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The Saint Photios Greek Orthodox Museum
The saga of the colonists of New Smyrna, Florida, is the story of a little known link in the chain bringing 18th century old world immigrants to new-world Settlers.
This special exhibit tells their story.
The Story of the First Greek Colony
A Mediterranean Odyssey to East Florida
National Greek Orthodox Shrine
The odyssey began on Mediterranean soil and ended in St. Augustine sand, when Corsicans, Greeks, Italians and Minorcans left their native countries seeking a new life.
The Greeks, many coming from the Mani region of Greece, although from a hot climate, had no experience in a “tropical” environment. Their arrival in Florida thrust them immediately into a very different way of life.
Dream of Colonization
Colonizing Great Britain’s newly acquired land of Florida became a quest for Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull. He and a partner, Sir William Duncan, each received a grant from the government of Great Britain with the stipulation that the land be settled within ten years.
Because he was familiar with the people and region, Turnbull decided to recruit settlers from Greece. His wife was the daughter of a Greek merchant in Smyrna, Asia Minor, and Turnbull believed people of the Mediterranean area were suited to the warm Florida climate. Archibald Menzies, a respected Scotsman, also believed this, and issued a pamphlet in 1763, suggesting that Greeks and Armenians would be suited for work in the southern colonies.
From the beginning, the settlement on Florida soil was an economic endeavor, not a plan to establish a colony for religious or humanitarian ideals.
When Turnbull arrived in Greece to enlist colonists, he found devastation. Greeks in the Mani region of the Peloponnesos, fearing the reprisals of the Turks, had withdrawn to the mountains. Many of the people of the villages of Mani were persuaded to leave with Turnbull, hoping to find freedom in the New World. They joined other Greek settlers, among them Casper Papi from Smyrna and Ansastasios Mavromatis from the island of Melos. Turnbull stopped also at Crete and Santorini, where he enlisted more adventurers, including Maria Parta from Santarini, the only Greek woman known to embark on this venture.
Upon his arrival at the port of Mahon, Minorca with his Greek colonists, a ship already in port contained voyagers from Corsica with Greek surnames, such as Stefanopoli, Drimarachis, Cosifachis, and Costas. These were descendants of the same families Turnbull had enlisted in Mani, who had fled the region years before.
Turnbull’s original plan had involved 500 colonists, but the number had more than doubled when the eight ships departed Mahon, March 28, 1768. The travelers left with new hopes and dreams. Turnbull offered them a new beginning. He enlisted them under the English Indentured Servant Law, a contract between master and servant requiring that they work the land at the owner’s expense over a pre-agreed time. At the end of the agreed time, each was promised a tract of land.
Coming to the New World
Only 1,255 of the 1,403 original group survived the ocean voyage. Scurvy, crowded conditions and bad weather took their toll. It was not until June 26, 1768, that the first ships arrived in St. Augustine.*
When colonists arrived at New Smyrna, they soon learned that provisions had not been made for the expanded group. They were unexpectedly faced with clearing the swampland filled with alligators, poisonous snakes and mosquitoes.
After the strenuous voyage the settlers were happy to be on land. It was not too long, however, before they realized they were trapped in deplorable living conditions. The colonists felt they were being treated more like slaves than contracted workers and many considered abandoning the colony.
On August 19, 1768, a supply ship was seized and the Italian overseer Carlos Forni took charge. Soon the colonists broke into storehouses to load supplies onto the ship. Word quickly reached Governor Grant’s flotilla and the rebels were imprisoned in St. Augustine. Neither Grant nor Turnbull wished to jeopardize the colony by imprisoning or executing all the offenders. After a trial in January 1769, three were chosen as examples: Carlos Forni and Giuseppe Massiadoli, both Italians, and Elias Medici, a Greek from Corsica. Medici was offered his life in exchange for executing the other two rebels. He was unwilling to commit the act, begging to be put to death instead. Forni and Massiadoli persuaded him to proceed and he reluctantly hanged his two fellow colonists.
The revolt did not bring about improvement, and the settlers continued to die. By the end of the first year 450 men, women and children were reported dead.
Conditions continued to worsen as Turnbull and his partners strove to make the plantation a successful business venture. Money was available only for improvement to projects of economic interest, not the living conditions of the colonists. The settlers continued to work and struggle, believing that some day they would receive freedom and property. For a time in the early 1770’s the plantation produced crops. Some profits were realized in 1771 and 1773, but colonists were not given enough food, clothing or medical care. Even when the settlement improved economically, living conditions deteriorated. During the final years of this brief settlement the British were involved in other struggles. Lieutenant Governor John Moultrie replaced Governor Grant, Turnbull’s friend. Disputes between Moultrie and Turnbull made the situations more difficult and complicated the possibilities of aiding the colonists.
In 1774, Patrick Tonyn, the new governor, arrived. He was well aware of the colonists problems. Unfortunately, he was unable to assist them because many political and government financial difficulties and disagreements seemed to take precedence. The importance of the the settlement was rapidly diminishing. By this time, the colonists had worked more years than they had contracted; they had not received the promised land nor freedom. They realized they must escape in order to survive.
Exodus to St. Augustine
Legend records that visitors to Turnbull’s plantation house remarked that the colonists legally could not be forced to remain in such servitude. Overhearing this, the colonists held meetings to decide what to do. In March 1777, three unidentified men secretly left the colony. They walked and swam 75 miles to St. Augustine to explain their
plight to Governor Patrick Tonyn.
Tonyn was sympathetic. He asked for written statements attesting to the atrocities and the colonists agreed to supply the documentation of their years of turmoil. In mid-April a group of about 90 men, women and children led by a Minorcan Francisco Pellicer, marched to St. Augustine. Tonyn agreed to hear depositions against those accused of injustices.
During May and June 1777, approximately 600 colonists walked to St. Augustine.
Although many hopes and dreams had been shattered, the survivors of the New Smyrna odyssey eagerly met the challenge of starting a new life in St. Augustine.