Britain’s Ambitious Florida Venture: Turnbull’s Smyrnéa Settlement
Arlene Fradkin, Florida Atlantic University; Roger T. Grange, Jr., University of South Florida; and Dorothy L. Moore, New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Established by Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish physician and entrepreneur, the Smyrnéa settlement was an agricultural enterprise that existed from 1766 to 1777 during the British occupation of Florida and whose primary purpose was to supply Britain with commercial crops, primarily indigo. Turnbull recruited approximately 1,100 indentured servants from the Mediterranean island of Minorca along with an additional 300 from Greece, Italy, Corsica, and Turkey. Within the Smyrnéa settlement, the developing cohesion of these various Mediterranean groups over time eventually led to the emergence of a distinctive ‘Minorcan’ cultural community on the Florida frontier. Although there is substantial historical documentation pertaining to this settlement, archaeologists have only recently begun to uncover its structural and material cultural remains and thus add to our knowledge of colonial life in eighteenth-century Smyrnéa. An historical overview of Turnbull’s Smyrnéa settlement is presented followed by a description of the archaeological findings uncovered to date.
The Smyrnéa settlement was an agricultural enterprise that existed from 1766 to 1777 during the British occupation of Florida at the location of what eventually was to become the modern cities of New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater on the central east coast of Florida (Figure 1). Founded by Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish-born physician and wealthy member of London society, the settlement was populated with indentured servants, the majority recruited from the Mediterranean island of Minorca along with additional laborers from Greece, Italy, France, Corsica, and Turkey (Griffin 1991; Panagopoulos 1978; Rasico 1990). Within the Smyrnéa settlement, these various Mediterranean groups eventually coalesced over time into a distinctive ‘Minorcan’ cultural community (Griffin 1991:16,21). Indeed, common geographic origin, intermarriage, and common religion were important factors contributing to this melding of cultures. Moreover, the sharing of deprivations and hardships throughout the duration of the settlement was another significant unifying force (Griffin 1991:101). Together, these peoples endured strenuously difficult work and harsh punishments and suffered from chronic shortages of food supplies (Griffin 1991).
Figure 1. Map of Florida showing location of Smyrnéa settlement. (Figure provided by Arlene Fradkin).
Although there is substantial historical documentation pertaining to the Smyrnéa settlement, only within the past 15 years have archaeologists been able to locate and systematically uncover its structural and material cultural remains (Grange 1999; Grange and Moore 2003). In this paper, we give an historical overview of Turnbull’s Smyrnéa settlement and describe the archaeological findings.
Britain acquired Florida and the Mediterranean island of Minorca from Spain and France, respectively, as stipulated in the Treaty of Paris of 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, or French and Indian War in North America (Rasico 1990:10-11). Britain, in turn, divided Florida into two administrative districts, East and West Florida, and St. Augustine was selected as the capital of East Florida (Rasico 1990:12,14; Tebeau 1971:75-77).
Almost immediately, Britain began a concerted effort to stimulate interest in and attract new settlers to both Floridas (Griffin 1991:4; Panagopoulos 1978:10-11). Britain’s desire to colonize Florida was spurred in part by the need to offset her costly dependence on imported commodities, such as indigo, silk, cotton, rice, cochineal, wine, and oil. By having these crops grown on British-owned soils rather than purchased from other nations, the Crown could provide its people with these highly desired products directly and thus lower its expenditures. To promote agricultural development, the Crown offered land grants at easy terms to prospective plantation owners and bestowed financial rewards upon those planters willing to grow cash crops for export to Britain (Rasico 1990:14-16).
Dr. Andrew Turnbull, who had important and influential connections in British government circles, accepted the challenge to establish a large plantation in East Florida as a business venture (Tebeau 1971:82). He partnered with two other prominent members of British society, Sir William Duncan and eventually Sir Richard Temple, and they were awarded a substantial amount of land as well as government support. Turnbull was to serve as plantation manager, handling all the practical aspects, recruiting and transporting colonists, and personally overseeing the plantation operation (Griffin 1991:7; Panagopoulos 1978:13,18; Rasico 1990:16-18; Tebeau 1971:82).
