The Habersham family had great influence on the founding of the Georgia colony and can be considered as one of the first “American Dream” stories as well. James Habersham, Sr. was born in Beverly, Yorkshire, England on January 26, 1716. His mother died when he was 7, and his father died when he was 13. Death was much more commonplace in those days due to disease and primitive health care. As a young boy, James saw a younger brother and sister die as well. He moved to London when he was young to be an apprentice under his uncle as a wholesaler merchant’s clerk. As a clerk, he learned to write various letters of business correspondence, and his apprenticeship laid a foundation of business acumen that he would utilize for the rest of his life.
In 1738, Habersham came to Savannah to be a teacher and missionary at the request of his friend and spiritual mentor, George Whitefield. Whitefield and Habersham both recognized a problem in the new colony of Georgia–numerous boys were orphaned due to illness and diseases like yellow fever that killed both parents. In 1740,
Whitefield requested from the Georgia Board of Trustees a plot of land 12 miles outside of the city to start an orphanage for boys that would be run by James Habersham. The orphanage would be named Bethesda, meaning “House of Mercy” in Hebrew. Habersham’s skills as a merchant allowed him to manage the school and the finances. Unfortunately, the orphanage struggled to become a profitable enterprise due to various factors including failure to plant proper crops, high costs of farming equipment, and the high cost of selling surplus crops to the market. Despite the financial struggles, Habersham ran the orphanage well under the circumstances and created the foundation for the Bethesda Academy which is still in existence today. It is one of the oldest continually run sites in America to educate boys from impoverished situations. In 1740, while at Bethesda, Habersham married Mary Bolton. They had 10 children, but only three sons outlived James Habersham, Sr.
In 1744, James Habersham decided to go into business as a Savannah merchant with Francis Harris. He believed this would be the best way to support the Bethesda orphanage by donating some of his profits from business to the orphanage. Habersham and Harris began the first successful merchant business that made regular transatlantic trips to England from Savannah. Habersham used his profits from the business to purchase land and eventually became one of the wealthiest men in the Georgia colony with over 10,000 acres that produced income of over $2,000 pounds sterling annually (approximately $500,000 or more today adjusted for inflation). His meteoric rise to prominence allowed him to become an influential member of the Georgia political scene where he held numerous positions including Royal Governor in the early 1770s. James Habersham, Sr. was a British loyalist until his death in 1775. The Habersham House was a house divided politically as his three sons were all patriots, and two of his sons served in the Continental Army.
My Three Sons
James Habersham, Jr. was the oldest of the three surviving sons and was a patriot who financially backed the Revolutionary War enabling victory. He was a planter, merchant, slave holder, and speaker of the Georgia General Assembly in 1782 and 1784. James was on the board of trustees, along with his brother Joseph, and was involved in the 1785 decision to establish the University of Georgia. He is also the son who completed the construction of the Habersham House, now known as “The Olde Pink House” which took almost two decades to build. There could be two reasons that it took so long to build. James Jr. possibly did not want the house to be completed because it could be confiscated if the British won the war, or James Jr.’s finances were tied up with the war effort. The Habersham House was completed in 1789, and James Jr. lived in the house until his death in 1799.
James Habersham, Jr.
Joseph Habersham was a Son of Liberty and a staunch revolutionary. He arrested the unpopular acting Royal Governor James Wright in 1776 after Wright enforced the unpopular Stamp Act of 1765. Habersham rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Georgia Continental line. He was the Speaker of the General Assembly of Georgia twice, mayor of Savannah (1792-1793), and Postmaster General of the United States from 1795-1801.
John Habersham was the youngest of the three sons. He was also in the Continental Army and rose to the rank of major in the Georgia Continental regiment. John was captured by the British twice and was a part of two prisoner exchanges. He was part of the Continental Congress in 1785. He was also the first collector of customs in Savannah.
Like many families in the colonies during the 1760s and 1770s, the Habersham family was truly a “house divided” politically. Imagine being a dinner guest of the Habershams in the summer of 1770, while one of the sons brings up the news of the Boston Massacre, and the patriarch, James Sr., dismisses the scene exclaiming “the violent Bostonian mob probably deserved it.” Next, Joseph or John smack their fist on the table and yell “Murder!” Then, just as tempers begin to flare, Mary states in a firm yet calm voice, “Now boys, let’s not ruin our dinner tonight,” as she looks at her husband with body language that only a woman can do. Just like that, the moment and argument are squashed. This scenario is definitely fiction, but I like to believe that many prominent families in the colonies invariably had some difficult family dinners. Maybe that’s why it’s not polite to talk politics at the dinner table. However, one fact is certain when it comes to the Habersham family– their place in Savannah and Georgia history as one of the prominent founding families is secure.
If you would like to learn more about Georgia and Savannah history and how it is inextricably woven into the origins and founding of America, please consider taking a tour with Wise Guys Tours!
-Wesley J. Worthington
Ghs. “James Habersham – Georgia Historical Society.” Georgia Historical Society –, 6 July 2020, georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/james-habersham/.
Lambert, Frank. James Habersham: Loyalty, Politics, and Commerce in Colonial Georgia. Univ Of Georgia Press, 2012.
Mandresh, Jason. “The Death of a Loyalist Father – James Habersham’s Revolutionary Sons.” Founder of the Day, 11 Dec. 2019,
Smith, W. “Habersham Family.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Sep 11, 2014. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/habersham-family/