Last night we continued our Hanukkah celebration with a big dinner with the kids (as a mixed Jewish/Catholic couple we celebrate both sets of holidays). I thought that this was a good time to honor one of the least known early American heroes, Francis Salvador who holds the distinction of being the first Jewish person elected in the United States and the first Jewish person to die for American freedom. We previously discussed the story of Commodore Uriah Levy, another figure often overlooked in early historical accounts. Our history is rich with such early Jewish figures at the founding and rise of the American Republic. As with this picture of Navy personnel celebrating Hanukkah, this nation continues to rely on patriotic Jewish Americans who answer the call of duty.
Salvador was a Sephardic Jew and his interesting backstory is also little discussed in history books. His uncle was the only Jewish director of the British East India company and he inherited wealth. In London, there was a large Sephardic population and, in 1733, the London Sephardic community sent 42 Jews to Savannah, Georgia with the first settlers in the South. So, from the very founding of the colonies, we had a Jewish population.
Notably, despite anti-Semitic laws barring Jews from voting or holding office, he was elected as a delegate to South Carolina’s Provincial Congress. Salvador was an early supporter of American independence. In 1776, the British caused an Indian upraising to attack settlers along the South Carolina frontier. Salvador ran to the aide of his neighbors and fought many miles from his home in various battles. When two loyalists were captured, they lied about the enemy location and led Major Andrew Williamson and the 330 militia members (including Salvador) into an ambush along the Keowee River. Salvador was hit and fell into the bushes. His comrades tried to recover him but it was dark and by the time they found him, he had been scalped by a Cherokee fighter. Here is the account from Colonel William Thomson in a letter to William Henry Drayton on August 4, 1776:
Here, Mr. Salvador received three wounds; and, fell by my side. . . . I desired [Lieutenant Farar], to take care of Mr. Salvador; but, before he could find him in the dark, the enemy unfortunately got his scalp: which, was the only one taken. . . . He died, about half after two o’clock in the morning: forty-five minutes after he received the wounds, sensible to the last. When I came up to him, after dislodging the enemy, and speaking to him, he asked, whether I had beat the enemy? I told him yes. He said he was glad of it, and shook me by the hand – and bade me farewell – and said, he would die in a few minutes.
Salvador’s bravery was recognized at the time and his death was the first of many of Jewish Americans fighting for this country.
His history however would not be complete without noting that Salvador was also a slave owner. He owned a plantation of some 7,000 acres in Ninety Six District, Carolina Colony and bought slaves to work the land. It is a shameful element that we find in many of our Revolutionary figures. Here was a man who faced anti-Semitic laws barring him from even voting or holding office. He was fighting for the independence of a new nation based on the natural rights of all humanity. Yet, like many in his generation, he fought for independence while enslaving individuals to work on his land. It is a horrible contradiction on every level: social, political and religious. It is part of our conflicted legacy in dealing with the scourge of slavery. We cannot recognize his sacrifice without condemning his status has as a slave owner. At best, we can put this life into the historical context of the American Revolution.