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Orlando Sentinel

Roots In The Sand

Florida wasn't born yesterday. In a state where an old-timer is somebody who's been here for months, there are families that go back to the beginning.

By Ken Clarke | Sentinel Staff Writer

February 22, 2004
Copyright ©2004
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

In Florida, the land of the rootless, everyone seems to come from somewhere else. Entire neighborhoods are filled with newcomers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York or Puerto Rico. Considering that only a third of the state's residents were born here, the state motto should be "Where are you from?"

But paradox is an old-timer in Florida: The land is old yet new, surrounded by water yet thirsty, southernmost but not exactly Southern.

So consider this: The two oldest families in Florida rank among the oldest in North America. The Solanas have been leaving their footprints in the sand for 400 years, the Sanchezes for more than 300 years. They first walked the streets of St. Augustine when the city was no more than an outpost of a few hundred hardy souls on the Spanish frontier.

"We were the first citrus growers, the first farmers, the first lumbermen, the first cattle ranchers" in Florida, says Linda Brown, a Solana, who lives in St Augustine. Brown, 56, is president of the Los Floridanos Society, which celebrates early Florida settlers.

Brown estimates there are 5,000 to 6,000 Solana and Sanchez descendants in St. Johns County, the home of St. Augustine, with thousands more in neighboring counties and others scattered in places as distant as Texas and California.

Since about 1600, first the Solanas, and later the Sanchezes, have been constant elements in a place where stability was as rare as a snowflake, especially during the Spanish period, which lasted 21/2 centuries, and the early days as part of the United States.

Their presence for a dozen generations or more speaks to the enduring Spanish heritage of Florida, a history largely ignored in textbooks. After brief discussions of 16th century conquistadors, traditional anglicized versions of Florida and U.S. history breeze right through the Spanish period, leaving people such as Ann Masters feeling like an outsider in the land her family has occupied since 1580.

"I have always known we were different," says Masters, 44, a professor of education at St. Johns River Community College's campus in St. Augustine. "It's not the Anglo story."

Masters is a Sanchez and a 12th-generation Floridian. She lives in St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America, where her family tree stretches back to 1580.

When she was growing up, Masters says, she would read the history books, and, seeing next to nothing about early St. Augustine and its people, would "wonder where my story was."

A direct line to Spain

The saga of the two families and the broader story of Spain and Florida also lends perspective to the boom in the state's Latin population. Florida has always been a part of the Caribbean, and belonged to Spain for more years than it has been a part of the United States.

The state's $9 billion citrus industry was made possible when the Spanish planted orange trees in St. Augustine shortly after the city was founded in 1565. The Spanish also brought horses and cattle, both of which remain important elements of the state's modern economy.

Historical records tell us the Solanas and Sanchezes have witnessed or taken part in many of the most significant events in Florida history:

A Solana was deputy governor of Apalachee, a Spanish outpost and mission at today's Tallahassee, in the late 1600s; several Solanas were priests in St. Augustine.

One Solana and one Sanchez were among the very few -- perhaps six or eight residents -- who stayed in 1764 when the rest of St. Augustine's 3,100 residents fled to Cuba after the British took possession of the colony.

Jose Simeon Sanchez, a member of the territorial council, helped to write Florida's first Constitution in 1838. Later he was the sheriff of St. Johns County.

Mathew Solana was a member of the secession convention in 1861 when Florida withdrew from the union at the start of the Civil War.

At least one Solana and two Sanchezes served as mayor of St. Augustine in the 19th century.

A debt to the church

Family researchers and historians are grateful for the invaluable records kept by the Catholic Church. Priests maintained documents that carry details of every marriage, birth, baptism and death in St. Augustine dating back to 1595.

The first Solana shows up in parish records almost a century before the first Sanchez. But in the 21st century it is easy to think of the two families as one: The colorful tapestry of Florida history includes the intertwined threads of Solana and Sanchez lives.

Alonso Solana was a simple soldier serving his king when he arrived in St. Augustine from a village near Toledo, Spain, in the early 1600s. He remained for 75 years and, more important, established a family that would one day claim some of the deepest roots in the United States.

It took only a few generations for the Solanas to establish themselves as the most prominent family in Florida. About 1724, a Catholic emissary arrived to investigate a dispute between the governor and the parish priest, Juan Joseph Solana. The frustrated emissary found it difficult to get to the bottom of the dispute because, he said, everyone in town seemed to be related to the priest.

And so it remained for two centuries.

The first Sanchez was a soldier too. Jose Ortigosa Sanchez came to town in 1713.

