Greeks in Florida, 1768

Avero House (now St. Photios National Shrine) in St. Augustine, Florida

Avero House (now St. Photios National Shrine) in St. Augustine, Florida

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, 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.

Statue of Fr. Pedro Camps, Roman Catholic priest of the New Smyrna colony

Statue of Fr. Pedro Camps, Roman Catholic priest of the New Smyrna colony

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.

7 Replies to “Greeks in Florida, 1768”

  1. If only 500 of the original 1400 Smyrnaen, Manian, Cretean Italian, Corsican and Minorcan settlers were ethnically Greek, and 200 of the total died en route to the New World, and only 200 – 300 survived the New Smyrna colony, then how many Greeks returned to St. Augustine to join the Avero House community? Were a proportion of the emigrant Greeks already Roman or Uniate Catholic – there were areas of the Greek world that were under Catholic political and religious control at various points in history? I don’t know enough of the history of “Smyrna, Mani, Crete, Italy, Corsica and Minorca” or their Greek inhabitants in the 18th century to say. Do the numbers you provide coming from a manifest that details the emigrants’ religious affiliation as well as their names and points of departure?

  2. “Of course, the Greeks were Orthodox”

    Actually, no, they weren’t, starting with Mrs. Turnboll, a uniate from Smyrna who got Fr. Pedro for the community.

    As you point out, this story has been written, e.g. “New Smyrna: An Eighteenth Century Greek Odyssey” by E.P. Panagapoulos. Holy Cross Orthodox Press 1978, which points out that the Cretan Demetrios Fundulakis (/Fundulache/Tudelache/Pedulach: like all Greek names it varies in the sources) was indentified in the Spanish census of 1783 as “of the Greek Church,” the sole reference to Orthodoxy in the community, which is a rather well documented one.

    The bulk of Turnboll’s Greeks came from Corsica, where the Greek community had submitted to the Vatican nearly as century ago. Another source was the Mani peninsula, whence the Corsican Greeks had come a century earlier. There is a good chance that these Greeks had not yet submitted to the Vatican, but there is no evidence on that. It is now a very traditional Orthodox region, but had been under Venetian control (until a half century before the colony) and had a history of turning to Venice, the Vatican and others in West for aid. There could have been some Orthodox originally among the Minorcans-the British had settled and protected a colony of Greek Orthodox (“divide and conquer”)-but given the intermarrige with the Italians etc. happening even before the ships set sail, that is questionable.

    Turnbull, because of intrigues from the Ottoman officials and the French consul etc. wasn’t able to fill up with Greeks in Smyrna. One who did join, Papi Gaspar, was also a uniate (his famly name persisted into the middle of the twentieth century).

    When the Spanish came back in 1783 (a result of Florida declining to send representatives to the Continental Congress and the Treaty of Paris, sealing American independence) the numbers were 469, including 97 married couples. The new governor received a memorial signed by 29 “Greeks and Italians,” and another signed by 50 Minorcans who identifed themselves as “Catholics and natural born Spanish subjects.” So in the very most, we are dealing it seems with around a hundred Greeks. Given the data (location, intermarriage), we may be only dealing with one Orthodox Greek and his son (and his wife, the widow of a Greek from Corsica and therefore more likely uniate). Panagopoulos’ epilogue surveys the community in about dozen or so Greek names.

    I made the drive from New Smyrna to St. Augustine (and Jacksonville/For Caroline and Fort Matanzas) last November, and it is a lovely stretch. New Smyrna Beach has remains of the colony still to be seen, and the only discordant note was the aggressively secular tone of the monument set up by the Greek community. Although I don’t get how the St. Photios shrine is a shrine, and what it has to do with St. Photios, it is a charming town, and I highly recommend the trip.

    I would like to know what happened to Fundulakis’ son and his descendants.

    Although I don’t think it important for Orthodox history, it is for Greek American. The Greek Giannopoulos started the oldest one room school house in America, which still stands in St. Augustine, and his descendants were otherwise outstanding descendants of the new republic.

  3. Thanks for this information, Isa. I haven’t read the Panagapoulos book, but I would like to. I appreciate your corrections.

