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By Bryce Lyons

Did you know that there is a thriving community of Minorcan descendants living in St Augustine, Florida...?

Menorcan in floridaEvery year the residents of that city arrange the ‘Minorcan Heritage Celebration’ which takes place on the second Saturday of March (9th. March this year). People arrive from all over the United States to pay tribute to their ancestors who emigrated from Minorca during the British occupation of the 18th century, believing they were leaving for a better, more prosperous future life.

The celebration is held in the courtyard of Llambias House, a historic building that dates back to early Minorcan times, the Minorcan flag is flown and traditional dishes from those early days are served, including their own Minorcan clam chowder! There is also typical Minorcan folk singing and dancing, family stories are told and many bring photos and family history to share.

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 and brutally corrupt Scottish colonist, Dr Andrew Turnbull.

Menorca and Florida – A Shared History

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War and the control of Florida as well as Menorca 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 Mahón as Minorca 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 the Turkish authorities, he found that the Italian men had taken a liking to the local ladies and so many were no longer single. Turnbull agreed to take them and their new Minorcan brides to Florida together with numerous other Minorcan families looking for a better life from what was then a fairly harsh time in Minorcan history, and Turnbull believed he would prosper financially as a result. The Greeks, Italians and Minorcans 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 a colony made up almost totally of Minorcans…!

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 ever to immigrate as a single group to the New World. They were accompanied by Father Pere (Pedro) Camps, the parish priest of Mercadal and Francisco Pellicer. It probably didn’t take long for the poor Minorcans to wish they had never left their island. There were nearly three times as many colonists on the ship taking them 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, but called “Los Mesquitos” by the Spanish

However the colony wasn’t prepared as Turnbull had promised. It was swampland and the new colonists were forced to clear it. With no proper housing and little food and disease rife living in mosquito plagued conditions more than four hundred died in the first year alone. In the ensuing years they not only battled hunger, disease, Native Americans but also the terrible working conditions and the cruelty of Turnbull’s overseers. As archives show and I QUOTE “After arriving, the first priority was to clear the land of pines, live oaks, cabbage palm, palmetto shrub, and, drain the marshland. Conditions were wretched and never improved: Unbearable heat and humidity; scant time to gather food; inadequate clothing; palm-thatched huts for living quarters; disgusting stench of indigo culture; miserable sanitation; disease; unending planting and tending crops; cruel treatment. Promised lodgings had not been built. The settlers were forced to seek shelter as best they could while their overseers pressured them to start the backbreaking work of producing indigo.”

Incredibly, between 1771 and 1777, the hard working beleaguered colony exported 43,283 pounds of indigo together with other crops from the wharves of the New Smyrna plantation. After a while, Father Pedro Camps stood alone shielding the Minorcan settlers from Turnbull's intimidation, terrorism and even murder while trying as best he could to provide spiritual relief. Fr. Camps kept extensive vital statistics records which he called the “Golden Book” of the Minorcans and later he began the Cathedral Parish records in St. Augustine. Father Camps was hard pressed to keep courage and hope alive among the people. They built a crude hut for a church and called it San Pedro (sometimes referred to as St. Peter). Fr. Camps was no minimalist. He was a real spiritual leader and advisor for his community. He continuously catechized his people and preached every Sunday with special services during Lent. He was universally accepted even by the English who agreed to pay him $300.00 per year, although this did not always materialise.

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, (6-8yrs) after which they would be released from the indenture and each family given a small plot of land (50 acres plus a further 5 acres for every child) on which they could start a new independent life. As the terms of their indenture ended, they approached Turnbull for their discharge and his promise of land but invariably they were imprisoned and, under duress, forced to sign new indentures.

These injustices led to a revolt. In 1777, a group of colonists with Father Pedro Camps at their head petitioned the British governor, Patrick Tonyn. He launched an investigation that led to the demise of Dr Andrew Turnbull, and subsequently granted the Menorcans liberation and gave them an area in the northwest section of the old walled city of St Augustine. This was nearly 10 years after they had first arrived in New Smyrna by which time 946 of the original immigrants had died, leaving barely 600 adults and children to start again as free citizens.

