Britain and its American colonies eventually broke out in 1775.
All of the colonies except for Georgia were represented in the First Continental Congress that convened in Philadelphia from September to October of 1774. After the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Britain retaliated by closing Boston Harbor in May 1774 and enacted the Second Quartering Act (part of the Intolerable, or Coercive/Restraining Acts widely denounced in the colonies). These actions helped pushed the revolutionary call in Georgia as members of the Liberty Parties called a meeting for July 27 to respond to the British as a colony, but representation from the parishes was sparse and the meeting was postponed to August 10. Governor Wright, who had been in England, was back in the colony and issued a proclamation against the upcoming meeting. The meeting went ahead as planned, with twenty-six invited delegates attending and every parish represented. The meeting adopted eight resolutions regarding Britain's actions, but the attendees would not approve a representative to send to the first Congress. They were not yet ready to "openly oppose British rule in America" but did send provisions of rice and coin to Boston.
Governor Wright challenged the August resolutions and offered pay to residents to sign petitions against them, while Georgia's only newspaper,, published the resolutions adopted by the First Continental Congress and announced an all-parish meeting on January 15, 1775 in Savannah. This would be Georgia's First Provincial Congress, called to prepare for the Second Continental Congress scheduled for May 10. Only four parishes out of twelve sent representatives to the First Provincial Congress and the attendees voted not to send representatives to the second Congress, though the most vocal of the parishes against Britain, St. John's, consisting of the towns of Midway and Sunbury, held meetings independently and sent one non-voting representative, Dr. Lyman Hall, to the Second Congress. However, the day the Second Continental Congress began was the same day that word reached Savannah of the April 19fighting between British and American troops at Lexington and Concord. News of the battles decisively pushed the Whigs of the Liberty Parties who had held the meetings of 1774 regarding the Continental Congresses. On May 11, Noble Wymberly Jones, Joseph Habersham, Edward Telfair, Mordecai Sheftall, and others, broke into the royal powder magazine and seized five hundred pounds of gunpowder that they then sent to Boston.
By summer 1775, the Whigs became a large majority in Georgia and the Second Provincial Congress met in June 1775. The Provincial Congress became known as the Parochial Committee and passed nineteen resolutions and barred exports and imports from Great Britain as the Continental Association had recommended during the Second Continental Congress; elected delegates to Congress, appropriated funds for defense and created the Council (or Committee) of Safety to "function as the executive arm of the government when Congress was not in session." Mordecai Sheftall, an avowed Whig and vocal patriot for independence, had been a member of the rebel Parochial Committee and was now appointed Chairman of the Council of Safety, a position he held until his capture by the British in 1778. This committee strenuously enforced the ban on British goods and demanded that ship's papers be handed over to them in order to verify the origin of goods. In July 1775, Georgia, under Oliver Bowen, who would eventually become Georgia's naval commodore, commandeered a British vessel,, seizing its cargo of gunpowder, lead bullets, shots, and guns. Governor Wright fervently wrote to England in an attempt to retrieve the ship and its contents for the ship's captain, but by this time, British control of Georgia had ceased. The firearms were stored in Savannah's powderhouse and the ship was put into the service of Georgia and the Continental Navy.
Mordecai was eventually appointed the Deputy Commissary of Issues for Georgia. A committee report from Georgia submitted to the Continental Congress, in January 1778 and published on February 13, 1778 reads: "Resolved, That all Provisions for the Troops in Georgia, shall be supplied by Contract, or in such other way as shall appear to the Government of the said State, to be the surest Supply and the least prejudicial to the said State and the United States."These appointments made him a colonel in the civilian staff of the Georgia Continental Line and as Deputy Commissary of Issues, Sheftall's job was to furnish the Georgian troops with food and supplies, meaning that he purchased rations with his own funds and billed the government. This merchant provision system was a part of the Quartermaster system during the war. Mordecai's son, Sheftall, would eventually join him as a Commissary of Issues, though unfortunately, the Sheftall family would never fully recoup the funds put forward for the troops of Georgia and South Carolina. From late 1777 to December 1778, Sheftall performed in this capacity as Deputy Commissary of Issues within the Georgia Continental Army structure and provision returns for both Army and Navy functions may be found within this collection of papers.