  4. A sad comment, a century after the settlement, it seems the Greek component was quite forgotten. Florida: its climate, soil, and productions: with a sketch of its history … By Florida. Commissioner of lands and immigration. 1869:

    “In 1767 Doct. Turnbull, an English colonist located at New Smyrna, imported fifteen hundred Corsicans and Minorcans having deluded them by unstinted promises of land and employment at high wages, and then subjected them to a system of oppression, similar and scarce less severe than slavery, till after the lapse of some ten years, they escaped in a body from his servitude, and betook themselves to St. Augustine, where they set tied down and ultimately beeame a prominent and valuable element of the population of that section…


    most delicious crown all our productions and become our specialty. The fame of ” Florida oranges ” has reached most of the Northern markets, giving them the preference to all others. This fame has created a new era in their culture, eliciting a large outlay of capital and labor in different parts of the State. None fear an overstock in the market, since they bring the highest prices where they ane best known and most abundant. But if Florida oranges command the highest prices, what shall we say of the ” Smyrna and Indian river oranges,” which are first inquired for in our own markets, where they are in such great demand that they scarcely escape to the more Northern ? The name of Smyrna and Indian river attaching to this fruit as indicative of its superior excellence, naturally suggests this region as the choicest for orange culture; and justifies our conviction that one who visits this place and considers its many advantages will not readily reject it for another. As to what part of Indian river is most favorable for orange culture we are unable as yet to determine. We see no difference in the quality of the fruit produced. The southern portion is slightly less frosty, but not so accessible, and insects are more troublesomer the country is less settled; the means of communication are not so good; the combinations of soil and formations of the land are less favorable.

    In order to justify our preference for the Halifax and Hillsborough as a residence, and especially for the cultivation of oranges, it is necessary to re-state some of these facts more fully:…

    Third. A range of most excellent hammock lands, extending the whole length of these rivers and from one to’two miles in width, lies just back of the high light lands above referred to, and about one mile from the west bank of the river. The soil of these hammocks is a very rich sandy loam and humus from six to eighteen inches in depth, resting on a deep substratum of marl. In these hammocks there are many wild orange groves of large extent and exceedingly valuable. Some of these have been improved where they are, and from others trees have been removed for transplanting and budding. Most of them remain undisturbed, where they grow luxuriantly and bear profusely. These rich lands, so admirably situated, with other natural advantages and attractions of the country, invited the attention of the earliest European immigrants. Soon after Florida was ceded to England by Spain in 1763, such men as Lords Hawke, Egmont, Greenville, and Hillsboro’, Sir William Duncan, and Dr. Turnbull, from England, Governor Drayton, with Major Moultrie and Richard Oswald, from South Carolina, also Bisset, Taylor, Penman, McLean, with many others famous in history, took up extensive tracts and improved them at great expense, raising with much profit indigo, rice, tobacco, and other crops; in 1772 they exported $100,000 worth of indigo. Sir William Duncan planted a colony of 1,800 people at New Smyrna, and cut three large canals from the river into the hammock lauds, draining some ten square miles, and putting several thousand acres under a high state of cultivation, from which they reaped large profits. These settlements suffered greatly by the war of the American Revolution, and were completely broken up by the recession of the country to Spain in 1783. Most of the English settlers refusing to become Spanish subjects, left the country. The Spanish Government which succeeded that of England caused the whole country south of St. Augustine to be abandoned to the Indians until 1803, when the Spanish Governor, White, an Irishman, hostile to American settlers, induced some Englishmen from the Bahamas to settle at New Smyrna by offering them large grants of laud. These and other settlements in this section suffered greatly, and were finally broken up by the Indians and American filibusters in 1812, during the war between/ America and England, leaving all East Florida a scene of universal desolation. In 1819 the country passed from Spanish anarchy to American’ border-ruffianism and military dictation, spite of which the old improvements were renewed with considerable energy. Most of the old plantations from Bulow southward were reopened—canals, ditches, and roads repaired, large sugar-mills erected, extensive fields of cotton and sugar-cane planted, such as Bulow’s, Dummitt’s, Andrew’s and others, at the head of the Halifax. Further south on the same river were the Armstrong, Simmons, Harriet, Williams, Dunn Lawton, and others. Hunter, Stamp, HcCarty, and others opened on the Hillsborough. Their prosperity was flattering, but their hopes were soon cut off, their improvements destroyed, and themselves driven from the country, which they left a blackened waste to the merciless savage tribes which swept over it like a hurricane in 1836. Succeeding this, a long period of uncertainty and fear prevented the return and resettlement. About 1847 a few herdsmen and some more permanent settlers began to venture in, making, however, no efforts to renew extensive planting operations, except at the Dunn Lawton sugarplantation, and this, by gross mismanagement, proved a failure. Nearly all existing buildings and other improvements were demolished during the late war, but at its close