In fall 1766, Turnbull sailed to East Florida to choose the location and begin preparations for the plantation settlement. He selected an area 121 km (75 mi) south of St. Augustine (see Figure 1), along the Indian River (then called Hillsborough River) at Ponce de Leon Inlet (formerly Mosquito Inlet) as the location for the settlement (Griffin 1991:7,8-9; Panagopoulos 1978:15; Rasico 1990:17,36; Tebeau 1971:82). Turnbull hired a skilled planter as head agricultural overseer, employed a number of carpenters to build houses and other structures, purchased 40 black slaves, and ordered several hundred cattle from the Georgia colony (Panagopoulos 1978:17; Rasico 1990:17; Turnbull 1767a, 1767b). The governor of East Florida named the new settlement New Smyrna after the birthplace of Turnbull’s wife, María Gracia Dura Bín (Rubini), who was born in Smyrna (Griffin 1991:10), now known as Izmir, a port city in western Turkey. But Turnbull changed the name to Smyrnéa which, he claimed, was ‘bad Greek for New Smyrna’ (Turnbull 1768a).
Upon returning to Britain in March 1767, Turnbull began searching for capable laborers to work on the plantation. He preferred enlisting Mediterranean peoples as he thought they were accustomed to farming in a hot climate (Griffin 1991:3,6; Panagopoulos 1978:13). He turned to the island of Minorca where a three-year crop failure had left many subsistence farmers starving and destitute (Panagopoulos 1978:44; Rasico 1990:24; Tebeau 1971:82). Turnbull recruited about 1,100 Minorcans as well as an additional 200 laborers from Greece and another 100 from Italy, France, Corsica, and Turkey (Rasico 1990:26-27; Tebeau 1971:82). These prospective colonists were required to agree to a contract specifying that they would serve as indentured servants in the new settlement (Griffin 1991:24-26; Panagopoulos 1978:46-48; Rasico 1990:28-31).
The Smyrnéa Settlement
In April 1768, Turnbull assembled his 1,403 prospective colonists, loaded them onto eight ships, and set sail from Gibraltar for East Florida (Griffin 1991:13,28; Panagopoulos 1978:48; Rasico 1990:23-24). The voyage took 2 to 4 months (Griffin 1991:28). Many deaths occurred at sea, particularly from scurvy and infections. The number of colonists who arrived in Florida had been reduced to 1,255 people (Griffin 1991:28-29; Panagopoulos 1978:54; Rasico 1990:31,42). To worsen the situation, housing and supplies had been readied for only about half this number of people (Griffin 1991:45; Panagopoulos 1978:58,82; Rasico 1990:36).
Feelings of hopelessness, disillusionment, and anger were prevalent among the colonists even in the very early days of the settlement. From the onset, they suffered from inadequate and insect-infested housing, insufficient food, and rampant sickness and disease. In addition, they endured arduous working conditions and had to adapt to an unfamiliar wilderness environment (Griffin 1991:32; Panagopoulos 1978:58-59,82-83; Rasico 1990:36-37). Unfortunately, their arrival was also during Florida’s hurricane season, and they soon experienced a major storm that lasted three days. Very strong winds and rains destroyed the roofs of most of the newly built houses, thereby exposing the new settlers to the elements and causing further sickness among them (Turnbull 1768b). Within the first few months of the settlement, discontent among the colonists culminated in open rebellion, but the rioting was quickly quashed (Griffin 1991:31-35; Panagopoulos 1978:59-62; Rasico 1990:37-38). No further insurrections were attempted, though living conditions worsened and the colonists continued to suffer (Griffin 1991; Panagopoulos 1978; Rasico 1990).
The Smyrnéa settlement was laid out in a linear orientation along the west bank of the Indian River. Colonists’ houses were built on a narrow strip of land extending from the northern limits of present-day New Smyrna Beach south into the modern community of Edgewater, a distance of about 13 km (8 mi). Plantation fields were located immediately west of the settlers’ dwellings. The dispersed residential pattern at Smyrnéa was unlike the concentrated residential pattern to which the colonists were accustomed in their homeland (Griffin 1991:43-44,46-48).
