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Early Spanish settlers saw Florida as 'a business opportunity'

Two entrepreneurial Spaniards who chose to stay in Florida when the British took control in 1763 became wealthy -- and began family trees whose branches include present-day Floridians.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the first Spanish settlement in St. Augustine in 1565 -- 42 years before Britain set up its first colony in Jamestown.

Menéndez cemented Spain's control by wiping out a competing French settlement near present-day Jacksonville and then slaughtering survivors of a French fleet that was wrecked in a hurricane on their way to reinforce the settlement.

For the next 200 years, the Spanish swatted mosquitoes, killed, enslaved and evangelized native Americans and went about the business of colonization, building forts, missions, ranches and farms.

In 1763, however, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War (known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War) required Spain to hand Florida to Britain. In exchange, Spain got the Philippines and Cuba, which at the time was a bigger prize than Florida -- by the 1730s, Spain had largely abandoned the missions that had dotted Florida's northern tier ["The Mission Culture," page 122], and most Spaniards lived near St. Augustine and Pensacola and their military garrisons. Havana, meanwhile, had become the trading center of the Americas, and the sugar produced in Cuba was a lucrative crop.

Most of the roughly 3,100 Spaniards living in St. Augustine and Pensacola had good reasons to head for Cuba. "People left, in part because they were nervous about being under the British government," says James Cusick, curator of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History. Since most received support from the Spanish crown, they also feared being left without a paycheck.

"The Spanish government was rather insistent that people not stay. They didn't want to lose all of these subjects to another power," Cusick says.

Not everyone pulled up stakes, however. Two men, Francisco Sanchez, 27, and Manuel Solana, 23, saw opportunity amid regime change. (Originally, Francisco's brother Lucas was supposed to stay behind. However, Lucas had a girlfriend in Cuba and asked that Francisco stay in Florida in his stead.) Six others were permitted to stay; all were given strict responsibilities. Solana was to handle the sale of boats left behind by the Spanish, and Sanchez was to handle cattle and horses, according to genealogical research compiled by Frank Sanchez Jr., a now-deceased descendant of Sanchez.

Staying meant swearing an oath to the British crown -- the very government that Spain had just fought. But there was an upside. "They were ranchers, and not in the government employ," Cusick says. "They were in business for themselves. The British are coming in, bringing troops. Those troops have to eat. There was a big market for cattle. So for them, it was a business opportunity." By staying, Sanchez and Solana could keep their lands.

Francisco Sanchez: Cattleman

Francisco Sanchez's father, José Sanchez de Ortigosa, had come to America from Spain in 1713 and married Juana Perez, who was born in St. Augustine and was descended from settlers who were among the first arrivals from Spain in the early 1600s.

Like most Spaniards who made the trek to Florida, José Sanchez came with a land grant. But it came with strings: Landowners were expected to improve the land or face losing it.

The Sanchez family land -- in present-day "Palm Valley," just south of what's now Ponte Vedra -- was crucial to Francisco Sanchez's fortunes. Then as now, cattle were a part of the Florida economy. In Sanchez's era, the ranches meant the Spanish didn't have to rely on supplies brought in by ship. In addition to cattle, the ranches featured carpentry and ironworking shops. The family also got a boost when one of Francisco Sanchez's brothers married into another cattle ranching family, the Espinosas.

During the 20 years the British occupied Florida, Sanchez built his Palm Valley holdings to 1,000 acres.

Manuel Solana: Self-made

Manuel Solana, meanwhile, was born in St. Augustine in 1740. Like Sanchez, he was the descendant of Spaniards who'd arrived in the early 1600s. His great-great-grandfather, Alonso Solana, is credited with drawing one of the very first maps of Florida. Other Solana ancestors included parish priests and a deputy governor of West Florida.

A self-made man, Solana learned at an early age how to ride horses and shoot a musket. "Solana pretty much grew up on horseback in Florida," Cusick says.

Solana was touchy about his lack of a formal education. "He frequently got into arguments with some of the wealthier residents of St. Augustine who were well-educated," Cusick says. "He was pretty vocal about saying he understood Florida and what it took to survive in Florida better than those people coming in who had a lot of book learning." Those arguments show up in the form of slander lawsuits filed against the hot-tempered rancher.

Cattle, real estate and cheap labor

Solana and Sanchez definitely knew each other, historians say, in part because they were competitors in the cattle business. At different times, both secured contracts to provide beef to the Spanish government.

Both also became real estate speculators. They helped themselves to land they bought from Spanish families departing for Cuba and also acted as brokers for other Spanish owners who wanted to sell their land to British newcomers.

"Everything went through agents," Cusick says. "But the agents had a difficult time selling things. The market to purchase was not as good as people thought. When the agents did sell, the owners never saw any of the money."

Then as now, new immigrants to Florida meant commerce. After the Revolutionary War, Florida became a refuge for southern planters loyal to Britain. These planters brought property and slaves with them to Florida ["The Outlaw Daniel McGirtt," page 109].

The influx meant more customers for both Sanchez and Solana's cattle operations. "Cattle was a pretty lucrative industry," Cusick says. "Cattle sold for anything between $10 and $25 a head." The money generated from selling 100 cattle at $20 each would be enough to pay cash for a typical stone house at the time. It wasn't uncommon to sell hundreds of cattle a year.

It also created other opportunities. The cattle operations largely relied upon slave labor. Both men owned slaves, and Sanchez engaged in the slave trade. "He was a bit of a rogue," says Earl Sanchez, a Sanchez descendant who lives in Plant City. "How he made his fortune would be questionable now."

Flippers

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.

Multi-family men

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.