    The natural resources and advantages of the country, always too conspicuous to be long overlooked, elicited the attention of enterprising men from every State, who had learned by report and the writings of such men as James Grant Forbes, in his ” Historical and Topographical Sketches of Florida,” 1821, that ” the land in this quarter has always had the reputation of being very rich, and adapted to the most advantageous culture.” Some came single-handed, others attempted to bring colonies, both of negroes and of whites. All, without exception, managed badly—some very badly. Colonies proved a failure. Individuals impracticable, unaccustomed to endure hardship and privation, altogether unfitted for pioneer life, became discouraged and left. Few remained and more came, and from the persistent efforts of these we are able to present


    which the Halifax offers in present settlement over anything south of New Smyrna, on the Hillsborough. Both sides of the Halifax are mostly settled up from one extremity to the other. We first call attention to the main centres of settlement, viz.: Port Orange on the west bank of the river, four miles north of the inlet, and to which vessels drawing seven feet of water have free access. Here is a hotel, store, post-office, and several dwellings, with new buildings going up, including one for schools, church, and town hall The place is agreeably situated, with an open river in front and a shore free from marsh. The lands, with a slight exception, are high, dry, and healthy, and may be purchased in lots large and small, suitable for buildings, gardens, and orange groves. Adjoining this on the north is the famous Dunn Lawton plantation of a thousand acres, with extensive improvements of canals, ditches, roads, clearings, and buildings, all or part of which may be bought cheap, with a perfect title. This plantation contains thousands of wild orange trees, with some very fine sweet bearing trees, and is capable of vielding an ample support to an hundred families. Port Orange is an enterprising and fast-growing place, and will doubtless double its inhabitants the coming winter.


    six miles north of Port Orange, is a new and promising place, laid out regularly in lots, small and large, upon a large tract called the Williams’ Grant, which was highly improved as a sugar plantation, but completely broken up and abandoned in the Indian war of 1835. This colony was started in 1870, but suffered greatly by the bad management of the proprietor and the impracticable character of the first settlers. It has, however, gradually improved, and now assumes a very prosperous and healthy aspect. It has thirty dwelling-houses, a hotel, which has lately passed into the hands of a new and enterprising settler, who is fitting it up in excellent style for the coming winter. Here is also a post-office, a store, and a saw-mill, with some fine gardens containing promising fruit trees. Considerable enterprise is manifested in building, clearing, fencing, and planting out orange trees. The river in front is half a mile wide. The shore is clean and sandy. The lands in front are excellent, high at the water’s edge, sloping as they recede for a short distance, thence rising to a high ridge, thence again sloping back into excellent hammocks, bordered by pine lands, back of which, and a mile from the fiver, commences the range of rich marl hammock, into which two large canals were formerly opened. These lands include every variety of soil, and are well adapted to farming, gardening, to the culture of oranges, grapes, figs, and various other fruits. The Harriet tract north of this has been divided, and a part of it at least is for sale in lots to suit purchasers. Most of the lands of this tract are well situated and of excellent quality. They were formerly improved as a sugar plantation, and are well adapted to oranges and other fruits. The tract south of Dayto a is also divided up into lots, some of which contain wild groves, and may be purchased at reasonable rates.


    on the Hillsborough, four miles south of the inlet, is a beautiful and healthy place, famous for the Turnbull settlement a hundred years ago. Here the lands are very rich to the water’s edge, and have formerly been extensively improved. All the buildings were destroyed in the late war, since which the place has gradually improved. Several dwelling-houses have been built. A large and commodious hotel has been erected and furnished for the accommodation of winter boarders. It is usually well filled and very popular. There is also a store and post-office ;vessels of the largest size crossing the bar come up to this place without obstruction, and its prospects for the future are very encouraging. To all our post-offices mails arrive twice a week. These come by the way of Enterprise, on the St. Johns river. Besides the mail team there are usually from three to six others ready to carry passengers at call.

    A few individual cases taken from different sections show the capacities of the various soils and the achievements of some of our settlers:

    First case. That of Luke Bryant, an old Floridian planter from the Gulf hammock, settled on a homestead six years ago four miles west of New Smyrna. His lands cover the west edge of the rich hammocks improved by Dr. Turnbull, and the east edge of the pine lands beyond. He began without a dollar ; built a good log-house on a pine ridge, where he finds pure water and a healthy atmosphere, free from mosquitoes. In the yard about his house he has planted sixty-eight sour orange trees, which he budded two, three, and four years ago. Those four years old have sweet stems nearly four inches in diameter,, supporting tops which average twelve feet each way, and have from 100 to 400 oranges each. Those three and two years old have equally fine tops, and are nearly all in fruit. some supporting 300 oranges. In his hammock, which is a sandy loam resting on cream-colored marl, and through which a deep canal runs, he has 330 trees. One hundred budded three years ago have sweet stems three inches in diameter, with tops ten, twelve, and even fourteen feet high, and full of fruit; 100 budded one year ago have sweet tops proportionately large; 130 set last March and budded this season are doing well. He says all his trees bear at eighteen months; that he makes forty bushels of corn to the acre on his hammock lands, and after cow-penning his pine lands he makes good corn, and from 200 to 300 bushels of po. tatoes to the acre; that five years ago he made a thousand bushels on three acres, and that two men with a horse will plant a half acre in a, day, and dig the same in another day; they require no hoeing. This gives about twenty-five bushels of potatoes to the day’s work after the land is cow-penned. Last spring he refused an offer of 85,000 for his place. He thinks any man who is willing to work and will stick to it may take up a homestead, make an orange grove and a good living, and in a few years become independent.”