QUOTE “Governor Patrick Tonyn issued orders releasing from their contracts all those who had been mistreated or signed on under the legal age which meant the virtual dissolution of the colony. Turnbull gave these half starved people four days to get out. Fransisco Pellicer the head carpenter of the settlement, led the Minorcans out of their bondage to the city of St. Augustine, Florida. They marched on foot. The women, children, and aged walked in the center while the men, armed with stakes, took up the flanks. Three days later they were in St. Augustine.”

Father Camps stayed behind with the sick. He was held a virtual prisoner there by Turnbull, he was refused his arrears in salary and the use of any sacred vessels because he refused to counsel his people to live and work in the bondage of New Smyrna. He was held in New Smyrna and was not released until November of 1777 even though the sick had already been sent to St. Augustine by ship. There he began a new parish, the only one in St. Augustine at the time, on the ground floor of a residence by the city gates and called it San Pedro.

He made the following entry in his Golden Book: “On the 9th day of November 1777, the church of San Pedro was translated from the settlement of Mosquito to the city of Saint Augustine, with the same colony of Mahonese Minorcans which was established in the said settlement, and the same parish priest and Missionary Apostolic, Dr. Dn. Pedro Camps. (Dr. Pedro Camps, Parish Priest.)”

A New Life in St Augustine

Menorcans in FloridaFrancisco Pellicer led the Minorcans to St. Augustine in the July 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 Minorcans gradually began to recover.

In fact, the Minorcan’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 still enabled the Menorcans 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.

The Minorcans built much of the heart of city in typical Minorcan style and the Cathedral. In 1787 the first free school, in what is now the United States, was opened for the Minorcan children.When Father Pedro Camps died on May 19th. 1790, not only the Minorcans, but the entire Spanish population of the area mourned him. He was buried in the Cathedral.

As such, the Minorcans 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 the Minorcans were treated much better, so they stayed.

However, any peace was short lived 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 Minorcans were forced to flee from their plantations, and seek protection within the city gates.

When the war came to an end in 1814, the Minorcans 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 Minorcans 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 Minorcans developed still sits between the North River and the Atlantic Ocean and a few Minorcan 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 Minorcan 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 Minorcan 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 Minorcan names, such as Carrera, Arnau, Segui, Sintes, Pellicer (Palliser), Camps, Ponce (Pons) and Capo continue to flourish both sides of the Atlantic. The people of the area still refer to these descendants as the ‘Minorcans’. There’s a ‘Minorcan Quarter’ as well as ‘Minorcan’ celebrations and even ‘Minorcan’ clam chowder! These are all testament to the strong cultural presence the group has maintained over the decades.

However, because the Minorcans were never thought of as high class citizens, they kept their language, traditions and family ties to themselves although over the years these eventually became lost. Everyone knew who was Minorcan but no one ever spoke about it.

In the 1960s, XL Pellicer, a descendant of Francisco Pellicer, began the movement to bring Minorcan heritage to the public notice. He contacted his friend on Minorca, Fernando Rubio (the Rubio Fundacion) who financed the statue erected in honour of Father Pedro 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 of St Augustine. There is a smaller replica of the statue located in the courtyard at Monte Toro.

In the early 1980s, the Minorcan Cultural Society was founded to preserve and promote the history and culture of the Minorcans. 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, Georgia as well as all over the United States.

It is safe to say that in the veins of all St.Augustine native families runs the blood of the Minorcans.

Please note I have used the old and traditional spelling “Minorca” rather than “Menorca” as this is the manner in which the descendents are still referred to in Florida.

Florida menorca connection
This statue of Father Pedro Camps and others was presented to the Bishop of Saint Augustine, Very Rev. Paul F. Tanner, by Fernando A. Rubio of Minorca, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Minorcan colonists in St. Augustine. It was dedicated to the city on April, 24th. 1975.

I particularly wish to thank my counterpart Carol Lopez-Bradshaw, President of the “Minorcan Cultural Society” of St Augustine for providing me with some important additional information from their archives.

January 2013

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