I never knew I had Jewish heritage until a few years ago.
The president of our family reunion organization brought to our attention a newspaper article in which a rabbi was seeking descendants of Georgia’s first Jewish colonists for his synagogue’s 275th anniversary. Among the surnames was that of my second great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Nunez, wife of John Wildes. I knew nothing more about her though.
When I returned home, I began my Internet search and found the American Jewish Archives . There, I saw the name of Sarah Jane’s fourth great-grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, and third great-grandfather, Moses Nunez. Through Moses and his first wife came Samuel, his son Daniel, his grandson Hugh and his great-granddaughter – and my second great-grandmother – Sarah Jane.
Born in Portugal, five members of the Nunez family were among Georgia’s first 41 Jewish colonists. They arrived in Savannah in July 1733 aboard the William and Sarah from London. In February of that year, Georgia’s first colonists also had arrived from London. In April though, their only doctor was the first to succumb to an infectious disease.
General James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, eagerly greeted the Jewish arrivals when he learned the elder Nunez was a physician. Oglethorpe ignored the insistent demands of the London Trustees that the Jewish people return to England. With the treatments of the Jewish physician, the epidemic ended later that year.
To learn the names of those on the passenger list, the primary source is the Sheftall Diaries. Written by Benjamin Sheftall, one of those first Jewish colonists of Georgia, these vital records of Savannah’s early Jewish community were continued by his descendants until 1808. This research tool is invaluable in learning about America’s Jewish colonial history in the South.
I received permission from officials of The University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, repository of the Keith M. Read Collection of which the Sheftall Diaries is a part, to publish each scanned page and transcriptions in large print, including an index. Now the document is available as both a paperback and an eBook by the title Sheftall Diaries (1733-1808): Georgia’s First Jewish Colonists.
While the views of my ancestors varied concerning God, they all sought freedom of worship by fleeing to America, including five possible Mayflower ancestors (needing more genealogical research). Now all of their sacrifices help me appreciate them and motivate me to preserve and carry on their commitment to freedom of worship.