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The History of Cockburn Town, Grand Turk

Seashell at Gran Turk

The Turk and Caicos Islands are an often visited travel destination for visitors who travel the Bahamas. It is one of the most popular diving locations because of the tropical waters, the variety of marine life, the bounty beaches and the laid back way of living. But how did travelers discover this hidden gem in the Caribbean? The founding of its capital, Cockburn Town, was the result of explorers finding natural resources on the island.

Salt Cay Salinas
Raking salt around 1900
Salt Cay Salinas
Women bagging salt in the early 1900s
Salt Raker in the 1960s
Salt Raker in the 1960s

The foundation of Cockburn Town

The island chain was home to several natural resources such as gold, silver, whales and sturgeon, but it was none of these that was the real reason for explorers to settle here. The foundation of Cockburn Town in 1766 had one main reason: salt.

Salt was a every important trading resource at that time, and Grand Turk had several salt pools to be mined. Because of the still waters and the warm temperatures, salt was very exposed in the shallow pools. In the mid eighteenth century huge masses of sold were piled up and sold for large revenues.

During that time, salt trade was a major business in North America. And with the Turk and Caicos Islands being situated on the right location of this trade, founding settlements such as Cockburn Town was a logical step. While being very small in the first years, Cockburn Town was a strategic point on trading routes between the islands, Europe and North America.

Cockburn Town today

When traveling to Grand Turk and Cockburn Town today, travelers can learn more of the history of the islands on several sites in the historic center.

Her Majesty's Prison
Her Majesty's Prison
National Museum on Front Street
National Museum on Front Street
The Salt House Grand Turk
The Salt House

National Museum

The National Museum is located near the waterfront in a historic building that is called the Guinep House. The museum is great first place to discover the history of Grand Turk and displays several items that are related to the history of the islands, including its salt trading culture. It contains the oldest shipwreck off the coasts of the Americas, the Molasses wreck. The wreck dates back from around 1505. Other highlights in the museum are the dozens of bottles filled with messages that were sent out to sea, but washed up on the nearby coasts.

Historic center

Grand Turk was the center of commerce for the Islands until tourism boomed in 1980s. In the capital of Cockburn Town, the remaining colonial British and Bermudian buildings still remind travelers off those days. Allthough many of the historic buildings on Duke Street and Queen street have been converted into inns and villas. Highlights in the center are Her Majesty’s Prison, Victoria Library, St. Mary’s Church and the cannons and square on Front Street.

Salt Salinas

Once the potential was clear, colonists started to develop salinas for salt production in the early 1700s. They were fed by the ocean via inlet connections. Nowadays, you can stil visit the remnants of these salt salinas. This includes dividing walls and ruins of the sluice gates and the presence of salt crystals.

The Salt House

For those who have interest in Grand Turk’s historic salt industry, the Salt House is worth a visit. These days, it is a museum, gift shop and restaurant. The building, constructed in colonial style exhibits Bermuda Sloops, the typical ships that were used in the salt industry.

Cockburn Town Grand Turk
Cockburn Town
Grand Turk
The historic Duke Street in Cockburn Town
Front Street Cockburn Town