However, the story of how they became an integral part of one of America’s oldest cities is harrowing and starts with a land grant made to an ambitious Scottish colonist, Dr Andrew Turnbull.
Menorca and Florida – A Shared History
The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War and control of Florida passed from Spain to Britain. When the British arrived in their newly acquired territory, they found it virtually unpopulated, and in an effort to cultivate and develop the area easy terms of settlement were offered to those who desired land grants. One such person was colonist, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish doctor. Turnbull negotiated a grant for land near present-day Daytona, about 60 miles south of St. Augustine and called his new colony New Smyrna. His wife being Greek, he planned to find around 500 Greek settlers from islands like Crete and Corfu to work the land, cultivating indigo, silk, cotton and vine plantations.
On the 1767 journey to Greece, Turnbull’s ship docked at the port of Mahon as Menorca was then under British possession. He delayed going to Greece and went first to Livorno, Italy where he recruited around 100 men interested in emigrating to the New World together with some Greeks from Levant. Having dropped them off in Menorca he went to Greece to recruit the rest of his workforce. When he returned to Menorca in 1768 with far fewer Greeks than he had hoped for due to intervention by Turkish authorities, he found that the Italian men had taken a liking to the Menorcan women and many were no longer single. Turnbull agreed to bring their new Menorcan brides to Florida as well as other Menorcan families, looking to escape from what then was then a harsh time in Menorcan history, and believed he would prosper further as a result. The Greeks, Italians and Menorcans were all signed up as indentured servants. Now with over 1,400 recruits, what Turnbull had planned as a colony of Greeks had turned out to be almost a colony of Menorcans…!
In April 1768, he sailed from Menorca with eight ships carrying a total of 1,403 settlers. This was the largest group of European settlers to immigrate as a single group to the New World. It probably didn’t take long for the poor Menorcans to wish they had never left their island. There were nearly three times as many colonists on the ship back to British East Florida than Turnbull had planned. On the journey, 148 died and when they reached New Smyrna, named after the Greek town where Turnbull’s wife was born, the colony wasn’t ready as Turnbull had promised.
It was swampland and the new colonists were forced to clear it. More than four hundred died in the first year alone. In the ensuing years they battled hunger, disease, Native Americans as well as terrible working conditions and cruelty.
After nine years of toiling under such harsh conditions and enduring even harsher treatment, their numbers had diminished dramatically. All the colonists had signed letters of indenture with Turnbull that they would work for a set number of years according to their skills, after which they would be released from the indenture and given a small plot of land. As the terms of indenture ended, they approached Turnbull for their discharge and land but invariably they were imprisoned and forced to sign new indentures.
These injustices led to a revolt and the colony failed. In 1777, a group of colonists walked to St. Augustine to petition the British governor, Patrick Tonyn. He launched an investigation that led to the demise of Dr Andrew Turnbull, and subsequently granted them liberation and gave them an area in the northwest section of the old walled city of St Augustine. Nearly 10 years after they arrived in New Smyrna, 964 original immigrants had died, leaving barely 600 adults and children to start again as free citizens.
A New Life in St Augustine
Francisco Pellicer led the first group of Menorcans to St. Augustine in the autumn of 1777. Here they were treated like second class citizens and given the worst part of the city to live in. They built their own community and kept themselves to themselves. Housing was scarce and the death rate was high, but once left to their own devices, the Menorcans began to recover.
In fact, the Menorcan’s arrival in St. Augustine came at a fortuitous time. The north part of the city was sparsely populated as many Spanish inhabitants had left under British rule. Although the American Revolutionary War (American War of Independence) was starting to bring an influx of loyalists into British East Florida, this enabled them to take up residence in abandoned houses and to also make use of garden plots north of the city walls prior to the population increase of the area.
As such, the Menorcans who had arrived in St. Augustine penniless finally became landowners and a number of families started to move to the beach along the northeast coast of St. Johns County to acquire property.
The end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 also secured East Florida as a Spanish crown colony once again as part of the Treaty of Paris. Despite having arrived under British rule, in order to re-populate the area, the Spanish were offering favourable terms for land grants and they were treated much better, so they stayed.
