Last night we continued our Hanukkah celebration with a big dinner with the children (as a mixed Jewish-Catholic couple we celebrate both holidays). I thought this was a good time to honor one of the least known early American heroes, Francis Salvador, who bears the distinction of being the first Jewish person elected in the United States and the first Jewish person to stand for the American freedom is dying. We previously discussed the story of Commodore Uriah Levy, another character who is often overlooked in early historical accounts. Our history is rich in such early Jewish figures in the founding and rise of the American Republic. As with this image of naval personnel celebrating Hanukkah, this nation continues to rely on patriotic Jewish Americans to answer the call of duty.
Salvador was a Sephardic Jew and its interesting background story is little discussed in history books either. His uncle was the sole Jewish director of the British East India Company and inherited wealth. London had a large Sephardic population, and in 1733 the Sephardic community in London sent 42 Jews with the first settlers in the south to Savannah, Georgia. From the time the colonies were founded we had a Jewish population.
In particular, despite anti-Semitic laws prohibiting Jews from voting or holding office, he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina provincial congress. Salvador was an early proponent of American independence. In 1776, the British started an Indian revolt to attack settlers along the South Carolina border. Salvador ran to his neighbors’ aide and fought in various battles many miles from his home. When two Loyalists were captured, they lied about the hostile location and ambushed Major Andrew Williamson and the 330 militiamen (including Salvador) along the Keowee River. Salvador was hit and fell into the bushes. His comrades tried to rescue him, but it was dark and when they found him he had been scalped by a Cherokee fighter. Here is Colonel William Thomson’s report in a letter to William Henry Drayton dated August 4, 1776:
Here Mr. Salvador received three wounds; and fell by my side. . . . I wish [Lieutenant Farar]to look after Mr. Salvador; but before he could find him in the dark the enemy unfortunately got his scalp: which was the only one that was taken. . . . He died about half past two in the morning: forty-five minutes after receiving the wounds that were reasonable to the last. When I approached him after displacing the enemy and talking to him, he asked if I had beaten the enemy. I told him yes. He said he was happy and shook my hand – and said goodbye to me – and said he was going to die in a few minutes.
Salvador’s bravery was recognized at the time, and his death was the first of many Jewish Americans who fought for the land.
However, its story would not be complete without realizing that Salvador was also a slave owner. He owned about 7,000 acres of plantation in District 96, Carolina Colony, and bought slaves to work the land. It’s a shameful element that we find in many of our revolutionary figures. Here was a man exposed to anti-Semitic laws that prevented him from voting or holding office in the first place. He fought for the independence of a new nation based on the natural rights of all humanity. However, like many of his generation, he fought for independence while enslaving individuals to work on his land. It’s a terrible contradiction on every level: social, political and religious. It’s part of our contradicting legacy in dealing with the scourge of slavery. We cannot recognize his victim without condemning his status as a slave owner. At best, we can put this life in the historical context of the American Revolution.