Thursday, March 18, 2010

Britain's largest New World colony

The story of the Turnbull Colony in New Smyrna Beach is one of hardships caused by "weather, insects, Illness, and overwork." A plaque at Old Fort Park near downtown NSB tells the story this way: "During Florida's British Colonial Period, 1763-1783, Doctor Andrew Turnbull, established the largest North American colony at this site. Approximately 1800 Minorcans, Greeks and Italians comprised the colony named after Smyrna, Asia Minor, the birthplace of Dr. Turnbull's wife. The colony experienced success in producing indigo dye, rice, hemp, and other crops for shipment to England. Buildings, wharfs and a canal system, still visible today, were constructed. Despite successes, after nine years, the colony failed, approximately 600 survivors of the colony relocated to St. Augustine where many descendants reside."

What the plaque doesn't say is that the colony was set up for 500 settlers not 1,800, and from the moment they arrived in North America there were issues. The Volusia County website says the "mix of ethnic groups, with their different languages and customs, as well as problems with Indians, also made matters desperate" and "Turnbull's inability to produce marketable crops in quantities large enough to satisfy his investors cost him their support, as well as that of the British government."

Dr. Andrew Turnbull
State Archives of Florida



The casual beachgoer visiting New Smyrna for the day may pass within yards of the archeological evidence of the Turnbull Colony without even recognizing it. The most obvious example is Old Fort Park, the foundation of a coquina structure built by the colonists. Set on the site of an Indian shell mound, the “fort” was excavated and restored by WPA workers in 1933. While it is called a fort, the ruins are also said to be of Turnbull’s mansion, among other theories, and the exact nature of their original purpose are still uncertain today.


Two blocks South of the fort beneath New Smyrna’s charming downtown lies one of the several canals created by the colonists. Dug by hand and lined with coquina, a system of waterways was created for agricultural purposes beginning in 1768. While the Canal Street water passage is only visible west of US 1 for the most part, other canals are clearly visible at the boundary between the towns of New Smyrna and Edgewater and running through the park on Myrtle Avenue.


On the other side of SR 44 from Canal Street along Riverside Drive, the remains of Turnbull’s Old Stone Wharf are visible at low tide. Said to be the first public works program for the colony, the wharf was located at the end of the King’s Road that connected New Smyrna to St. Augustine.



To learn more about the Turnbull Colony, visit the The New Smyrna Museum of History at 120 Sams Avenue just off Canal Street. They have a fascinating exhibit with rare artifacts that help tell the story of what life was like in colonial Florida. New pieces of the puzzle are being uncovered continuously as archeological research into the colony is still ongoing. Researchers are delving through records in Scotland, Turnbull's home at this moment, through records that have been sealed for over two centuries. Stay tuned as the story is sure to change!


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