However, any peace was shortlived with the outbreak of the 1812 Florida Patriot War that witnessed the US invasion of Spanish East Florida by a private voluntary army to capture the area. The farms and plantations to the north of St. Augustine were especially hard hit by this war as bands of marauding patriots looted and burned many of the homesteads in the North Beach area. The Menorcans were forced to flee from their plantations, and seek protection within the city gates.
When the war came to an end in 1814, the Menorcans returned to their plantations in the North Beach area to find massive destruction. In an effort to be compensated for their devastating losses, many filed a Patriot War Claim, allowed under the Adams-Onís Treaty. However, the treaty didn’t come into effect until 1821 and as a result compensation was a long and complicated process, with many claimants receiving less than half of their original claim.
The late 1800s brought a great change as northern visitors discovered the mild and pleasant winters of Northeast Florida. Much of this development can be attributed to Henry Flagler, a real estate and railroad tycoon, who built magnificent hotels in St. Augustine and the eastern coast of Florida to house and entertain wealthy visitors to the area.
The Menorcans continued to live on their farms in the North Beach area into the early 20th century. Their subsistence style of farming and fishing allowed them to support their families and make a good living, demonstrating the resourcefulness of these hardy and determined people.
The same land that the Menorcans developed still sits between the North River and the Atlantic Ocean and few Menorcan families still live there. The farms are all gone and in their place are condominiums, including one exclusive development built at New Smyrna Beach some eight years ago called Minorca – The Lure of the Sea.
Modern Day Menorcans
According to historians and genealogists, the Menorcan survivors became the cornerstone of St. Augustine’s population having endured British and Spanish occupation as well as wars and unofficial US military expeditions prior to East and West Florida being acquired as an organised territory of the United States in 1822 following the Treaty of Adams-Onis. Florida eventually became the 27th state of the United States in 1845.
To this day, there is a strong memory in St Augustine of the Menorcan immigrants and their descendents, many of whom constitute some of the oldest and revered families having become an integral part of the city and St Johns County for more than two centuries. In fact, many original Menorcan names, such as Carrera, Arnau, Segui, Sintes, Ponce (Pons) and Capo continue to flourish both sides of the Atlantic. The people of the area still refer to these descendants as the ‘Menorcans’. There’s a ‘Menorcan Quarter’ as well as ‘Menorcan’ celebrations and even ‘Menorcan’ clam chowder! These are all testament to the strong cultural presence the group has maintained over the decades.
However, because the Menorcans were never thought of as high class citizens, they kept their language, traditions and family ties to themselves and so over the years these eventually became lost. Everyone knew who was Menorcan but no one ever spoke about it.
In the 1960s, XL Pellicer, a descendant of Francisco Pellicer, began the movement to bring Menorcan heritage to the public. He and a friend from Spain had a statue erected in honour of Father Pere Camps, who led his people from their Mediterranean homeland to make a better life in the New World, which stands in the courtyard of the Cathedral Basilica. This is a replica of the statue located in the church courtyard at Monte Toro in Menorca.
In the early 1980s, the Menorcan Cultural Society was founded to preserve and promote the history and culture of the Menorcans. Today, from those brave survivors who made the walk to St Augustine, there are well over 25,000 descendants living in St. Augustine alone, not to mention the many thousands who live throughout Florida and Georgia as well as all over the United States.
With thanks to Carol Lopez-Bradshaw of the Menorcan Cultural Society for providing valued information.
Menorca’s Tribute to the Florida Emigrants
In Menorca, located on the island’s highest point, Monte Toro, there is a monument to commemorate the Menorcan people who emigrated to Florida, guided by father Pere Camps Gener from Es Mercadal. Mont Toro is said to be the spiritual centre of Menorca where stands an old monastery, parts of which are still inhabited today by a community of Franciscan Sisters of Mercy. The monument is located in the pretty courtyard outside the little church which houses the sacred statue of the Black Madonna, known as the Verge del Toro and considered to be the patroness of Menorca. Other monuments dedicated to important events in Menorca’s history can also be found at Monte Toro.