My Family Legacy: A Work In Progress

I’m not just all about whining that I don’t get enough. I’ve been spending my time studying my family history; and by extension my state’s history. I grew up in this small town on the west bank of the St. John’s River in Florida called Palatka.

I’ve recently discovered that it’s impossible to understand your family history without understanding the history of the place they were as well.

For example, according to Ancestry.com my 4 times great grandfather, Louis Rossignol, was listed as being drafted into the Confederate 2nd Florida Cavalry, Company C. This was one of the units who fought at the Battle of Olustee….but the muster rolls say he never showed up. And he wasn’t alone either.

You see, actual history paints a very different picture than the fantastic history we learned in our text books. In the south, we like to portray how devoted we were to the cause during the Civil War. But the facts remain that, in some places in Florida, more than two-thirds of the Confederate force had deserted. But that’s another post entirely.

In this post, I want to introduce you to my six times great grandparents. They are the first members of my family to give birth to children in what will eventually become the state of Florida. Their families were part of an early mass immigration to the New World.

The major powers of the time needed people to live in these places they were “discovering”. They specifically needed two types of people. They needed laborers, and they needed financiers.

Slavery and indentured servitude were legally (if not morally) valid labor resources. Through these practices, the needed labor existed. However, it wouldn’t matter how many slaves were shipped to the New World if there was no one waiting to purchase the product once it arrived. This was why they needed wealthy families who were willing to hold and work the land.

And Spain was holding a LOT of land to be worked.

1750 North America

But, while other areas of the Caribbean were thriving, Florida was not as simple to maintain. Although the state of Florida is an entire story by itself, the one I’m telling is about how my family fit into it.

And so we begin with the story of two families from Ireland and England who swear fealty to the Spanish crown in order to make something of the New World for themselves.

Here’s some of the story so far…

Don Thomas Clarke y Doña Honoria Cummings Clarke

My speculation is that it would have been sometime in the 1750’s when the Clarke and Cummings families moved to the Spanish Florida territory. Both Thomas and Honoria are born in England and Ireland, respectively. Thomas is born to Richard Clarke and his wife, Sarah, in January of 1740 in Worcester England. Honoria is born in Ireland to Montaque Cummings and his wife Margarita Maden in 1746. In St. Augustine, the families would become friends.

By all accounts both families live comfortably in the Spanish colony and were friendly with each other. This is connection is likely how Thomas meets Montaque’s daughter, Honoria. Don Montaque Cummings hires Thomas to work for him for a time. The year that 23 year old Thomas and Montaque’s 16 year old daughter, Honoria, are married in England at St. Mary Magdalen Woolwich is the same year when Spain temporarily cedes ownership of it’s Florida colony to the British. The Treaty of Paris was signed on February 10, 1763. Thomas and Honoria are married on October 16 of the same year. Eventually Thomas becomes a shopkeeper and goldsmith.

There are quite a number of things that imply a happy and loving marriage. Their six children, for example, bespeak a healthy level of intimacy. Their first three children come in quick succession; each child being born a year from the next. The final three follow each other just as quickly. I can’t help but personally speculate that, with such quick births, there may have been children who were miscarried, stillborn, or did not survive to baptism, as this was also not unheard of at the time. Honoria seemed to be what was sometimes called a “fast breeder”; feeling no need to wait years between children. Considering that birth control methods were essentially limited to not having sex, one can assume that a quick succession of children could be taken as proof of strong physical affection between the couple. (Basically I’m saying grandma liked to bone)

As well, Honoria does not remarry after Thomas dies. Honoria, and her daughters’ were very independent, as were her granddaughters, which leads me to believe that they were seen as being as equal as custom would allow. And in many ways, quite a lot more than custom allowed. This also indicates that the family was close enough to recognize each other’s personal merits and individual identities.

Thomas and Honoria managed to make connections among St. Augustine’s other business and community leaders. Thomas also collected land; either through grants or through purchase. The couple set their children up in apprenticeships that would continue to improve the family’s status and wealth.

During their 20 years spent as British subjects Honoria herself still held her family’s Irish Catholic, and eventual Roman Catholic, practices and beliefs. The religious practices of the family at large, however, followed along Thomas’ beliefs as an English Protestant. This likely came in handy during British rule. But once the flags changed, so did the family’s religion. The children, those who had remained in Florida, had originally been baptized under the Protestant faith. Once Spain, a largely Catholic nation, regained control they were immediately re-baptized under Honoria’s original Catholic faith.

It is unclear whether it is Thomas’ death, which occurs around the time when Britain gives Florida back to the Spanish, or the change of flags is what motivated Honoria to have her family join the Catholic Church. It is very likely both. Through her own marriage, we can see that the family understands well the connection between remaining wealthy and being on good terms with those in power. Much of the family would continue their Catholic tradition up until anti-Catholic sentiments began overwhelming the region in violence around the 1920’s.

Under the new Spanish government, Honoria regained her family’s previous title of Doña. Her children will flourish under Spanish rule and take a hard line against becoming part of the new nation to their north calling itself the United States.