For most of 1778, the battle for Georgia was won by the Continental troops as several British attacks on the town of Sunbury and Savannah were thwarted and Georgia's small navy, commissioned in 1777 - including the galleys,,, and- successfully captured one major British vessel,. By September 1778, the tide turned to Great Britain's favor and Savannah was attacked for a second time by the British forces. General Howe, commanding the Southern Department, captured Fort Tonyn from the British in July but ultimately lost the Southern command as his push through Charleston and Savannah into Florida (known as the Florida Expedition) failed at the Battle of St. Augustine. In September 1778, Benjamin Lincoln, recouping from a head injury, replaced Howe as commander of the Southern Department but did not arrive until after Christmas. The British finally captured Savannah in November 1778, and occupied Sunbury in January 1779. Many of Savannah's citizens, including Mordecai's wife, Frances, fled to the larger city of Charleston. Mordecai and Sheftall were captured in Savannah on December 29, 1778. The Fall of Savannah in 1778 left the city occupied until the end of the war. The final battle cost the lives of over eighty Continental troops and only seven British soldiers. "Thirty-eight officers, four hundred and fifteen non-commissioned officers and privates, including the sick, wounded and the aged inhabitants of the town were made prisoners" according to McCall's historical account of the defeat of the city.The fort's armaments were taken by the British including cannon, mortars, howitzers, ammunition, and provision stores. The soldiers were admonished to join the British side and all who refused were housed on prison ships in the harbor.
According to an account of Savannah's capture,Mordecai and Sheftall attempted to escape from the British who landed at Brewton Hill near Savannah earlier in the day. Around 3:00 PM, the British entered the town and took possession of Savannah. Mordecai and Sheftall tried to cross the Musgrove Creek by following Colonel Samuel Elbert and Major James Habersham's forces, but the troops came under fire from the Light Infantry of Sir James Baird, and the creek was at high tide. Sheftall Sheftall could not swim and therefore could not cross the flooded creek. Mordecai stayed with him, and along with other Continental officers and privates, they were pinned down by the British. They surrendered to British troops and were moved to a house in town and eventually transported to the prison shipanchored in Savannah harbor in January 1779. Mordecai was kept on the Nancy until February 25, but still worked to supply the American troops. He was paroled to Sunbury in April, though Sheftall was detained for a longer period of time aboard the prison ship. Mordecai petitioned for Sheftall's parole and in June, Sheftall finally joined Mordecai in Sunbury. During this time, Mordecai made very little money in order to feed and house his family stranded in Charleston and the war continued in Georgia as Count Jean Baptiste d'Estaing failed in an attempt to recapture Savannah in October 1779. The Sheftalls, along with other Continental troops, attempted to escape from Sunbury and were recaptured, prompting the British to send them into exile on Antigua. Mordecai requested that Continental forces conduct a prisoner exchange for those on Antigua and eventually a parole was granted on April 11, 1780 and he was exchanged for Jacob Jarvis and Sheftall for John Jarvis on July 14. As fighting continued in Georgia, the British stipulated that they could not return to Savannah, so the Sheftalls made their way to New York and Philadelphia. Mordecai hoped that he could restart his mercantile business and provide for his family.
Levi Sheftall fared no better than Mordecai during this time. He had advised Count d'Estaing on attack strategy in October 1779, and when the attack failed, he was accused of being a Tory by the Patriots and a Patriot by the Tories. As this was the low point in the war, Levi believed that the Patriots would not win and he accepted a general pardon by the British in order to return to his family in Charleston. Patriots believed that he had given up Savannah to the British and when control of Georgia was regained in 1782, he was banished and his property confiscated under the Act of Confiscation and Amercement. Francis Sheftall, who fled Savannah to Charleston with the four other Sheftall children, earned funds by washing and ironing.In Philadelphia, Mordecai asked Congress for back pay or reimbursement for out-of-pocket funds provided for troops to bring his family to Philadelphia, but not enough funds were provided to him from Congress. The Board of War asked Sheftall Sheftall to sail as a flag master on the, a "flag-of-truce" ship being sent to Charleston on a mercy mission. Sheftall asked Congress for back pay and additional money for ships' stores, which led to some members accusing him of extortion. Eventually Sheftall sailed with the ship and anchored in Charleston on February 14, 1781. The ship was anchored for six weeks in the harbor as negotiations for the mission continued. Despite not having funds to pay for Frances and the children, they were able to board theand head to Philadelphia with Sheftall Sheftall after an arrangement was hashed out between Mordecai and the ship's owners. The family was at last reunited after spending two years apart from one another. Mordecai also attempted to revive Congregation Mikveh Israel while living in Philadelphia.