The Outlaw Daniel McGirtt

One of Francisco Sanchez's "close associates" was a Scottish man named Daniel McGirtt. He was a British loyalist who fought American patriots in South Carolina. He escaped to East Florida, which was British territory at the time, and bought a plantation on the St. Johns River near Sanchez's property. He became the leader of a band of criminals that stole livestock and slaves from Georgia and Florida and then resold them. "Dan McGirtt, leader of the banditti, terrorized remote plantations and robbed travelers along the King's Road from St. Augustine to Cowford (on the Ortega River, once known as McGirtt's Creek)," wrote Maurice Robinson in his book "Ponte Vedra Beach: A History." According to historian Jane Landers, Sanchez turned to McGirtt for help when his own plantation was raided and 400 cattle were killed. Sanchez was also accused of stealing slaves himself. The governor of South Carolina accused Sanchez of stealing more than 100 slaves from South Carolina while in cahoots with McGirtt. The new Spanish governor didn't take these charges against Sanchez seriously and banished McGirtt to the Bahamas, where he continued his business relationship with Sanchez.

The Descendants

An estimated 500 to 1,000 descendants of Solana and Sanchez -- called "Floridanos," "old Floridians" -- live in Florida. Many still live close to St. Augustine. Many even live -- coincidentally -- on the same land where their ancestors raised cattle. Many consider themselves the only true links to the original Spanish settlers because Sanchez and Solana were the only two Spaniards who stayed throughout the British period. A Los Floridanos Society, composed of Solana and Sanchez descendants, seeks to preserve the families' heritage. Here are some of their stories.

EARL SANCHEZ

Ancestor Born
Francisco Xavier Sanchez 1736
Francisco Xavier Roman
Manuel Sanchez
1792
George Washington Sanchez 1819
James Arthur Sanchez 1878
Orlando Cyatt Sanchez 1899
Earl Clyde Sanchez 1928
Earl Clyde Sanchez II 1956

Earl Sanchez, a semi-retired 56-year-old who lives in Plant City and worked at the Home Shopping Network after a 20-year career as a maintenance manager at an orange juice processing plant, says his family knew they belonged to an old Spanish family. "But that's all they knew," he says.

Sanchez didn't learn about his roots until 1988, when he started doing his own research. "It becomes a lifelong quest for further knowledge," he says.

At the Los Floridanos extended family reunions, he says you can see a family resemblance. With green eyes and a medium complexion, Earl Sanchez doesn't look like someone with Spanish roots. The Sanchez family has large foreheads, a beefy build, sloping shoulders and receding hairlines, he says.

FRANK CELLON

Ancestor Born
Francisco Xavier Sanchez 1736
Francisco Xavier Roman
Manuel Sanchez
1792
Rafaela Sophia Maria Sanchez 1822
Mary Elizabeth Wilson 1844
Mary Murray Scarborough 1863
Scarboroguh DeCosta Cellon 1882
Ralph Wilson Cellon 1910
Ralph W. Cellon Jr. 1934
Frank Cellon 1961

A 52-year-old retired interior designer, Cellon lives in Melrose, east of Gainesville. Cellon's family was in the cattle business and by sheer coincidence worked on land that was once owned by an ancestor in 1820. "It was meant to be," Cellon says in a Southern drawl. He knows the family history intimately. "Growing up, I was very interested in family history," he says, "and then I started digging up stuff about the family and learned, my God, we've been here a long time."

Cellon conducted interviews with cousins and older relatives and studied copies of documents stored at the St. Augustine Historical Society. "I've been doing this for 40 years," he says, long before the internet made genealogical research easier. Cellon even has a few family artifacts, including a gold-edged Sanchez family locket that dates back to Francisco Xavier Sanchez, and a lock of braided hair.

Next page: » Linda Brown and Brad Coker

LINDA BROWN

Ancestor Born
Manuel Solana 1740
Bartolome Solana 1785
Mateo Simeon Sanchez 1828
Charles Solana 1882
Mary Frances Solana 1922
Linda Brown 1947

Raised in Jacksonville, with summers spent on the beaches of St. Augustine, Brown likely walked the same streets as her Solana ancestors. "My mother knew we were an old Spanish family," Brown says. When an aunt started doing some research in the 1950s, the family discovered its roots in Florida dated back to 1602.

"I'm always amazed when people refer to Florida as a state of newcomers because there are a lot of us that are still here," Brown says. She works as a software consultant and co-founded the Los Floridanos Society for the descendants of Solana and Sanchez in 1999. Brown says she considers herself of Spanish and Scottish/Irish descent. "I feel like I'm a Floridian -- with a Spanish background."

BRAD COKER

Ancestor Born
Francisco Xavier Sanchez 1736
Jose Simeon Sanchez 1797
Francis Manuel Sanchez 1820
Emanuel Antonio Sanchez 1850
Francis Vincent Sanchez 1878
Maria Elizabeth Sanchez 1901
James Bradford Coker Jr. 1933
James Bradford Coker III 1959

Best known as managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling, Coker is related to both the Solana and the Sanchez families. He was born James Bradford Coker III in Jacksonville but grew up partly in Washington, D.C. As a child, Coker says the only written documentation of his family ancestry lay in a genealogical study written in 1952 by a great-aunt, who was also Linda Brown's aunt.

Coker spent 25 years doing his own research and believes he can trace his roots in Florida back to 1565. He now lives in Fernandina Beach, where most of his neighbors are Florida transplants. "When I go to a party and they ask me where I'm from and I say Jacksonville, and then I tell them I go way back and tell them stories, they are flabbergasted," Coker says.