Historical Highlights of New Smyrna’s Past

IMG_7341The Foundation For The New Smyrna Museum Of History In Southeast Volusia County, Inc.
1982 St. Rd. 44, # 157 * New Smyrna Beach, FL 32168

One of the best kept “secrets” in Florida is that New Smyrna is a reservoir of history encompassing thousands of years. However, the “secret” is known by historians and archaeologists! New Smyrna is also one of the oldest European settled communities in Florida. It is, in fact, documented as the third oldest, founded in 1768 by Dr. Andrew Turnbull during the British Colonial Period. To date, only St. Augustine and Pensacola are recognized as older.

NATIVE PEOPLES The Pre-Columbian history of New Smyrna begins thousands of years ago with the Native Peoples who lived and thrived here as hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. The Timucuan Indians, who had a highly developed, complex social system, were a strong and aristocratic tribe in this area for hundreds of years until Ponce de Leon, the Spanish adventurer, arrived. These handsome Timucuans are most often described as tall and strong. The women wore clothing made of Spanish moss. The male leaders were heavily tattooed and wore their hair in “top knots”, smoothed with bear grease. They wore ornaments of feathers, shell, bone and fish bladders. The Timucuans were an imaginative people, also using shell and bone to make items like dippers, axes, scrapers, and spear points. Baskets and fabrics were made of palmetto leaves, pine needles and bear grease, and their medical practices equaled those in the Old World.

Evidence of their lives here is still evident in numerous Indian middens (shell mounds) and burial sites. During the day, the Timucuans collected and hunted small game, fish, and shellfish. Later in the day ,the tribe gathered at places like Turtle Mound and the mound in “Old Fort” Park in New Smyrna to cook, to eat, to socialize, and to conduct ceremonies together. Used as a navigational aide for centuries, Turtle Mound, south of New Smyrna Beach, is now a Florida State Historic Memorial, which covers an estimated two acres and is 50 feet high. Many generations of Timucuans left behind evidence to speak of their lives at Turtle Mound. Sadly within 200 years of Ponce de Leon’s landing here in 1513, the strong Timucuan population had vanished. Many were not defeated in battle with the Spanish, but by the plagues of measles, malaria, and smallpox brought by the Europeans. Contact with the Europeans led to the rapid disappearance of the 40,000 Timucuan people and their culture. Some survivors are said to have joined the Seminole tribe; others left with the Spanish.

LA INFLUENCIA DE ESPANA Juan Ponce de Leon came to the Americas in search of land, gold, and fame, but perhaps most of all for the “Fountain of Youth”. This rumor, told to Ponce de Leon by Indians, was used to keep him moving away from Indian lands. Ponce de Leon, landing at New Smyrna’s Ponce de Leon Inlet in 1513, was seeking his “Fountain of Youth” but instead was met by the fierce Surruque Tribe, a branch of the Timucuans. The Spanish first named Ponce de Leon Inlet, Mosquito Inlet, no doubt because of the infamous mosquitoes in our area. Later, in response to Florida’s real estate “boom” of the 1920’s, the inlet was renamed Ponce de Leon Inlet in 1927. From ancient times, Ponce de Leon Inlet has remained a significant geographical point.

PIRATES ! Some truly fascinating individuals – Civil War blockade runners, Prohibition boat captains, and drug smugglers have frequented Ponce de Leon Inlet! During the 1600’s, Ponce de Leon Inlet was possibly a haven for the English pirates, who attacked the Spanish colony of St. Augustine at that time. Sir Francis Drake, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, was one such pirate. New Smyrna was described as “a safe port for the English privateers to slip into; here they could, with all ease, lurk for the rich Spanish ships coming from Havana through the Gulf of Florida.” In 1682 Spanish Governor Cabrera in St. Augustine reported that the English had killed 10 Indians at Mosquito Inlet and had taken fifteen others as slaves to be used as divers. This was notable because the English used Indians to recover treasure from sunken Spanish Galleons.

TURNBULL’S ENTERPRISE In 1763 after 250 years of Spanish rule , Florida came under English rule. The English divided Florida into two provinces. West Florida’s capital was Pensacola, and East Florida’s capital was St. Augustine. The British Government encouraged colonization by offering large land grants for the production of cotton, hemp, indigo, and silk in order to fuel the Industrial Revolution going on in England. Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scot enticed by the possibility of wealth and power, organized the largest attempt at British colonization in the New World. The New Smyrna Colony, founded in 1768, encompassed some 101,400 acres and was nearly three times the size of the colony at Jamestown.