Many buildings were constructed during the settlement’s existence, including houses for colonists, slaves, and overseers as well as for Turnbull and his family; a Catholic church; workshops such as blacksmith, cooper, and carpenter shops; wharves for loading and unloading ships; storehouses; and agricultural buildings. Also a network of canals was dug for irrigating agricultural fields, draining swampy lands, and serving as inland transportation routes within the settlement (Panagopoulos 1978:76).
Although such crops as rice, corn, sugar, hemp, and cotton were raised by the settlement, the primary agricultural focus was the growing and processing of indigo (Panagopoulos 1978:74; Rasico 1990:41). Considered the ‘king of dyestuffs,’ this brilliant blue dye commanded a high price in Europe. Because of the expensive equipment and complicated processing required for its production, indigo was profitable only on large plantations. After the indigo plant was harvested, it was placed in a tiered vat system used to steep and ferment the vegetation and extract the dye. The liquid was then drained off and the residue allowed to dry. The dried material composing the dyestuff was then cut into small bricks for shipment to Britain (Griffin 1991:51-54; Panagopoulos 1978:74; Rasico 1990:41,42).
Maintaining adequate food supplies to feed the overpopulated settlement was a perpetual problem. Historical documents frequently mention the delivery of livestock and barrels of meat to the Smyrnéa settlement from the other British colonies (Laurens 1768; Turnbull 1768c,1770,1771). Nevertheless, provisions provided by the British were not sufficient. Consequently, the colonists planted vegetables in kitchen gardens by their houses (Griffin 1991:58; Turnbull 1768b) and, more essentially, resorted to fishing, hunting, and gathering wild foods at every available opportunity. They took advantage of the rich resources available in the Indian River Lagoon where they collected shellfish and fished for mullet, sheepshead, and drums. Also, they exploited terrestrial resources in the wooded areas surrounding the settlement where they gathered wild plants such as nuts and fruits, hunted deer, and trapped smaller mammals such as rabbit and opossum (Griffin 1991:60-63). Because the colonists were required to work very long hours, often including nights and holidays, and had little spare time, balancing cash cropping and subsistence activities was a continual challenge for them throughout the duration of the settlement’s existence (Griffin 1991:63).
The plantation experienced a cycle of bad and good years during its brief existence. Initially, there were many deaths due to poor nutrition and ill health. Approximately 40 percent of the original 1,255 settlers died within the first two years. Several good years followed, characterized by a drop in the death rate and an increase in agricultural crop yields. During the final few years, however, severe droughts and soil depletion resulted in much lowered crop yields and hence a shortage of food supplies, and the death rate began to climb again (Griffin 1991:37-38; Rasico 1990). Eventually, weather conditions improved and crop yields rebounded, but, by this point in time, discontent among the colonists had come to a critical head. Periodic food shortages coupled with strenuously hard work in a hostile mosquito-infested environment had taken its toll on the colonists (Panagopoulos 1978:150). There was a growing concern that Turnbull would never honor the contracts under which they had agreed to immigrate to Florida, and there was a lack of understanding as to the obligatory period of indenture (Griffin 1991:26,91-92; Rasico 1990:52). The colonists resented their overseers, who often mistreated and inflicted extremely cruel punishments on them (Griffin 1991; Panagopoulos 1978:87-89; Rasico 1990:36,47). Problems with the Indians further exacerbated the situation (Griffin 1991:31,83-86; Panagopoulos 1978:96-98; Rasico 1990:45,51). Finally, Turnbull’s inability to produce marketable crops in quantities sufficient enough to satisfy his investors cost him their support, as well as that of the British government (Tebeau 1971:83).
Sworn depositions against Turnbull taken from a selected group of indentured settlers during Smyrnéa’s final days were filed with the British authorities as the settlers sought permission to evacuate the settlement (Griffin 1991:97-99; Panagopoulos 1978:149-150). Having learned of their dire circumstances from these depositions, the governor of East Florida had the colonists’ indentures cancelled and invited them to settle in St. Augustine (Panagopoulos 1978:150-152; Rasico 1990:52-53; Tebeau 1971:83). Consequently, the people left, and the Smyrnéa settlement came to an end in 1777. The plantation was virtually abandoned by most of the surviving colonists, who fled en masse to the safety and security of St. Augustine (Panagopoulos 1978:152; Rasico 1990:53-54). In this new environment, they further consolidated as a distinct cultural community as they began reforming lifestyles taken away from them at Smyrnéa back to the more familiar traditional Mediterranean way of life (Griffin 1991:113).
