Early Spanish settlers saw Florida as 'a business opportunity'
In 1783 came another Treaty of Paris, this one formally ending the Revolutionary War. A secondary treaty required Britain to return East and West Florida to Spain.
As the Spanish returned, Sanchez and Solana profited again, buying British-owned land and reselling it to the arrivals from Spain -- including some of the same Spanish families they'd bought it from 20 years earlier. Solana was focused on his cattle business and real estate holdings. As the cattle business grew, he began dabbling in merchant shipping and developed plantation lands for commercial crops.
Solana had a house in St. Augustine and a separate ranch, roughly between modern-day St. Augustine and Palatka. He later bought more houses in St. Augustine. Like Sanchez, he became very wealthy.
While Spanish Florida in general was highly conscious of class and status distinctions along with religious custom, Sanchez and Solana appear to have winked at the prevailing mores, fathering at least 24 children by four women, in and out of marriage.
Sanchez's first wife was of mixed race, or what was known in those days as a "free mulatto." Her name was Maria Beatriz Stone, though she later became Piedra. It's unclear whether the couple married, but they lived together for nearly 20 years. She bore him three sons and five daughters. The children were all baptized in the Catholic Church, and Sanchez officially recognized them as his own.
His children lived in a two-story stone house in St. Augustine and had slaves of their own. They also had a young nanny named Sarah Hill who had come to Florida when her father fled Georgia to avoid a murder charge. Sarah converted to Catholicism, changing her name to Maria del Carmen Hill.
In 1787, at 50, Sanchez married Maria del Carmen Hill, who was 17. Some records indicate his first wife had died, while others indicate she died a few years after the second marriage. Hill and Sanchez had four sons and six daughters.
When Sanchez died in 1807, the children from his first marriage received part of his inheritance. His estate by that time included 10 plantations, slaves, cattle, town houses and lots and commercial interests all valued at more than $30,000, says historian Jane Landers. To put that amount in perspective, the highest paid royal official at the time was making $5,000 a year, Cusick says.
Meanwhile, Solana also married twice. Cusick says Spaniards living in Florida were also able to get away with breaking some of the strict Catholic rules about marriage. "Guys were guys," he says.
Solana's first wife was a British woman named Mary Mitchell. The marriage was not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church because she was Protestant. Reports vary on how many children they had together, ranging from one to three. They eventually separated.
Solana then married Mary Maestre (often spelled Masters), part of a group of former indentured servants from the Spanish island of Minorca who were brought to Florida during the British period. Records show Solana and Maestre had at least 10 children together.
Solana's empire was hurt badly during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain, even though it wasn't directly involved in the conflict. During the war, homes throughout north Florida were looted and burned. Cattle was stolen. Crops were destroyed. Mills were burned to the ground. Solana lost 1,400 cattle -- almost everything he owned. The same thing happened to other ranchers. But the family rebuilt, and Solana lived just long enough to see the U.S. accept Florida as a territory. He died in 1821.