    The historic source metioned above in 1821 does mention Greek and Smyrna in passing:
    “The proclamation of Governor Grant, together with the policy of the British government at home, brought some respectable planters from Carolina, among whom was Major Moultrie, afterwards Lieutenant Governor of the province, and William Drayton, Esq. the Chief Justice. At the same time, several noblemen in England, among whom were Lords Hawke, Egmont, Grenville, and Hillsborough, became the grantees of large tracts of land; and being desirous of improving them, sent out agents with suitable means. None of these effected so much toward the population and settlement of the country as Sir William Duncan, Doctor Turnbull, Dennys Rolle, and Richard Oswald, Esqrs. The two former, in company, having, at the vast expense of 166,000 dollars, and much trouble, brought from Smyrna, under indentures, 1,500 Greeks, Italians, and Minorcans, who formed a settlement sixty miles south of St. Augustine, and called it New Smyrna, where the cultivation of indigo, and other products, incuding the sugar cane, was carried on with success ; particularly the former.

    This site, which is truly admirable, is surrounded by some of the most valuable lands in the province, and is at present the property of Judge Hull, who had resided upon it for several years, with much satisfaction, until driven away by the effects of the revolution of 1812, when his attachment to the great American family rendered him an object of suspicion on the part of the royalists, who accordingly imprisoned him for a short time.”

    A correction of the Hellenocentric views of Panagapoulos is claimed in “The Minorcans of Florida: their history, language, and culture” by Philip Rasico. “Fromajadas and indigo: the Minorcan colony in Florida” By Kenneth Henry Beeson
    makes the interesting observation (which I have seen documented elsewhere) that for the priest that Madame Turnbull had procured for the colony “the question of ecclesiastical jurisdiction had to answered before the colony sailed for East Florida,” this, in the uniform and monolithic hiearcy of the Vatican. The Vatican told them to report to the bishop in Florida, not realizing, that since Spain had ceded it to the British, the bishop in Havana, who had jurisdiction previously, had it no longer. Fr. Pedro and his assistant were made apostolic missionaries of the Vatican.

  5. The history of the American Episcopal Church, 1587-1883, Volume 2
    By William Stevens Perry

    “Woodmason, in his “account of East Florida, made in 1766,”a says curtly ” that no face or appearance of religion is there to be seen,” and certainly nothing was accomplished the results of which were apparent on the cession of Florida to the United States. Still, the services of the English Church were maintained at the first in a building which stood on the ” old church lot” which had been the site of a bishop’s palace under the Spanish rule, and were afterwards held in a church situated on George street, which had been repaired and fitted up for the ministrations of the Rev. Mr. Forbes. The lauds lying at the north of the city, from the gates to the outer lines of the fortifications, were given to the church by Governor Grant as a glebe. For some time, we are told, previous to the recession of the province to Spain, a number of members of the Greek Church attended the services of the English Church. These Greek Christians were part of a colony introduced by an English company from Minorca, Majorca, the Grecian Islands, and Smyrna, and were first located about sixty miles to the southward of the city, where they built a town, calling it “New Smyrna.” After nine years of servitude their grievances were redressed by the British authorities, and their freedom declared. Removing to St. Augustine, they were incorporated among the inhabitants, and their descendants still form a considerable portion of the native residents.

    When the province was ceded to Spain, in 1783, there was an immediate cessation of Protestant worship. The Episcopal Church was torn down and the stones used in the erection of a Romish place of worship. A German church at a settlement called Tolomata shared the same fate.

    But, while the Church seemed extinct, there were, here and there, individuals who still clung to the worship of God in the use of our liturgy, and in one instance the morning prayer was regularly used by a large family of churchmen during forty-five years.

    In July, 1821, Florida was ceded to the United States, and almost immediately the American residents of St. Augustine determined to secure the service of a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church. On the 20th of October, 1821, the Rev. Andrew Fowler, of the diocese of South Carolina, and acting under the appointment of a missionary organization of lhat diocese, entered upon his labors. Mr. Fowler continued in charge of the mission at St. Augustine until May, 1823. He was succeeded by the Rev. Mellish J. Motte, who remained but seven months. The Rev. Dr., afterward Bishop, Gadsden ministered to the little congregation during the months of October and November, 1824. He was succeeded by the Rev. E. Phillips in the spring of 1825, and he in turn by the Rev. Philip Gadsden, each remaining but three months. With the departure of Mr. Gadsden efforts for the introduction of the Church ceased.”

    The Episcopalians did form themselves a diocese in Florida, choosing as its second primate John Freeman Young, the 1st Secretary of the PECUSA’s Russo-Greek Committee (instrumental in both Honcharenko’s career and in the Russians shying away from organizing North America as a diocese outright for decades.

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