New Smyrna Beach: Greek Name, but Settled by Minorcans

New Smyrna Beach on Florida’s northeast coast today draws tourists and water sports enthusiasts to the Atlantic Ocean south of the more populous and hectic Daytona Beach area. The paradoxically named city got its start as a British agricultural colony approximately two-and-a-half centuries ago.

Soon after taking control of Florida from Spain in 1863, the British Parliament authorized land grants for citizens willing to develop certain agricultural industries in the area. According to the Florida Department of State website, Florida Memory, Britain encouraged the development of silk, cotton and indigo in Florida.

Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull took advantage of the opportunity. The website says he convinced wealthy friends in Britain to start a new colony in East Florida. “Turnbull planned to employ a number of Greeks from Asia Minor as laborers for his new venture,” Florida Memory states. “He chose a Greek labor force because he felt they would be more accustomed to the warm climate they would encounter in Florida.”

Turnbull knew much about the eastern Mediterranean from spending several years as a British consul in the Ottoman Empire. He had also married the daughter of a Greek merchant at Smyrna in Greece.

Turnbull and two business associates acquired British land grants of 20,000 acres each in East Florida. The physician had sailed south from St. Augustine to the current location of New Smyrna Beach. “The Scotsman was delighted with what he saw, and decided to make this the site of his new colony,” Florida Memory reports. “He named it New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace and the homeland of his future Greek labor force.”

The British government agreed to provide money for transporting laborers to New Smyrna and for developing infrastructure there, the website states. Turnbull sailed to the Mediterranean in 1767 to hire workers for the Florida colony. But the website reports that he encountered unexpected resistance from the Ottomans to hire Greek workers. So Turnbull made recruiting stops in southern Italy and Minorca, a western Mediterranean Island then owned by Britain – but now by Spain. “By the time Turnbull finally sailed for East Florida, he had about 1,500 workers under contract, mostly Minorcans,” Florida Memory reports. The settlers would be indentured servants who, after working a number of years, would be entitled to either a plot of Florida land or return passage to their home countries.

Turnbull and the workers arrived in New Smyrna in 1768 to clear the land. Florida Memory reports that some workers died of disease and from attacks by Native American Indians. “The New Smyrna venture did eventually produce good crops, however, and for a few years all appeared to be working in good order.”

THE COLONY’S DEMISE AND RESURRECTION

“Turnbull’s relationship with his laborers deteriorated as the years went by, on account of poor working conditions and the harsh practices of his overseers,” Florida Memory states. In 1777, the laborers marched north to St. Augustine to complain to Governor Patrick Tonyn, who provided them with shelter. The colonists decided to stay in St. Augustine. “The New Smyrna venture had ended, but the colonists continued to live in East Florida,” the website reports. When the Spanish retook Florida in 1783, Turnbull moved to Charleston, S.C.

Resettlement of the New Smyrna area began in earnest following the U.S. Civil War, according to the official city website of New Smyrna Beach. The website reports: “In 1887, with a population of 150, the Town of New Smyrna was incorporated. The arrival of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in 1892 spurred development of the area’s economy, which was based on the tourism, citrus and commercial fishing industries.”

“New Smyrna Beach, like most other Florida communities, experienced a period of intensive speculative development during the Florida land boom of the mid-1920s,” the city website states. Today, New Smyrna Beach’s population exceeds 23,000.

Original New Smyrna colonists continued to live in northeast Florida. “Minorcan foodways and other traditions … have lived on into our own era, living legacies of the New Smyrna Minorcans’ journey across the Atlantic over two centuries ago,” Florida Memory reports.