Information and a bit of a rebuttal

Another blogger, historian, and genealogist has written her own take on some of the data available on my grandmother Honoria. However, later events that come after Honoria’s passing have drastically changed anything that previous historians have believed concerning the eras that preceded Florida becoming part of the United States. This is not to say that Mrs. Packard Rhodes was historically inaccurate; only that she misunderstood several things about Honoria herself. Mrs. Packard Rhodes is quite correct in her assumptions as far as the majority opinions would have gone. But Honoria herself was part of a social minority.

For example, she refers to her as being British, and possibly being at odds with the incoming governor of the, now Spanish, territory. This likely would have been an accurate statement concerning many of the other British subjects who came to Florida following the British takeover. Britain actually sent quite a flood of individuals sentenced to “transportation” to Florida as forced labor in the hopes of growing the colony. Hoping to bring in more wealthy investors, Britain was also offering land grants worth hundreds of acres. With so much free labor coming in, and so much free land being handed out it’s easy to understand why there would be animosity towards an incoming Spanish regime.

What many don’t realize though is that Spain had already been doing this same thing, and just a pinch more, for centuries. This is how Honoria and Thomas’ families had established themselves during the first Spanish period. This family, as well as some of the other few families who decided to stay after Britain took over, would have little animosity towards Spain since they had already flourished under her once already. In addition to this, their great-granddaughter, Elizabeth, will later bitterly lament the final lowering of the Spanish flag a few decades later…even with her own grandfather having been the one to do the final lowering. Being Roman Catholic, Honoria would have welcomed her own church regaining some measure of community power.

On top of all of this, they were shippers and traders in the, ever changing, Caribbean. If you have assets to protect, changing flags costs a lot less than buying a new ship full of goods after it’s been sunk or confiscated.

As well, Mrs. Packard Rhodes says that it would have been unlikely that Honoria would have spoken with the census enumerator herself. Again, this is a reasonable assumption for most any other woman of higher class status. Her assumption was based on the commonly held belief that women were more supporting cast than center stage. With well known examples of wealthy St. Augustine widows having multitudes of men speaking for them, this is an honest assumption. Honoria’s peers were a particularly protected class.

However, as will be exhibited by her daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters, Honoria’s female descendants are women who control their own destinies. Honoria was not above herself either. Two of her sons will go on to marry slaves that were welcomed into her home and family without question or concern. From all available accounts Honoria regularly rolled up her sleeves and joined in kitchen other less savory duties. In addition, the enumerator would have been someone already familiar with the community. They would have been someone known to Honoria. Making it more likely that she would not have seen the enumerator as being less worthy of her time than anyone else.

As well, she was cunning enough that she would have wanted to make sure that her records were under her own control. She regularly made use of any and all legal action that was available to her, and did so with only minimal help. Just the fact that she remains unmarried after Thomas dies is proof of her communally recognized strength and independence. Honoria would have learned from the example of other, less capable, widows (who would be taken by predatory men in their lives) that she would have needed to oversee all aspects of her wealth and finance herself in order to protect herself, and her family’s assets.

Mrs. Packard Rhodes also mistakes that their would have been need of a translator. There would not have been. Honoria was a business woman who had extensive dealings with area Natives, Spanish, Minorcans, and several different African societies. Honoria, as were her descendants, would have been at least conversant in all the languages around her. Being Roman Catholic she would have been familiar with any of the Latin based languages. This would have included Spanish, French, and Portuguese as well.

However, this was not something common. Again, Packard Rhodes’ assumptions are completely accurate for the larger community. But not so much for this single individual.

Those early settlers who began during the First Spanish period worked closely with each other to protect against their environment. It wasn’t until a bit later that the upper classes began to become a little more aloof. More than one lawsuit is brought against middle class persons, who only spoke English as a second language, by upper class persons who became insulted….usually for no other reason than not being able to understand what someone said and just assuming that the other person was being insulting out of spite.

Mrs. Packard Rhodes is correct in her assumption that Honoria’s property was located in the area of Twelve Mile Swamp. This property is later held by her children for a time. But that was only one of their properties. By the time Thomas passes, she holds large properties along both the Matanzas and St. John’s Rivers, the most notable being Worcester, and other smaller properties scattered throughout the interior. As well as a few lots within the walls of St. Augustine.

To Be Continued…

Thomas and Honoria’s descendants would go on to help shape the history of the state of Florida in some rather amazing ways. Everyone knows the state of Florida is just plain weird, but you would be surprised to learn why we are the way we are.

Florida can be a cruel place. But you might be surprised to learn that some of early Florida’s most common practices could have actually really benefited our society. For example, did you know that long before the Civil War, there was a portion of Florida’s population that was already speaking in open support of a Black president?

The history that I am going to describe is one that few outside of the professional history cliques actually know about. Most of the information being gathered is quite different that the history we are all familiar with.

Connecting these new early histories to the more commonly held beliefs will help in allowing us to understand just why Florida is such a weird place to be.

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About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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2 Responses to My Family Legacy: A Work In Progress

  1. Pingback: Palatka Florida’s Missing History is My Missing History | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  2. Pingback: When “Race” Wasn’t About Skin Color | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

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