Turnbull married Gracia Dura Bin while traveling in Asia Minor. Gracia was the daughter of a wealthy Smyrna merchant, and the colony here was named in honor of her birthplace. This largest group of colonists to reach the North American Continent included some 1200 people. The colonists agreed to work for Turnbull for seven years of indentured service in exchange for 50 acres of land at the end of that time. The group consisted of 200 Greeks, 120 Sicilians and Italians, as well as several hundred Minorcans, with each ethnic group bringing its own language and culture.

The Turnbull colonists gathered in Minorca and boarded eight ships bound for the New World on March 31, 1768. During the rough, three month, sea journey, 148 people died en route. When the colonists arrived, they were shocked to find that Turnbull had brought provisions for a group of only 400 to 600 people, not 1,255! Living conditions were wretched. The land had to be cleared before farming could even begin. Food was scarce; work was hard, and the mosquito bites, yellow fever, and malaria were unforgiving. In the first year 300 adults and 150 children died. In three years close to 700, over half, of the colonists had perished. Amazingly however, in the third year, against all obstacles, against all logic, the colonists produced a bountiful harvest. Between 1771 and 1777, 43,283 pounds of indigo with other crops were exported from the wharves of the New Smyrna plantation. Indigo, a plant used to make blue dye, was then in demand in England and was bringing prices as high as a dollar a pound, more than a pound of gold! The colony was becoming successful!

TURNBULL’S “EGYPTIAN” CANALS Turnbull, a physician and an entrepreneur, traveled extensively and was greatly impressed by the Egyptian irrigation system of canals. Turnbull’s colonists built a similar system of canals that continues to criss-cross our community today. This unique irrigation/drainage system was new in North America. Digging the dirt trenches and lining them with coquina rock quarried in the area was back-breaking work for the colonists, but the system produced more fertile farmland, drained mosquito breeding swamps, and provided transportation.

Three of the canals from this time period are still quite evident. One is the canal that runs under our present day main street, appropriately called Canal Street. This lovely canal was covered over in 1924 to make room for a wider street and side walks. One remaining visible canal is the canal that runs behind the houses on Myrtle Avenue and through the Myrtle Avenue Park. Another is the canal running along 10th. Street, dividing the communities of New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater.

‘Old time’ residents remember the Myrtle Avenue Canal as crystal clear: “You could see the sandy bottom. It was much wider and deeper than it is today. The boys in the neighborhood used to swing on vines across it and would drop into the water to swim. At times the water would rush through, like a river with a strong current, and sometimes the Myrtle Avenue Canal was even hazardous.”

THE “MYSTERY” RUINS One of the greatest mysteries of Old New Smyrna is the identity of the ruins in “Old Fort” Park. Are the ruins the remains of a Spanish fortress built in the 1500’s by Menendez de Aviles, as was the premise of John Detwiler, historian and first editor of the New Smyrna Breeze newspaper? Other theories abound. Is the structure a foundation for the Turnbull’s Palace, or the beginnings of a Catholic Church, or a Turnbull period warehouse? The structure’s exterior buttresses and walls of “three foot thick” coquina, clearly remind one of Spanish forts along the Florida Coast; however, only historical and archaeological work can answer this question.

Another question that has been discussed in relation to Old New Smyrna’s past is the identity of the coquina ruins at the Old Sugar Mill, once called “The Old Mission”. This controversy began in 1894 when an anonymous newspaper writer claimed that because of the religious architecture of these ruins, these ruins were possibly built by Columbus! Later, historian Jeanette Connor’s research indicated that these ruins were possibly the remains of the Spanish Franciscan Mission, Atocuimi. However, the only documentation on the ruins is the construction of a sugar mill begun in 1830 by William Kemble for Depeyster and Cruger on land purchased from the estate of Ambrose Hull. Shortly after the sugar mill was completed, the seven-year Seminole War broke out, and the sugar mill was burned in December of 1835. The area is now a State Historic Site.

THE KING’S ROAD & OLD STONE WHARF The King’s Highway, cleared in 1632 by following Indian trails, is one of the first roads in the New World.. Turnbull’s colonists widened the road to 30 feet through thick Florida woods and swamp. The highway begins at the St. Mary’s River, runs through St. Augustine, and ends in New Smyrna. Portions of this road can still be found today.

