The chosen people in the Holy City Three-and-a-quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston
Part IV: Jewish Heroes, Jewish Patriots and (a few) Jewish Loyalists in South Carolina
The story of South Carolina’s Jews is very largely the story of the Jews in Charleston up to this point. There were a few Jews in places other than Charleston on the eve of the American Revolution. For example, two of the sons of Moses Cohen, the first Haham (senior rabbi) at Charleston’s colonial synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), had settled in Georgetown by 1762, the year that their father died. Beaufort also had a couple of Jews at this time. There is (or was) a tombstone in Savannah’s old Jewish cemetery of a man who died in Port Royal in 1771. Except for a handful, however, South Carolina’s Jews were all in Charleston as the American Revolution loomed.
The role of the Palmetto State’s Jews during the American Revolution, cannot be told without focusing on a recent settler who first arrived in Charleston, but who lived in the “backcountry” of South Carolina. His contributions to the cause of independence from Britain took place partly in Charleston, but equally so in the interior of the state.
In early December 1773, Francis Salvador, a young aristocrat of 26 years of age, stepped off a boat arriving in Charleston from England. He came from a family that was at the very pinnacle of Jewish society in England. The Salvador family, Jews of Portuguese origin, had fled the terrors of the Inquisition in Portugal and settled first in Holland and then England. The Salvador family, like many other aristocratic Spanish and Portuguese Jews, had already used a coat-of-arms, but under the rules of English heraldry, they were unable to show valid title to these arms. Accordingly, Francis Salvador the elder, the grandfather of our Francis Salvador, applied for and received confirmation of his right to these arms from the appropriate authorities in England in 1745. The original of this grant of arms can now be found in the library of the College of Charleston.
The Francis Salvador who settled in South Carolina was born in 1747, two years after the confirmation of the grant of arms to his family. His father died when he was not much more than an infant. He and his brother were raised in a manner befitting their place in society, receiving the finest education and appropriate social graces of their rank. Like many a young man of his class, Francis Salvador spent time on the Continent before returning to England and marrying his cousin Sarah, daughter of his uncle, Joseph Salvador.
Joseph Salvador had a high profile in London. He was a significant shareholder in the East India Company and is often described as the first Jewish director of that company, although there does not appear to be a basis for this belief. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1759, however. The Royal Society was established during the reign of Charles II, our city and state’s namesake, to promote excellence in science. When George III ascended the throne of Great Britain, Joseph Salvador headed the seven-man delegation of the Jewish community offering the new monarch congratulations.
Despite these honors and accomplishments, he was not spared the barbs of anti-Jewish prejudice. He lobbied actively for that piece of legislation known derisively as the “Jew Bill,” which granted Jews the right to apply to Parliament for naturalization. The enactment of this bill prompted a fierce wave of anger and hostility against British Jews and the legislation was repealed. One night during this period, Salvador attended the theater and was hooted at with such vehemence that he was forced to leave. While his nephew Francis almost certainly did not see this embarrassing spectacle, he undoubtedly grew up with the knowledge of it, which very likely contributed to his decision to cast his lot with the supporters of American independence.
Francis Salvador did not stay in Charleston very long. He had acquired about 7,000 acres of land owned by his uncle and father-in-law, Joseph, in the Ninety-Six District, what is today Greenwood County. Joseph Salvador had purchased vast tracts of land in the South Carolina backcountry in the 1750’s. Richard Andrews Rapley, who left England and settled in South Carolina, was granted a power of attorney in 1769 by Joseph Salvador to sell some of his land holdings in South Carolina. He sold two tracts of land to Francis Salvador. The young Francis Salvador purchased 30 or more slaves and became an indigo planter, living with Rapley. He left behind his wife and young children in England, who did not join him, presumably because of the political situation that was developing in South Carolina and the other colonies.
Neither he nor Rapley wanted to live alone and the two lived on Salvador’s plantation. Salvador’s refined manners and intelligence quickly caught the attention of many people of prominence. The young aristocrat arrived in South Carolina at a time when tensions between Britain and its American colonies were escalating rapidly. He had been in the colony only a year when elections were held, in December 1774, in the Ninety-Six District for representatives to the First Provincial Congress to be convened in Charleston. Ten men were chosen to represent the Ninety-Six District and Salvador and Rapley were both among this number. Salvador and Rapley, although both recent immigrants from England, threw themselves enthusiastically into the patriot cause.