The search for archaeological evidence for Turnbull’s Smyrnéa settlement has only been seriously conducted over the past 15 years. Archaeologists had felt that few intact deposits associated with the settlement could have survived modern development. Remnants still visible today include coquina foundations for a massive structure located at Old Fort Park in downtown New Smyrna Beach, remains of the Old Stone Wharf, and a network of canals, believed to have been dug by Turnbull’s colonists, which run through areas of New Smyrna Beach and unincorporated Volusia County (Grange 1999:73; Moore and Ste. Claire 1999:42-44).
Figure 2. Excavation of colonist’s house in progress. Base of coquina stone fireplace and hearth shown upper right in photo. (Photo by Dorothy Moore).
In 1996 and 1997, a colonist’s house was located and excavated, the first residential site of the Turnbull settlement to be identified (Grange 1999) (Figure 2). This two-room building, which may have housed two families, was rectangular, measuring 4 m (13.1 ft) wide and 8.4 m (27.5 ft) long. The house had a central chimney, fireplaces, and hearths made of coquina and a floor consisting of mortar mixed with sand and shell. Charred posts set at regular intervals indicated that the building had a post-and-beam framework. The walls were made by nailing horizontal split-wood lathing to the vertical posts and covering these with mortar. No identifiable roofing material was recovered, but the house probably had a cypress shingles roof (Grange 1999:77-81; Grange and Moore 2003:223-225) (Figure 3). Refuse midden deposits were located outside and west of the house (Grange 1999:82-83). Food remains recovered from these middens indicate that the residents consumed some pork, chicken, and beef but relied primarily upon fishing and hunting of wild animal foods for most of the meat portion of their diet (Fradkin 2010).
Figure 3. Conjectural scale model of colonist’s house showing structural elements identified during archaeological excavation. (Model by Michael Tanksley).
The search for Turnbull’s settlement continued in 1998 and again in 2002 when, with grant funding, comprehensive surveys were conducted to further locate archaeological remains associated with the settlement. Over 40 Turnbull-related archaeological sites have been documented, including coquina foundations, tabby floors, collapsed chimneys, a possible indigo-processing complex, lime kilns, midden refuse, and eighteenth-century artifacts, such as ceramics, buttons, wrought-iron nails, and gun parts (Austin, Grange, and Moore 1999; Grange and Moore 2003). Since then, analysis of the first colonist’s house as well as excavations of other Turnbull sites continues. Archaeological research thus has added a visible, material dimension to the documented history of the plantation settlement.
Nevertheless, although the archaeological findings have shed some light on the Turnbull settlement, the artifact assemblage is typical of eighteenth-century British in North America. Except for one religious medal, the assemblage lacks distinctive ethnically Minorcan artifacts because the settlers were totally dependent upon what Turnbull provided. It is possible that any Minorcan heirlooms were taken to St. Augustine when Smyrnéa was abandoned.
The Minorcan Community in Florida
The Smyrnéa settlement represents the seeds for the development of the Minorcan cultural community in Florida. Situated on the Florida frontier, this settlement was a melting pot of people from various Mediterranean cultures. During the life span of the settlement, these colonists, over time, melded together as a result of intermarriages, godparent exchanges, common religion, language accommodation (creolization), and especially by the sharing of anxieties and hardships in an isolated and often adverse environment (Griffin 1991:101).
The Minorcan natives constituted an overwhelming majority of the colonists in the community, and hence their numbers set the cultural tone within the Turnbull settlement. The lifeways developed by the colonists were built upon the dominant cultural themes of these Minorcans. It was the Minorcans’ version of the Mediterranean lifestyle and their social organization and cultural patterns into which the others blended and adapted their ways. Consequently, it was their namesake that was used for designating the community as a whole (Griffin 1991:16,21).
Today, the term ‘Minorcan’ thus refers to this mixed group of people brought to Smyrnéa who coalesced to forge a new cultural identity on the Florida frontier. The Minorcan heritage would further develop after Smyrnéa’s abandonment and the movement of this group to St. Augustine. The Minorcan community continued to survive in Florida from colonial up to modern times and still maintains its cultural traditions and native language. The descendants of these original ‘Minorcans’ today constitute one of the most traditional and important segments of St. Augustine’s population (Griffin 1991).