On the water in the center of the Turnbull colony settlement of New Smyrna, Dr. Turnbull had a stone wharf built by the Mediterranean colonists. This wharf, one of Turnbull’s earliest public works, was constructed of coquina. This material, easily cut and readily available, is formed from deposits of corals and shells in the ocean. Coquina is the same material used to build the ruins at “Old Fort” Park, the “Spanish Mission” or “Old Sugar Mill”, the fort in St. Augustine, and other forts along Florida’s coast. Water transportation was vital to the Turnbull plantations as road transportation was not as fast, safe, or reliable. The wharf was necessary for the import and export of goods. It is still possible, at low tide, to go to Clinch Street in New Smyrna and catch a glimpse of the Old Stone Wharf and consider how it may have looked years ago.

THE COLONY’S DEMISE The story varies greatly; however, either Turnbull’s partners did not meet their obligations, or Turnbull neglected his colonists terribly. Without doubt, political scheming, financial difficulties, the American Revolution, and the termination of the colonists’ indentures all led to the fall of the New Smyrna colony. Ninety colonists, led by Xavier Pellicer, walked to St. Augustine in May of 1777. The men accused Turnbull of cruelty, ill-treatment by overseers, and murder. Governor Patrick Tonyn freed them from their indentures, and most of the colonists abandoned New Smyrna.

The Turnbull colonists left much behind, however. Today many residents in Volusia County, Flagler County, and St. John’s County proudly trace their family trees to these settlers in the Turnbull colony. Old family recipes, like those for datil pepper sauce, pilau, and clam chowder, are still cherished and enjoyed by the families of these early colonists as part of their heritage .

THE SEMINOLE INDIAN WAR Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819 to be exchanged for $5,000,000. Eleven years later the U.S. ordered that all Indians be deported from their homelands to west of the Mississippi River. Five years later the Indians rebelled, and the Seminole Indian War began. During the Seminole Indian War (1835 – 1842), the buildings in New Smyrna were burned by Indians. Although malaria was rampant, Fort New Smyrna was established close to Lytle Avenue. No obvious signs remain today; however, history is there.

THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES On March 24, 1862, the sounds of another war, The War Between the States, were heard in New Smyrna. The area contained a number of salt works, so important to the Confederate soldiers and their families. As one of the most active blockade running ports in the South, New Smyrna was a convenient port for bringing in arms and supplies for the Southern forces. Numerous small boats ran the blockade to Nassau and Cuba, carrying cotton to be exchanged for quinine, needles, coffee, piece cloth and other articles.

Accordingly, the port was blockaded by two federal vessels, The Penguin and The Henry Andrews. This led to a fray at Turnbull’s Old Stone Wharf. When six small boats were seen coming from the Union ships, Florida’s Third Regiment, under Captain Strain, attacked the Union force that had destroyed some salt works. Although the Confederate troops suffered no casualties, eight Union sailors were killed. The next day a Confederate captain returned the bodies of the two Union officers killed, along with their personal effects.

In July of 1863, in what Southerners consider a retaliatory move, two Federal vessels suddenly appeared off New Smyrna’s shores. Without notice they began to bombard the city for two days. The “Old Stone Wharf” and the 40-room hotel/home of Jane Sheldon were destroyed. This structure, built on the foundations seen today in “Old Fort” Park, had just been completed in 1859.




15,000 - 500 Pre-Columbian Period - first
 evidence of man in the New
 Smyrna area


1492 Columbus discovers the New
1513 Ponce de Leon discovers "La

1565 - 1763 First Spanish Period

1763 Timucuan Indian Period ends

1764 - 1783 British Colonial Period

1768 New Smyrna Founded

1776 The Revolutionary War begins

1777 Turnbull's New Smyrna colony 

1784 - 1821 Second Spanish Period

1821 - 1845 Territorial Period

1835 - 1842 Seminole Indian War - New
 Smyrna burned by Indians 

1845 Florida becomes a state

1861 - 1865 The War Between the States

The Foundation for the New Smyrna Museum of History
thanks you for your help in Securing Our Future by Preserving Our Past

Dolores Maylone – Editor
The Foundation For The New Smyrna Museum Of History In Southeast Volusia County, Inc.
1982 St. Rd. 44, # 157 * New Smyrna Beach, FL 32168