The first Hispanic-American in the Coast Guard was Juan Andreu,
who was appointed the first official lighthouse keeper of the St. Augustine Lighthouse in 1824, three years after Florida became a U.S. Territory. Juan was born in Florida to parents who had come from Minorca (one of the Balaeric Islands off the eastern coast of Spain).
Juan Andreu and his wife, Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu, were in service at the lighthouse from 1824 until 1845. Sources vary on the number of children they had, but it was at least six who had to be fed and educated. In 1845 the Andreus left the Lighthouse for a time for undocumented reasons, and a cousin took the job. In 1854 they again returned to take on the lighthouse responsibilities.
The Role of Lighthouse Keeper
Until modern times, lighthouses and their keepers fulfilled vital roles for shipping and travel in and out of any country. (These beacons are still important but today ship’s also have radar and sonar and other navigation aids.) Maps were primitive at this time, and of course, weather and the resulting ocean turmoil were entirely unpredictable. Only by maintaining a beaming light along the coastline to mark harbors and hazards were mariners able to manage the treacherous seas along any shoreline. The worse the weather, the more important the lighthouse keeper.
The lighthouse was also the first place sailors would turn for first aid or for help in any sort of emergency. This made the job of lighthouse keeper a busy one.
Because the maintenance of a lighthouse was so vital to the country at a time when the most efficient shipping method was by water, lighthouse keepers in the 19th century were appointed by the sitting U.S. president.
Living in a Lighthouse
In the 1850s, the annual salary of a lighthouse keeper in the employ of the Coast Guard was $400. While many of the supplies needed for the lighthouse were sent in at no cost by the federal government, food and supplies for the family were not.
This meant that lighthouse keepers tended to hire assistants or train their wives to help out. Not only did the light need to be kept in good
repair and monitored but residents also needed to provide their own food. This generally meant maintaining a vegetable garden and fishing or hunting as well.
For Juan Andreu, Maria was his teammate. She served as back up lighthouse keeper, helped with the vegetable garden and also looked after the children who needed to be cared for and educated.
In early December 1859, Juan was up on scaffolding white-washing the lighthouse tower. The scaffolding gave way, and Juan fell approximately 60 feet, dying almost instantly.
Coast Guard Loss: Tragedy for Family and Community
Juan’s death brought great sadness to his family and alarm to the community. Who would keep the lighthouse going so that ships could navigate around the rocks and treacherous waters?
The community quickly rallied around Maria. Not only did they arrive to provide support to her following Juan’s death, but they also quickly realized that Maria was the most knowledgeable and well-trained person they had for maintaining the lighthouse.
With the community’s support, Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu was appointed lighthouse keeper for the St. Augustine Lighthouse. This made her the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard and also the first to command a federal shore installation.
For three years, Maria Andreu served in this position.
When the Civil War began, Florida, a Confederate state, did not want to provide guidance for Union vessels that were trying to take over as many ports as they could along the east coast. Harbormaster Paul Arnau and Maria Andreu removed the lens and hid it in order to keep Union ships away. Arnau was caught and jailed until he revealed the whereabouts of the lens. But by 1862, the Confederate forces decided that burning the light at all made St. Augustine a target for Union forces, and they extinguished it completely.
Little is known about exactly what happened to Maria Andreu and her family after the Civil War. It is thought that they remained in the region.
About the Lighthouse
St. Augustine is the oldest port in the nation, and the lighthouse there was the first built along the eastern coastline. The site chosen for the lighthouse was Anastasia Island; this was an 18-mile stretch of flat land that was totally isolated throughout much of the 19th century.
At some point after the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-1500s, a watch tower was built on or near the site where the current lighthouse sits. As early as 1737—and likely before—a beacon was added to the tower, creating the first lighthouse.
When the Andreus were maintaining the light, the lights burned lard oil and the lens used at that time was a Winslow lamp with reflectors. In 1855—the year the Andreus returned to the lighthouse—improvements were made and an early form of the Fresnel lens was used. The early Fresnels featured the characteristic rings of glass that helped focus the light.
After the Civil War, the lighthouse was in disrepair, so a new one was commissioned and built. It was finished by 1874. The lighthouse was not electrified until 1936, and finally in 1955, the system was automated, meaning there was decreasing need for a full-time lighthouse keeper.
Despite the guidance of the St. Augustine light over almost 300 years, some ships inevitably have encountered storms they could not weather. Today there is an active archaeological team that is kept busy locating and identifying shipwrecks. The oldest shipwreck thus far identified is 1764. Excavating these wrecks and exploring what they were transporting has been vital to better understanding of the early settlement of St. Augustine.
St. Augustine Lighthouse is now open for visitors and has a museum attached.
If you’d like to read a story about another hero of the Coast Guard, visit Charles David, Coast Guard Hero from WWII.
And here are five other notable Hispanic Americans.