by Heather Frey Blanton
Grit. Determination. Playing the violin while rockets burst all around. The current conflict in Israel got me to wondering about the pioneer and patriot Jewish women in America. Not surprisingly there were many who made valuable contributions to both the war effort and the settling of America. I’ve already profiled Sarah Thal, a pioneer woman with the sand to survive and thrive in the Old West. Going back a bit further, I discovered Frances Hart Sheftall.
Around 1760 or so, Frances arrived in Charleston, SC with her brother Joshua. A year later, she married Mordecai Sheftall and the two moved to Savannah. Mordecai, whose formal education had ended at the age of 11, turned out to be a shrewd businessman. A merchant, he eventually moved into shipping, importing, and real estate. By the start of the war, he and Sarah owned over 2000 acres of land, several thousand cattle, and his shipping business had contacts in England, the Caribbean, Charleston, Philadelphia and many other places. His business holdings, especially the shipping aspect, put him in the line of fire, so to speak, with good ol’ King George.
Not surprisingly, Mordecai and Frances turned into ardent patriots and were very public about their stance. Willing to walk the walk, Mordecai and his son Sheftall enlisted in the Continental Army. In 1778 both of them were captured by the British during the battle for Savannah and held prisoner in Antigua. His holdings, all of them, were confiscated by the British.
Frances, who had taken refuge in Charleston just prior to the attack, found herself alone and responsible for four young children. With nothing but the clothes on her back and the coins in her reticule, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. Frances cooked, cleaned, sewed, ironed, fetched, toted. Whatever it took. Within a few months she’d managed to rent a house in Charleston and get her children started in school. She not only kept the spirits up of her young ones, but wrote loving, upbeat letters to her two favorite soldiers. Everything was fine in Charleston and the family was waiting for Mordecai and Sheftall to return home soon. No worries.
While she was keeping it together at home—literally—Frances repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress to initiate a prisoner exchange for her husband and son. Whether due to her repeated hounding or the fact that Mordecai was a man with an honorable reputation which had garnered him many friends, he and his son were released and came home to America in 1781. They didn’t make it back to Savannah as a family until late 1782. The Sheftall holdings no longer existed, though. Everything was gone, distributed, burnt. From riches to rags.
Though the family never attained their former materialistic glory, Frances and Mordecai were considered a fine, upstanding family by Jews and non-Jews alike. Mordecai was a leader in his synagogue and Frances continued to be active on a civic level. Clearly, they never took liberty for granted, and after the prisoner exchange, probably never took each other for granted either.