Recently, multiple people have asked me to write about the Greek colony in New Smyrna, Florida in the 1760s. Today, I’m doing just that, but I have to admit, I’ve been rather hesitant. Unlike many of the subjects I tackle here at OrthodoxHistory.org, the New Smyrna story is pretty well-known, especially among Greeks, who call it, “Our Plymouth Rock.” Many of you out there could cover this subject better than I can; but, given its significance in the hearts of Greek Americans, I’ll offer my own take on New Smyrna.
Here’s a very brief version of the story, from an official press release in 2008:
In April of 1768, 1400 pilgrims left their homes in Smyrna, Mani, Crete, Italy, Corsica and Minorca to escape poverty and oppression. They sailed for the New World with Dr. Andrew Turnbull, entrepreneur and servant to the English Crown. He offered hope and freedom in return for seven years of indentured service. Two months later, they arrived in the port of town of St. Augustine. Over 200 of their fellow travelers died en route.
After registering with the harbormaster and taking on additional supplies, they sailed 75 miles south to establish an indigo plantation, calling it New Smyrna. History documents the colonists’ 10-year struggle and the eventual escape of less than 300 survivors who fled on foot to St. Augustine where they found refuge and justice.
First of all, I should point out that only a minority of the New Smyrna colonists were Greek — around 500. Of course, the Greeks were Orthodox, which has led some to claim that the New Smyrna colony — which predates the Russian mission to Alaska by a quarter century — marks the true beginning of Orthodoxy in America. For instance, here’s Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew just a couple of months ago:
Our Orthodox Christian faith has lived and thrived in this nation for generations, from the first Greeks who came to New Smyrna in the 18th Century, to the first Orthodox parish in America in New Orleans, which was founded in 1863, and flourishes to this day and which we have just visited for the second time.
And here is Fr. Thomas FitzGerald, in an article on the Greek Archdiocese website: “In our Western Hemisphere, the Orthodox Church has been developing into a valuable presence and distinctive witness for more than two hundred years. The first Greek Orthodox Christians arrived in the New World in 1768, establishing a colony near the present city of St. Augustine, Florida. […] The next group of Orthodox Christians to emerge on the American Continent were the Russian fur traders in the Aleutian Islands. They, too, made a great contribution.”
As is noted above, when the New Smyrna colony was disbanded, the 200 or so remaining settlers moved to St. Augustine, where they were absorbed into the local community. One of the few surviving bits of information about the colonists in St. Augustine is the fact that they took possession of a building called Avero House. They used this building for prayer and fellowship. In 1965, the Greek Archdiocese purchased Avero House, and in 1982, they converted it into St. Photios National Shrine. It’s now a pilgrimage site and museum.
All of this raises the question, was this the first Orthodox church in America? No, it was not. From Albert Manucy in the Florida Historical Quarterly (Jan. 1977): “[Avero House] became a religious meeting place for Minorcan, Italian, and Greek settlers from their abandoned plantation at New Smyrna, shepherded by their Roman Catholic priest, Pedro Camps.” [Emphasis mine.] Camps established a Roman Catholic church, “San Pedro,” in Avero House. Among the terms used by locals to describe the parish was, “the Greek church.”
Did the New Smyrna Greeks really follow a Roman Catholic priest? Maybe; maybe not. But to say that this place is a landmark for American Orthodox history is misleading. The New Smyrnans did not have an Orthodox priest. They didn’t start an Orthodox parish. Their descendants didn’t go on to make a mark on the later history of Orthodoxy (or Hellenism) in America. The colony is an interesting story, and when that story is told well, it can be riveting. But as far as American Orthodox history goes, it’s largely irrelevant. It can’t be even remotely compared with the Russian fur traders in Alaska, since those traders kept their Orthodox faith, converted native Alaskans, and directly laid the groundwork for future Alaskan Orthodoxy. The New Smyrna Greeks didn’t lay the groundwork for Orthodoxy in America. They are people who happened to be Orthodox.
Is New Smyrna even a significant moment in Greek American history? Is the nickname, “Our Plymouth Rock,” appropriate? I don’t think it is. Plymouth Rock refers, of course, to the arrival of the Mayflower and the subsequent founding of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. That colony lasted for over 70 years, until it merged with the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The descendants of the original colonists now number in the millions, and they include eight US Presidents. The landing of the Mayflower, and the events that followed, played a crucial role in American history in general.
In contrast, New Smyrna lasted only a handful of years, and has virtually nothing to do with later Greek American history. The real “Plymouth Rock” for Greek Americans is not New Smyrna but New York — Ellis Island.
That isn’t to say that the St. Photios Shrine isn’t a worthwhile place. The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York, because of a long-debunked myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in that town. Even though we now know that the Doubleday story is totally false, there’s no need to move the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown, I’m told, is a great place for the museum, and debunking the Doubleday myth doesn’t imply disrespect to baseball itself.
Likewise, when I say that New Smyrna means next to nothing for American Orthodox history, I don’t mean to disparage Greek Americans, the Greek Archdiocese, or the St. Photios Shrine, which I would love to visit one day. All I am saying is that New Smyrna, while interesting, is not a significant landmark in American Orthodox history. I’m certainly willing to have my mind changed on this, but at the moment, that is my position.