The Smyrnéa settlement turned out to be one of Britain’s most ambitious ventures in colonizing the New World. But the Smyrnéa enterprise was also noteworthy for the magnitude of its failure as the settlement was abandoned after only 11 years. Nevertheless, out of this venture emerged the addition of a new cultural community on the Florida frontier. And, over the past 235 years, this Minorcan community has continued to thrive in Florida, preserving its cultural and linguistic heritage, up to the present day.
Austin, R.J., R.T. Grange, Jr., and D.L. Moore. 1999. The Search for Turnbull’s Colony: An Archaeological Survey. Report prepared by Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH), Gainesville, FL.
Fradkin, A. 2010. Dinner at the Smyrnéa Settlement: The faunal assemblage from the First Turnbull Colonist’s House (8VO7051). Report submitted to Southeast Volusia Historical Society, Inc., New Smyrna Beach, FL.
Grange, R.T., Jr. 1999. “The Turnbull Colonist’s House at New Smyrna Beach: A preliminary report on 8VO7051.” Florida Anthropologist 52(1-2):73-84.
Grange, R.T., Jr., and D.L. Moore. 2003. “Search and Rescue Archaeology at the Symrnea Settlement: A preliminary description of structure types.” Florida Anthropologist 56(3):221-235.
Griffin, P.C. 1991. Mullet on the Beach: The Minorcans of Florida 1768-1788. Jacksonville: University of North Florida Press.
Laurens, H. 1768. Letter to James Grant, 14 December, Charles Town. The Papers of Governor James Grant. Edinburgh, Scotland: National Register of Archives, Ballindaloch Castle Muniments. Copy of typed manuscript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/letters/5.html.
Moore, D.L., and D. Ste. Claire. 1999. “Dreams and Promises Unfulfilled: Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony.” Florida Anthropologist 52(1-2):31-45.
Panagopoulos, E.P. 1978. New Smyrna: An eighteenth-century Greek odyssey. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Rasico, P.D. 1990. The Minorcans of Florida: Their history, language and culture. New Smyrna Beach, FL: Luthers.
Tebeau, C.W. 1971. A History of Florida. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.
Turnbull, A. 1767a. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 21 January, St. Augustine. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull /letters/2.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____.1767b. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 1 February, Charlestown. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/ letters/2.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____.1768a. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 21 September, St. Augustine. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/ letters/5.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____. 1768b. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 22 October, St. Augustine. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/ letters/5.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____. 1768c. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 3 December, St. Augustine. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/ letters/5.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____. 1770. Letter to Sir William Duncan and George Grenville, 6 March, Smyrnéa. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/ Turnbull/letters/5.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
_____. 1771. Letter to Sir William Duncan, 3 May, Smyrnéa. Scotland: Dundee City Archives. Copy of typed transcript by Daniel L. Schafer. http://www.floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/letters/6.html. Permission to use granted by Dundee City Archives.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to the Dundee City Archives and to Dr. Daniel L. Schafer for permission to use copies of his typed manuscripts of Andrew Turnbull’s correspondence which are housed at the Dundee City Archives, Dundee, Scotland.
Arlene Fradkin (B.A. SUNY Albany; M.A., Ph.D. University of Florida) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Florida Atlantic University. Her major area of expertise is zooarchaeology, the study of animal bones recovered from archaeological sites. Her research primarily focuses on pre-Columbian Native American and historic colonial and early American sites in the Southeast U.S., especially Florida.
Roger T. Grange, Jr. (Ph.B., M.A. University of Chicago; Ph.D. University of Arizona) is a Professor Emeritus at the University of South Florida where he founded the Anthropology Department and taught for 30 years. Since his retirement in 1994, he has been a volunteer archaeologist at the New Smyrna Museum of History and has focused on excavations at the eighteenth-century Smyrnéa Settlement in east Florida.
Dorothy L. (Dot) Moore is an avocational archaeologist and historian. She has been involved in many archaeological projects with professional archaeologists in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She has devoted the past 20 years to fieldwork and historical research on the British eighteenth-century Smyrnéa Settlement in east Florida.