The First Provincial Congress held its first session on January 11, 1775. Salvador was chosen to serve on several committees. One of these committees was charged with drawing up “a declaration of the motives upon which the proceedings of the present Congress are grounded.” Another committee that Salvador served on had the responsibility of monitoring the “state of the interior parts of the country.” Yet another committee that he was part of was created to assess supplies of ammunition. Things were rapidly heating up in South Carolina, as the formation of this last committee indicates. As to monitoring the situation in the interior of the colony, Salvador spent a significant amount of time keeping his eyes on the Tories (or loyalists) in the Ninety-Six District. The loyalists in that area were numerous and active. The fact that Salvador was Jewish was known by many people, both patriot and Tory and at least one loyalist leader in the Ninety-Six District did not hesitate to throw Francis Salvador’s Jewishness in his face.
On one occasion, he attended a loyalist rally to observe the proceedings. He was recognized and barely escaped without injury. At the same time, no one in the patriot camp seems to have objected to Salvador’s religion, even though Jews were legally barred from holding public office in South Carolina at the time. Salvador again sat in the the Second Provincial Congress, which opened on November 1, 1775 and again participated in a meaningful way. He, along with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, had the responsibility of examining the 1776 constitution of South Carolina to determine how it compared with the previous rough draft. the constitution was adopted on March 26, 1776. The new constitution having been adopted, the Provincial Congress was now deemed to be the General Assembly of South Carolina. Salvador sat as a member of the new General Assembly until it adjourned on April 11, 1776.
It was not long after his return to the Ninety-Six District that conditions in that area became dangerously violent. At the same time that a British fleet, including transports of British troops, threatened Charleston, agents and supporters of the Crown began stirring things up along the South Carolina frontier and the Ninety-Six District. John Stuart, British agent to the Indians in the frontier regions and his deputy, Alexander Cameron, encouraged the Cherokee nation to join white loyalists in attacking settlements in this area. Although the British flotilla’s attack on Fort Sullivan was turned back on June 28, 1776 (Carolina Day), this fleet remained off Charleston until August. This, along with the exhortations of British agents Stuart and Cameron, emboldened the white loyalists and their Indian allies in the backcountry to strike. Salvador kept William Henry Drayton, who ultimately became chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, fully advised of what was going on in the region. The Indian attacks began on July 1, 1776.
Just as Paul Revere in Massachusetts had performed his epic ride to warn citizens of impending danger, Salvador galloped nearly 30 miles on horseback to Major Andrew Williamson’s plantation, White Hall. Williamson commanded the patriot militia in the area and he and Salvador began organizing the militia forces to meet the danger of the Tory and Indian raids. The next few weeks saw a series of skirmishes between the patriot militia forces, on the one hand and the Tories and Indians on the other. The patriots also attacked and destroyed Indian villages in retaliation. In late July two Tories were taken prisoner by the patriot forces. These prisoners informed the patriots that a party of Tories and their Cherokee allies had gathered about thirty miles away and Major Williamson, with Salvador in his force of militia, as well as the two Tory captives, decided to attack them on the night of July 31.
The two Tories may well have led Williamson and Salvador into an ambush, as the militia force unexpectedly encountered heavy fire being poured into their ranks. Williamson’s horse was shot from under him and Salvador, riding next to him, fell with three wounds. An Indian scalped Salvador in the dark, the only one to suffer this fate. He lived another forty-five minutes, during which time the Tories and Indians were defeated. When Major Williamson returned to Salvador’s side, the dying man asked if the enemy had been repulsed. Having been assured that this was the case, Salvador replied that he was glad to know it. He shook Williamson’s hand and expired. The young patriot was only 29. He is remembered as the first Jew to hold a public office in America, as well as the first Jew to die in the cause of American independence.
Francis Salvador is commemorated today by a plaque in City Hall Park in Charleston, as well as a state historical marker near the site of his plantation in the Upstate. William Henry Drayton wrote in his memoirs that Salvador’s death “excited universal regret … His manners were those of a polished gentleman …” Drayton’s language is strikingly similar to the tribute paid by Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, to the memory Aaron Lopez of Newport, R.I., who like Salvador was a Portuguese Jew and American patriot. What Stiles wrote about Lopez was noted in last month’s article. This account of Francis Salvador will close with the words of the inscription on the plaque honoring him in Washington Park in Charleston: “Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat; An Englishman, he cast his lot with the Americans; True to his ancient faith he gave his life; for new hopes of human liberty and understanding.”
