Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Smyrna and Florida's First Boom

In 1763, according to the terms of the treaty that ended the Seven Years War, the British took over ownership of Florida. At that moment, the peninsula was nearly empty of people. Most of the native Indians had been killed by disease and war. The Spaniards all pulled out when the the land was ceded to Britain, and many mission Indians went with them. The remaining Indians, along with various Creeks, Tuscaroras, and other refugees, were forming a new Indian society that would be known as the Seminole League, but they were very few across the huge space of the peninsula. So most of the land was unoccupied, waiting for almost anyone to claim it.

Before the treaty was even signed, influential Britons began launching schemes for settlements on this new frontier, and over the next 20 years the biggest speculative boom in the history of British America played out. Hundreds of British luminaries invested millions of pounds in colonial ventures in the Florida scrubland, convinced that they were on the verge of great riches. The Earl of Egmont claimed 65,000 acres, including a plantation on Amelia Island (where I used to spend summer vacation). The Earl of Dartmouth claimed 100,000.  The list of men who filed claims with the Privy Council for Florida land includes 13 titled lords, 11 baronets, two Prime Ministers, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Attorney General, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the king's personal physician, the Secretary of the Treasury, and at least twenty other Members of Parliament. The Paymaster General of the army in Germany invested some of the £400,000 he cleared as profits during the Seven Years War, which gives you an idea of why 18th-century government found it cripplingly expensive to field even small armies. It was an extraordinary land grab. To impose some order, the government hired as their surveyor Gerhard de Brahm, a German described in biographical sketches as "an engineer, cartographer, and mystical theologian." He made the first accurate map of Florida, small pieces of which are shown above and below.

The biggest single venture within the British land rush was Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull's colony of New Smyrna. Turnbull had the not entirely silly idea that people from a warmer climate would survive better Florida's environment, and be more skilled at the semi-tropical agriculture the British wanted to practice. He also knew, from his Greek wife, that many Greeks were very unhappy with their situation in the Ottoman Empire. Shopping his scheme around among the many rich Englishmen interested in Florida, he obtained the backing of former Prime Minister George Grenville and Dr. William Duncan, physician to the king. With £9000 of his partners' money he hired a ship and sailed to Greece, bribing Turkish officials to let him take away dissatisfied peasants. A few hundred joined him. He sailed then to Livorno in Italy, where he picked up about a hundred more. He took them all to Minorca, an island now part of Spain but then under the control of the British. He had not expected to carry away Minorcans, but it turned out they were more eager to go than Greeks.

On 17 April 1768 Turnbull left Minorca with eight ships carrying 1403 colonists, 900 of them Minorcans. This was the largest immigrant voyage to American since the 1630s. With them went a Minorcan priest, Pedro Camps. Their sea voyage was rough and hot, and about 150 passengers died before they arrived in America.

The land Turnbull had selected for his colony was on Mosquito Inlet, on the Atlantic coast 75 miles south of St. Augustine, just north of Cape Canaveral. Turnbull had sent an advance party of slaves and oversees to begin the work, and they had hacked out a small clearing and built some log shelters. But Turnbull had brought three times as many colonists as anyone had planned on, so most had to sleep in brush lean-to's while they set to work building Turnbull's plantation. Bernard Bailyn imagined their arrival:
The scene at New Smyrna, as Turnbull called the settlement after his wife's birthplace, must have been strangely beautiful, and fiercely forbidding. The swampy lowlands between the small upland clearing and the ocean were covered with palmettos, salt marshes, and pine barrens. The upland clearing itself was cut out of a thickly overgrown tangle of cabbage palms, pawpaw trees, and semitropical plants. From the clearing, in the distance, the edge of an extensive orange grove could be seen, left behind by earlier Spanish and Indian settlers. The settlers' main tasks were to clear the swampy lowlands, full of snakes and swarming with mosquitoes, in order to make indigo fields -- and to tear out the palmettos where the land was dry, and plant corn, which would be their main food crop. Somehow, too, they were to make vegetable gardens on the bluff, though the soil was sandy and full of shells.
Despite their hardships, the settlers set to work, driven by fierce former soldiers Turnbull had hired as overseers. But in the miserable conditions, exposed to unfamiliar microbes, they began to sicken and die. After just a month 300 settlers tried to revolt, but word reached the governor at St. Augustine, and he sent an armed frigate and a company of troops, who quickly subdued the rebels. Three were executed, the rest put back to work.

Their lives got no easier, and in two years half were dead. The work of the plantation went on, though, and much was accomplished. Archaeological exploration has revealed a large complex of foundations, drainage ditches, roads, and landings, centered this imposing stone ruin, which most think was Turnbull's house. From written records we know that a church was built, where Father Camps held services. He also recorded baptisms and deaths in a register that survives, known in Florida as the Golden Book of the Minorcans. The colonists raised, processed and shipped more than 40,000 pounds of indigo, which seems a startling achievement for people so close to death.

Things went on in much this style for a few more years. Most of the immigrants had signed eight-year indentures, but some had signed for six. When the six year indentures came up, the Minorcans asked Turnbull to honor his agreement and grant them each 50 acres of land. He refused and kept them as laborers. Remembering the fate of the earlier rebels, they sullenly stayed on. But as the eight year indentures came due, the Minorcans began to agitate for their rights. They found an ally in East Florida's new governor, Patrick Tonyn, who offered them his protection. In 1777, the colonists demanded that Turnbull make good his promises to them and grant them their land. Turnbull again refused. But this time, Turnbull could not call in government troops, so the settlers of New Smyrna simply walked away from the colony and made their way to St. Augustine. Father Camps recorded the event in his register:
On the 9th day of November 1777, the church of San Pedro was translated from the settlement of Mosquito to the city of Saint Augustine, with the same colony of Mahonese Minorcans which was established in the said settlement, and the same parish priest and Missionary Apostolic, Dr. Dn. Pedro Camps.
Turnbull and his investors had by this point lost more than £50,000. But with no labor force and their operation in shambles, they also walked away, and New Smyrna was abandoned. So were almost all of the other British ventures in Florida. The whole affair was a colossal failure, without a single thriving new settlement to show for all blood and treasure lost. In 1783 the discouraged British gave up and transferred Florida back to Spain, leaving behind only a scatter of place names and, living at St. Augustine, 400 survivors of New Smyrna.

Researching New Smyrna online, I found lots of material on Florida genealogy sites. It seems that those 400 survivors, like most successful pioneers, have many, many descendants. It also seems that descent from  those New Smyrna settlers is about the oldest blood a Floridian can have. So from oppressed indentured laborers, they have become something like the Mayflower voyagers of Florida, their descendants thrilled to number one of those Minorcans among their forebears.

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