Living History

I was born and raised in St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest city* in the United States – where we have begun to plan celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida in 2012 and the 450th birthday of our city in 2015. With a 300+ year-old Spanish fort standing watch over the city and simple actions such as weeding the garden frequently turning up colonial artifacts, the history of this area is part of everyday life.

My paternal grandfather moved his family here from Savannah in 1925 when he accepted a position with the Florida East Coast Railway. My father was born in Savannah, but raised here. My mother came here after World War II. Since many residents are ninth and tenth generation descendants of early settlers, my family would be considered “newcomers”. Or so we thought.

During the period when Florida was controlled by the British (1763 to 1783), Dr. Andrew Turnbull created a colony called New Smyrna in 1768. Instead of using slaves to work his plantation, he brought indentured servants he had recruited mostly from the Mediterranean island of Minorca. From the beginning, there were problems. By 1777 only about 600 Minorcan survivors remained of the more than 1200 people who arrived in Florida nine years earlier. The survivors petitioned the Governor for help and he directed that they leave New Smyrna and come to live in St. Augustine.

When the Spanish regained control of Florida after the American Revolution, the Minorcans were one of the few groups who stayed and their descendants continue to add to St. Augustine’s rich heritage.

As for Dr. Turnbull, he left Florida in disgrace and eventually settled in Charleston where he died in 1792. Although he remained a British Loyalist, reports show that he was a respected resident of Charleston. In 1797, his son, Robert James Turnbull, married Claudia Butler Gervais, daughter of Jean Louis Gervais and Mary Sinclair. In the early 19th century, Robert Turnbull and Sinclair Gervais, Claudia’s brother, were partners in several ventures in the Mississippi territory. In fact, Robert’s nephew (James Turnbull, Jr.) married Sinclair’s daughter and Claudia’s niece (Mary Ann Gervais) in Mississippi in 1834. The relationships between the Turnbulls and the Gervais remained close.

The stories of the descendants of Sinclair Gervais travel from Charleston to Mississippi to Texas, back to Mississippi, on to Savannah and wind up in St. Augustine with the arrival of my grandfather and his family almost 150 years after Dr. Turnbull left. Although our relationship is not direct, it was quite a surprise to discover that we “newcomers” had a significant connection with one of the major events in the history of our home town.

Only by combining family history research with local history were we able to make that connection. And, we met some very interesting and helpful research cousins in the process.

For more information on the Turnbulls in Mississippi, see Bob Frank’s article, The Turnbull Family, at The Issaquena Genealogy and History Project.

*The oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in the continental United States. 

One thought on “Living History

  1. Wow…great story. It goes a long way to helping explain why I have a street named Turnbull a few blocks from my house in Metairie, Louisiana. I’ll be doing a series of pages in the near future on the nullification controversy in South Carolina so I’ll try to remember Robert’s volunteering in this series.


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