Their financial situation eased slightly when Mordecai was appointed as Georgia's agent for purchasing troops clothing in 1781 and the Sheftalls invested in a Philadelphia-based sloop called the. The investment in thebegan a short-lived and ill-fated investment adventure on the part of the Sheftalls in the business of 18-century privateering as the war approached its final year. The ship's first captain and business partner was Henry Darnell (also spelled Darnol) and the business relationship between Darnell and Sheftall quickly soured. Darnell was replaced by the slightly more able Thomas Deburk, but thecaptured and successfully sold the confiscated goods of only one British vessel, the sloop. However, the ship would consistently endure sea troubles and Mordecai eventually sold his interest.
By December 11, 1782, the war was over and the Sheftalls had returned home to Savannah, five months after the British left the city. Upon his return, Mordecai resumed his position as a merchant and community leader, but much of his property and assets were gone. By February 1783, he was in business again. Though he was able to rebuild the business somewhat, financial woes plagued him as the Continental government could not reimburse him for all of his expenses accrued during the war. The new Continental government was also suffering from financial burden after the war, owing millions of dollars to foreign governments and citizens alike. Even though he suffered from cash flow issues, Mordecai continued to buy land on credit or mortgage and several times had to relinquish properties as a result of suits brought against him for lack of payment to debts. Even though finances plagued him, his standing in the community was not diminished and he served on numerous committees and positions after the war until his death. In 1789, he successfully obtained an incorporation charter from the Georgia government for the re-established Congregation Mikveh Israel after the state passed legislation allowing for the incorporation of religious societies other than the Episcopal Church. He was elected synagogue president from 1791-1796. As a slave holder, he was appointed as a commissioner to supervise, regulate, and license slaves, Commissioner for the Streets and Commons and held the only approved tobacco-inspection warehouse in Savannah. He also served on the board of the Union Society for orphans established by his father, Benjamin Sheftall, was a Chairman on the Board of Wardens, and a lumber inspector, among various positions. Mordecai Sheftall died July 6, 1797.
Mordecai worked steadfastly on behalf of Levi Sheftall's return to Savannah by writing to the Assembly and encouraging friends to do the same on Levi's behalf. In August 1783, the Assembly relented and allowed Levi to return to Savannah and by 1787, all of his rights as a citizen, including the right to vote and hold office, were reinstated. However, a rift developed between the close brothers over finances loaned to Frances during the war, which tore the brothers apart and shattered their relationship.Levi died in 1809 and his wife, Sarah, passed away in 1811.
Frances Hart lived with her unmarried daughters, Perla and Esther, after her husband's passing and died in 1820. Little is known regarding Perla, but Esther established a successful millinery shop out of their home. Benjamin Sheftall perished at sea on a French privateer ship, the, in 1794. Moses Sheftall went to Philadelphia to study medicine under Benjamin Rush at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1790. Moses returned to Savannah to practice and became an expert in infectious diseases. He also served in the state legislature and married a Gentile woman from Savannah, Nellie Bush. Moses died in 1835. Sheftall Sheftall lived the longest of his siblings, dying in 1849. Sheftall was somewhat of a wandering spirit after the war, drifting off to Philadelphia and New York where he petitioned many an official, including Alexander Hamilton, to reimburse his father monies owed him during the war. He eventually moved back to Savannah and in 1819 was an honored guest at a dinner for President James Monroe in Savannah and was active in Congregation Mikveh Israel. As he aged, he became reclusive and eccentric and wore revolutionary-era clothing and three-cornered hats. Sheftall died at the age of 90.
The Mordecai Sheftall Papers record the personal and business affairs of Mordecai Sheftall, and to a lesser extent, his wife, Frances, and their sons Sheftall, Moses and Benjamin. The smaller portion of the collection includes Mordecai's family papers along with his merchant business dealings prior to and toward the end of the American Revolution, including his appointment to Deputy Commissary of Issues then to Commissary of Issues for the State of Georgia and his grievances against the United States for lack of payment for supplies he purchased and issued to troops. The greater majority of the collection's documents are the roughly 2,792 slips of paper known as "provision returns": receipts of goods and items such as beef, pork, candles, rice, flour, etc., provided to troops and units of the First through Fourth Georgia Regiments and Battalions, some South Carolina Regiments, other militias and volunteer units working with the Continental Army, and vessels in the employ of the Continental Navy. These returns document supplies to Georgia troops from late 1777 through 1778. Some returns request supplies instead of being receipts for them, but these make up a small portion of the returns.
The papers were purchased circa 1927 from Mrs. (Dr.) Walter M. Brickner (née Perla S. Abrahams) by A.S.W. Rosenbach and later donated to the American Jewish Historical Society by Rosenbach. Mrs. Brickner was the grand-daughter of Perla Sheftall Solomons (wife of Lizar), who was the daughter of Moses Sheftall, youngest child of Mordecai Sheftall.
The collection is arranged into three subgroups as follows: