Tag Archives: St. Augustine Lighthouse History

Keepers of the Light

Keepers of the Light

Alphonso Daniels, 2nd Assistant Keeper, 1928 St. Augustine Lighthouse

When you think about lighthouse keepers, what comes to mind? Maybe it is long, lonely nights dutifully keeping the lamps burning for ships unseen. Alternatively, perhaps it is a long day spent painting the lighthouse tower. Lighthouse keeping meant a hard life, especially as we think about it today. Who do you imagine did these tasks?

During the lighthouse boom of the 19th century, jobs requiring a rugged self-reliance would have been male dominated endeavors. While both sexes had worked equally hard on the frontier during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution cemented for the next 200-years western views of men’s role as the worker and women’s role in the house. The Lighthouse Service was no exception to this rule. Even though entire families worked from dawn until dusk at light stations across the country, males made up the overwhelming majority of government appointed lighthouse keepers, who received pay for the work they performed.

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Immigrant Light Keepers

Sandy Hook
Located in New Jersey, at the mouth of New York Harbor, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was visible to immigrants on their way to Ellis Island (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The connection between lighthouses and immigrants to the United States is inescapable. Dotting the coastline, the bright beacons were often the first sight of land for many people hoping to find opportunity and freedom in a new land. For some of these immigrants, their chance at a new life was closer than they may have thought. The ranks of lighthouse keepers saw a steady increase in foreign-born keepers through the 19th century.

Though subject to peaks and valleys, immigration into the United States steadily increased through the 19th century, peaking in the early 1880s. Immigrants in the second half of the 1800s arrived primarily from Europe, with Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway leading the way. Some immigrants to the United States in the 19th century found jobs doing the same work they did in the maritime industries of their home countries. Many had experience as sailors, fishermen, and harbor pilots. Continue reading

Research Reveals Two New Keepers

The “Old Spanish Watchtower” after 1824

Historically, the list of known lighthouse keepers for the St. Augustine Lighthouse has begun with Juan Andreu in 1824, when the United States took over the Florida territory and converted an old watchtower into a US lighthouse. Juan Andreu became light keeper at that time and served until 1845. However, research has revealed two new names to add to the beginning of the list, before even Juan Andreu. The digitization of historical resources made these names much easier to find.

Efforts in providing digitized online images of historical documents and records have exploded in recent years. Information once hidden away in repositories, archives and libraries around the world are now accessible to anyone with the technology and familiarity to look. Internet sources like the Internet Archive, The Digital Public Library of America, and the Library of Congress provide entry into a world of freely available historical documents and resources (click the links and go exploring yourself!).

The Territorial Papers of the United States

As I began research on a new exhibit on Lighthouse history here in St. Augustine, I turned to one of my favorite online resources, HathiTrust, described as “a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.” Here I found digitized The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 22 “The Territory of Florida, 1821-1824” as compiled and edited by Clarence Edwin Carter in 1956. This volume consists of important records relevant to the earliest years of Florida’s US territorial period. Continue reading

Constance Fenimore Woolson and “The Ancient City”

Constance Fenimore Woolson, an accomplished American writer, spent winters in St. Augustine with her ailing mother from 1873 to 1879. She wove her experiences into her writing, setting several fictional stories and poems in the streets and waterways of the town. She published one such story, aptly titled “The Ancient City,” in Volumes 50 (December 1874) and 51 (January 1875) of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Her experiences coincided with the recent completion of, what was at that time, the new St. Augustine Lighthouse and Part One gives us a glimpse of the lighthouse and surrounding area.

The Lighthouses of “The Ancient City”

The New Lighthouse - from The Ancient City
The New Lighthouse from “The Ancient City”

In “The Ancient City,” Woolson’s narrator, Martha, tells of her experiences in St. Augustine, including a trip out to Anastasia Island with several companions. Aboard the boat, Martha spots the “new light-house, curiously striped in black and white like a barber’s pole.” There being fewer trees and little construction on the island then, “there was nothing to compare it with, not a hill or rise of land, not even a tall tree, and therefore it looked gigantic, a tower built by Titans rather than men.” Continue reading

Menorcan Keepers at the Old St. Augustine Lighthouse

The Old Spanish Watchtower

The Old Spanish Watchtower, manned by Menorcan keepers for most of its history (Photo Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida)

Florida’s territorial period began in the 1820s with the ratification of the Adams-Onís Treaty, which transferred the former Spanish colony to the United States. Though the newly acquired territory did not become a state until 1845, the U.S. government immediately set to work extending the young nation’s network of lighthouses into Florida. The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment converted an old Spanish watchtower in the territorial capital of St. Augustine into the territory’s first lighthouse and hired keepers to operate and maintain it. The early keepers came from a minority group in St. Augustine known as Menorcans.

The Menorcans of St. Augustine

Technically, the term Menorcan refers to someone from the island of Minorca, located off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. The Menorcans of St. Augustine however, are descended from a group of about 1,400 Menorcan, Greek, Italian, Corsican, and French workers and family members that traveled to New Smyrna, south of St. Augustine, to work as indentured servants on Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s indigo plantation in 1768. Continue reading