In Charleston, Jews were present in the fight for American independence from the very beginning. Two Jews are known to have served at Fort Sullivan under William Moultrie, Marks Lazarus and Abraham Cohen. Lazarus had the rank of sergeant major. The widow of Abraham Cohen, in her application for a pension, wrote that her husband had to sleep in the open air and came down with pleurisy as a result. It is possible that other Jews served at Fort Sullivan, but Lazarus and Cohen are known to have been there. A large number of Charleston Jews served in the militia company commanded by Captain Richard Lushington. This company was often called the Jews’ company, but it was not exclusively Jewish and Jews also served in other units.
Lushington’s company fought at Port Royal, Beaufort and Savannah in 1779. Joseph Solomon was a Jewish soldier killed in the battle at Beaufort. David Nunez Cardozo, who also had the rank of sergeant-major, served in a Charleston militia unit and was remembered for his heroism in the attack on the British lines during the attempt to take Savannah in 1779. He would have been a distant relative of Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo of the United States Supreme Court. At least one Charleston Jew had an officer’s rank. Abraham Mendes Seixas served as a captain of the militia in Charleston and also served as a lieutenant in the Continental line in Georgia. A native of New York, Seixas was the son of a man who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition.
His older brother, Gershom, who was the spiritual leader of New York’s Shearith Israel synagogue, is remembered as the “patriot rabbi.” When the British occupied New York, Gershom Mendes Seixas and many — but not all — of his congregants left New York rather than live under British rule. Abraham Mendes Seixas became a well-known figure in Charleston and served as president of the Charleston synagogue, KKBE. When Charleston fell to the British in May 1780, Captain Seixas was banished by the British authorities. He found refuge in Philadelphia. Isaac Da Costa, the prominent Charleston merchant, who has been previously mentioned in earlier articles in this series, was also a well-known patriot and was also banished by the British. Da Costa likewise found refuge in Philadelphia.
Although the majority of Charleston’s Jews supported the patriot cause, there were some Jewish loyalists in Charleston. Isaac De Lyon, who had come to Charleston from Savannah, was a well-known Tory. Although the British royal governor of Georgia had denounced the Jews there as “to a man … enemies of government (i.e., British authority),” he was overstating his case. The patriots in Georgia drew up a list of the most obnoxious Tories, who were ordered to be expelled from Georgia under penalty of death if they returned. Three men on this list were of Jewish origin. One of these was Isaac De Lyon. Another was Levi Sheftall, who also came to Charleston. De Lyon’s property was levied on by the victorious patriots after the British evacuation of Charleston and he was assessed a fine of 12 percent of the value of his holdings. Dr. Barnett Elzas, the first person to extensively study South Carolina Jewish history, believed that there would have been other Charleston Jews whose property was levied on for their loyalist activities, but that few of these people were persons of wealth.
The Abraham brothers, shopkeepers who had come from Holland, were also known loyalists in Charleston. One of the Abraham brothers supplied information to the British authorities. Mention should also be made of Hyam Solomons (not to be confused with the famous Jewish patriot of Philadelphia, Haym Salomon). He had come to Charleston from Pensacola in British West Florida when Charleston was still occupied by the British. When the patriots reoccupied Charleston and investigated people who had come to Charleston during British occupation, several people from the Jewish community vouched for his character.
They likely did not know that Hyam Solomons had token an oath of allegiance to the King George III while in Florida. A number of Jews who remained in Charleston under British occupation had to wear oaths of loyalty to the Crown to remain. One of these was Abraham Alexander, the reader of KKBE, who had fought for the patriot cause. These people were not penalized when the British evacuated Charleston. Such oaths of allegiance were apparently forgiven as being made under duress.
In the next article in this series, we will discuss the period following the American Revolution when Charleston became the largest Jewish community in the United States, for a relatively brief time.
Jeffrey Kaplan is a retired attorney who worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to Charleston. He has served as the archivist of Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (founded in 1740) and is the historian of BSBI Congregation here in Charleston, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue. He teaches and lectures regularly and is also a storyteller. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.