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New Smyrna’s Mysterious Ruins
If it wasn’t a fort, then what was it?

One of the weirdest mysteries on Florida’s east coast is in New Smyrna’s Old Fort Park across from the City Hall. Sitting on the east side of the park facing the river, is what appears at first glance to be a Spanish fort measuring 40 by 80 feet, but was it a fort or something else? No one seems to really know, but since it had to be called something, why not a “fort”?

The ruins are constructed of coquina blocks like the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, which would have required a considerable labor force and time. The project would have involved quarrying the coquina, cutting and shaping it, then transporting it, and then building the structure. This does not take into account that the site would have needed excavation, and workers to turn oyster shells into “tabby,” the cement used in early construction. So, who had such a labor force or time to build this stone fort, foundation, or whatever it is? Unlike St. Augustine’s fort, there are no records as to the origin of New Smyrna’s so-called fort.

According to local historian and publisher, Gary Luther, the ruins have also been called the Turnbull Ruins. During Florida’s British period in 1768, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a physician from Scotland, recruited 1,403 colonists comprised of Greeks, Italians, Corsicans, and Minorcans for establishing a settlement in Florida. Dr. Turnbull’s wife, Gracia Dura Bin, was from Smyrna, Asia Minor, and in recognition of her birthplace the settlement was named New Smyrna. Sailing in eight ships, 1,255 of these settlers survived the three month journey, only to find extreme hardships awaiting them in Florida. First, preparations had only been made to accommodate 500 people. Then there were the mosquitoes, heat, food shortages, Indians, and the difficult tasks of clearing land and digging drainage canals.

The colonists experienced harsh treatment by overseers, which resulted in rebellions and a dwindling labor force. Nine years later only about 500 remained in the settlement. Considering all of these factors, and available time, it would seem unlikely that these colonists had anything to do with building New Smyrna’s weird structure. There’s another question that needs answering––where was the quarry for the coquina rock used in the construction of the ruins? If you calculate the amount of coquina blocks that went into building this mystery, there would have to be a pretty big pit somewhere around town. In St. Augustine the old Spanish quarries can still be seen on Anastasia Island, but no such holes exist in New Smyrna.

The ruins are not indicated on maps of the colony period or mentioned in the records. However, on the 1605 Albero Mexia map, the Ais Indian village of “Caparaca” is shown at the location of the ruins. Historian Gary Luther points out that the ruins were built within a pre-existing Indian shell mound that was probably the village of Caparaca. Naturalist William Bartram reported this mound when he passed through the area in 1766 just before the arrival of the Smyrna colonists, but makes no mention of a stone structure.

In his History of New Smyrna, Gary Luther writes that in 1776 a group of Englishmen from St. Augustine visited New Smyrna “to see the improvements, especially a very large stone building that was commenced for a mansion house.” Luther adds, “Work was never completed because nearly all of the colonists, freed from their indentures, fled to St. Augustine in 1777.” Does this mean that the ruins are the remains of a foundation for an unfinished mansion? Perhaps Turnbull’s palace? In 1778, following the collapse of the Smyrna colony, Andrew Turnbull moved his family to Charleston, South Carolina.

During the second Spanish period, which began in 1783, Dr. Ambrose Hull moved down from Connecticut and under a colonization deal offered by Spain, received a grant in 1801 for 2,600 acres including the site that is now Old Fort Park. Hull began preparing his land for growing sugar and cotton but he suffered a major setback when Indians attacked his plantation. By 1803 a new settlement had evolved at New Smyrna that had a population of 500 to 600 settlers. Hull referred to the location of the ruins as “Mount Olive” because of the olive trees that had been planted there during the Turnbull colonization.

Although Hull offers no observations of any ruins at the site, he did write in 1805 about having a number of stonemasons at work building a two story house. He later described his house as being of hewn stone and consisting of two large rooms, one over the other, three double doors, and six windows. There is also a mention of two “turrets or towers” extending four feet on each end of the original foundation. Historians are in agreement that Ambrose Hull built his house on an existing foundation. Historian Gary Luther points out that where Hull added the towers, “the cut and color of the coquina, as well as the mortar, are noticeably different from the rest of the ruins and that six window indentations can be seen as described by Hull.” The Hull house was destroyed during the Patriot’s War of 1812.

But if we are to assume that Hull built his house on existing ruins, then why does a survey map dated May 25, 1817, show “Turnbull’s Palace” at the site of the ruins and “Hull’s House” a little northwest of this location? And why did Hull make no mention the Turnbull Palace? Most likely, the surveyor simply relied on what someone had told him and not on factual information.

In 1854, John D. Sheldon built a forty room hotel and home on the ruins. During the Civil War in July 1863, this structure was destroyed when the Union navy shelled New Smyrna. In 1867 Sheldon built a new hotel constructed of wood salvaged from the beach. This building, which also housed a post office and several stores, stood until 1896 when it was torn down. (Photos: Historic photos courtesy Luther’s Publishing)

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