The next year, he married Juana Theodora Perez, a member of a family whose roots in St. Augustine have been traced back through church records to 1602. It is this line that prompts Sanchez descendants to claim they are one of the oldest families of European extraction in North America.

"If they can prove that, that is before Jamestown," says John Griffin Richardson Rountree, a St. Augustine resident and genealogy expert. Jamestown was a Virginia colony founded by the British in 1607. Jamestown descendants count themselves among the oldest families of European descent in North America.

"I have never seen their genealogy," says Rountree, a member of almost 50 hereditary societies. Although skeptical, Rountree says that if the Sanchezes can document their family back to 1602, "they are the oldest or close to it."

Weathering the storms

To maintain an unbroken line for several centuries in the same place requires an extraordinary amount of luck and pluck. The two families' Florida connections would have been broken in the 18th century if not for the determination of two men. Jose Sanchez's son, Francisco Xavier Sanchez, and Alonso Solana's great-great-grandson, Manuel Lorenzo Solana, were two of the few men who stayed behind when the British took over in 1763.

To this day, Manuel Solana and F.X. Sanchez remain prominent figures in the history of their families, mighty grandfathers that everyone still talks about.

The Casa de Solana is a tangible link to Manuel Solana and Florida's Spanish colonial period. The bed-and-breakfast inn on Aviles Street was Solana's house. He built it about 1803, using blocks of coquina, the local shellstone also used to construct the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort that has dominated the landscape of St. Augustine for three centuries.

The inn includes such original features as handmade bricks, wooden beams and some of the window panes. Before the stone house was built, Solana lived in a wooden house on the same site in the 1790s.

"I like the Solana family," says Jim Cusick, curator of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida. "They show up in stories all the time, and you get a feel for what life was like, what was important."

Manuel Solana interrupted a life that included raising horses and cattle on a ranch near East Palatka to fight in the siege of Pensacola in 1781. The battle was the biggest Spanish victory over the British during the American Revolution.

"For much of his life," says Cusick, "he was in charge of mounted scouts who patrolled East Florida on orders from the governor.

"He was an excellent horseman, and because he was a cattle rancher he was used to being in the saddle for long periods."

His son Felipe ran the family's second cattle operation, near Fernandina Beach. They traded in livestock, sold meat to the garrison in St. Augustine and to ships that called at Fernandina.

F.X. Sanchez was a wealthy landowner, planter and cattle baron. "He was very much an entrepreneur," says state historian Susan Parker.

"It was his staying during the British period [1763-83] that gave him his niche, his cachet," says Parker.

And it was cattle that made him rich. Government officials in the town were always looking for beef. "It gave him leverage to negotiate with the government, such as selling at a good price in return for a favor," says Parker.

Sanchez also made money in the slave trade, which was typical of the time. Sanchez, in fact, is an example of the complicated relationship between the Spanish and blacks. He owned slaves, but had a common-law wife who was black. After Beatriz Piedra died, leaving five children, Sanchez married Maria Hill, a girl from South Carolina. He was 41, she was 16. Between 1788 and 1807, they produced eight children.

When Sanchez died without a will, his widow -- under no legal obligation -- made sure that the free black children from his first relationship inherited parts of his land.

"The legitimate wife could have thrown a monkey wrench into the deal," says Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, an expert of the period. "But she said she knew he had loved his children and would have wanted them to have something."

More links in the chain

If you believe that Florida's Spanish heritage resides solely in the distant past, well, you haven't talked to Mario Hugas. The 63-year-old resident of The Villages is a Solana and a Sanchez, giving him a double claim to family longevity. It's a title that comes with humility.

"One of my ancestors was the richest man in Florida," says Hugas, "and his son was the first marshal of East Florida and a signer of Florida's first Constitution.

"You hate to tell people you come from a family like that because I haven't done a thing" to compare, he declares.

Like Ann Masters, Hugas is awed by his ancestors' tenacity, their ability to thrive in harsh conditions during a time of war and uncertainty while living on the ragged fringe of civilization.

Clinging to the edge of the ocean, the town was poor, there never seemed to be enough food and living conditions were difficult. From about 1670, residents lived with the constant threat of attack, never knowing when they might have to leave behind all their possessions.

During a 1702 siege by the British, 1,500 people crowded into the Castillo de San Marcos for 51 days. Raids also occurred in 1668, 1683, 1740 and 1795.

"To realize there have been people before me who have suffered and thrived, that is a comforting thing," says Masters. "That's a powerful connection to the human spirit."

Says Hugas: "It was incredible to live in Florida in the 1600s and not have the land just devour you -- the swamps, the snakes, the sand, the sun, the storms, the alligators, the Indians.

"Just to survive was impressive."

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