Jane Sheldon’s children and hotel guests were just sitting for a midday meal at her “House on the Hill”, the largest hotel south of St. Augustine. In the north, the war was not going well. Lee was in retreat from Gettysburg and Vicksburg had fallen to General Grant giving the Union control of the Mississippi River, but in New Smyrna, it was a quiet Sunday in July. The area was a haven for blockade runners and a supply port for lumber, cotton, beef and most importantly salt for the Confederate Army. For that reason, Union searches for blockade runners and attempts to destroy salt works along the river were not uncommon and the citizens had been promised their homes would not be attacked, so no one had paid much attention to the two Union gunboats as they came down the river and anchored across from the hotel. That would change today when the ships opened fire on the hotel and New Smyrna.
Frustrated by the inability of the naval blockade to stem the flow of goods into New Smyrna, the U.S. Navy ordered the town bombarded. The first shells ripped through the roof and shattered the piano inside the hotel. Miraculously, the residents of the hotel had managed to escape unharmed as shell after shell ripped into the building and surrounding area. The barrage continued for nearly two days halting only briefly for a heavy thunderstorm. By the time it was over, Confederates had burned ships and cotton to prevent them from being captured and a company of Union sailors had come ashore burning homes and stores. The giant hotel had been destroyed by cannon fire, but this was just the latest in a history of tragic events to befall structures built on top of the mysterious Turnbull Ruins.
In 1768, a Scottish physician named Andrew Turnbull came to Florida with a group of about 1500 Greeks, Italians and Minorcans with the goal of establishing a colony south of St. Augustine. He called the place New Smyrna and began to cultivate crops of sugar cane, indigo and hemp. Life in Florida was unforgiving and the colonist where beset by natives, disease, starvation and the oppressive temperatures. Also, many claimed brutality and abuse at the hands of the colony’s overseers. By 1777, the population had been reduced to a mere 500 settlers and, as their indentured servitude ended, the colony was abandoned with the remaining survivors moving to St. Augustine. Oddly enough, despite building his colony on top of the giant coquina foundation that would forever bear his name, Turnbull never makes mention of the structure, work being conducted on it or the purpose in any of his letters during his time at the colony or after. A later British survey would speculate the ruins as either being the foundation of a estate house, warehouse, fort or possibly for ship building.
Spain regained control of Florida from England after the American Revolutionary War. Another doctor, Ambrose Hull of Connecticut, petitioned Spain and was grant rights to start another settlement at New Smyrna in 1801. Hull’s goal was to grow sugar and cotton in the place where Turnbull had failed. Hull had more success, but unfortunately, in 1812, a group of “Patriots” from Georgia with the not so secret backing of the America government attacked and seized Fernandina and Amerlia Island with the goal of taking Florida by force from Spain and establishing an America territory. It was the outbreak of a conflict that would become know as “The Patriot War”. After capturing Fernandina, the Patriots set out to drive the Spanish from St. Augustine and capture Castillo de San Marcos. Not surprisingly, they failed and the war fell into a stalemate. With growing political pressure at home and the declaration of war with Great Briton, President Madison withdrew his support and left the Patriots on their own. The war broke down into raiding parties and small skirmishes. It was during one of these raids that Hull’s settlement was attacked and burned. Andrew Hull does mention having stone masons working to construct his estate house and mentions the size and some features. His home was being built on top of the existing foundation.
The next to try and create a plantation on the site was Thomas Stamp in 1830. Like the others, his home and crops were attacked and burned, this time by Seminoles in 1835 during the Second Seminole War.
By the time John Sheldon began construction on what would be called the Sheldon House in 1854 on top of the Turnbull Ruins, at least three settlements had failed in that exact spot. After the shelling by the Union ships the site sat until 1867 when the hotel was rebuilt in a more modest fashion. There it stayed until 1896 when it was torn down for the last time.
Today, the ruins sit inside Old Fort Park in New Smyrna and are a popular tourist attraction. Debate continues on what the structure was originally. Some historians and researchers feel that it is possibly the original site of a Spanish fort or even the first location for St. Augustine. They site the similarity to Castillo de San Marcos both in layout and construction. The only know quarry for coquina in the area is near St. Augustine where the stone for San Marcos was quarried. Also, early English settlers lacked the manpower and time to accomplish the labor intensive work. If this is the case, it would date the ruins at sometime during the 1600’s.
Others insist that there is no great mystery. The construction was done during the time Turnbull and his colonist were at the site and the ruins are all that remains of his mansion. The truth will most likely never be known due to there being no way to date the rock and no know records prior to Turnbull establishing his colony. An archaeological dig sponsored by the city might reveal some of the secrets, but in the current financial climate, that is an expensive undertaking that does not seem to be in the cards.
Regardless of whether the forty foot by eighty foot stone work is two hundred years old or four hundred years old, it is a unique piece of Florida and American history that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Take the time and make a visit.