By George Matsoukas
This overview will be printed in a two part series and the sources for this information are derived from the late Dr. E.P. Panagopoulos Professor of History at San Jose College, CA.; the history of the English attempt at colonizing the East Coast of the territory of Florida is told by Dr. E.P. Panagopoulos in his book
“New Smyrna, An 18th Century Greek Odyssey,” (Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1966); Dr. Leonidas C. Polopolus University of Florida; American Hellenic Philanthropic Association Materials, and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. The story is developed within three historical periods:
- Early History: 1768 to 1800’s East Florida a British Territory
- Late 1800’s and Early 1900’s North and West Coast Florida USA
- The Greek Communities of Florida 2006 and Beyond
Early History: 1768 to 1800.
The first community of Greeks settled in the newly acquired English territory of Florida in 1768. This is five years after the Florida territory was acquired by England in exchange for Cuba at the Peace of Paris 1763 ending the Seven Years War. When the English took over their new Florida territory, they found very few settlers. The Spanish settlers had all left for Cuba after the peace treaty. The English now faced the problem of colonizing their new land.
Two enterprising individuals were on hand to help meet these colonization objectives. Dr. Andrew Turnbull who with Sir William Duncan secured a grant of 40,000 acres of land for settlement in the territory from the English government in 1765 with the stipulation that the land be settled within 10 years in the proportion of one person for every hundred acres. Governor James Grant, the administrator of the new territory, headquartered in St. Augustine, approved the land grant which was located 75 miles south of St. Augustine, in what is now New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
From 1765 until l767 Dr. Andrew Turnbull and Sir William Duncan secured financing for the forthcoming venture through bounties from the government and the Board of Trade, and then sailed for the Mediterranean to search for colonists “for a Tract of Land in East Florida on which I might settle a small Colony of Greeks,” as Turnbull explained in a letter to Lord Shelburne. Why Greeks? How did Dr. Turnbull know they would make good workers? Dr. Andrew Turnbull was married to a Greek lady Maria Gracia Dura Bin, the daughter of a Greek merchant who grew up in the Greek community of Smyrna in Asia Minor. In honor of her he named the settlement New Smyrna.
The English decided that the type of settlers needed should be those whose religion “will be a bar to their forming connections with the French and Spaniards; and who will readily intermarry and mix with our own people settled there.” Archibald Menzies wrote that “The people I mean, are the Geeks of the Levant, accustomed to a hot climate and bred to the culture of the vine, olive, cotton, tobacco…, as also to the raising of silk; and who could supply our markets with all the commodities at present we have from Turkey and other parts. These people are in general, sober and industrious; and being reduced, by their severe masters, to the greatest misery, would be easily persuaded to fly from slavery (from the Turks), to the protection of a free government. The Greeks of the islands would be the most useful, and the easiest to bring away, as they are more oppressed than any others….It may be observed that they are excellent rowers, and might be of great service in the inland navigation of America.”
One thousand four hundred and five settlers were recruited from June 1767 to April 1768.
These early indentured servants were recruited from Asia Minor (Smyrna), Mani a province of the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Southern Greece and Crete. There were also several Greek families from the island of Corsica that arrived with the early settlers to Florida. These Greeks numbered about 500 strong among a total population of 1,405 that also included other Corsicans, Italians and Minorcans. They were promised- land and freedom in the New World.
Turnbull’s fleet of eight ships left Gibraltar for the long voyage across the Atlantic to Florida on April 17, 1768. During the long voyage, 148 people died on board ship, and only 1255 survived to reach Florida. They landed at St. Augustine, prior to making plans to proceed to the new colony located 75 miles south on June 26, 1768.
Originally, Turnbull had planned on a colony of only 500 for his new project, and during his earlier visit to St. Augustine, had laid plans for that number. But he arrived with almost three times that number. Provisions were insufficient, and the colony was faced with almost insurmountable difficulties from the beginning. Mosquitoes and malaria added to their misery after their arrival at New Smyrna, for the whole area was called “the Mosquitoes” and clouds of the insects swarmed everywhere. Food was short, sickness prevalent. The overseers and landlord Turnbull imposed harsh servitude. Within the first 24 months 627 additional colonists died leaving a total of 628.
When the colonists made applications for discharge after serving their work time of several years, they were turned down and thrown into confinement. There was not way out for these unfortunate human beings. Finally, after repeated petitions seeking freedom and the conditions of New Smyrna had become an open scandal within the British government, all the colonists were set free by 1777. It is in that year that the colony failed. Only 291 colonists survived the New Smyrna experiment. The survivors migrated to St. Augustine. They were allotted lands between St. Augustine and the St. John’s River. Most stayed in St. Augustine. Those that survived and stayed prospered. When Florida became a state the survivors held title to almost 49,000 acres of land.
If you visit St. Augustine today you will be impressed by the remnants of Greek names for city streets and the fact that the first school teacher of a one room school house in America was named Ioannis Yianopoulos a survivor of New Smyrna who came from Mani.
To commemorate this early history of the Greeks in Florida in 1982 the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese established a permanent shrine dedicated to St. Photios who was also a teacher. It is located at 41 St. George Street at Avero House. The American Hellenic Educational and Philanthropic Association, AHEPA has established a permanent Shrine in New Smyrna Beach to honor memory of the colonists.