By Kimberly King, Museum Staffer
To best understand the importance of women at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, we must understand that women have always supported the light keepers. They ran the household so that the keepers could focus on maintaining the aids to navigation and rescue those stranded at sea. The women ensured everyone was clothed and fed; they educated the children as a schoolhouse was usually far away; and they even assisted the men in their duties as needed.
One woman that best exemplifies these traits is Maria de los Delores Menstre Andreu, wife of Joseph Andreu, who became the first female lighthouse keeper in Florida.
Joseph Andreu was the first official Keeper of the lighthouse in St. Augustine in 1824. This lighthouse was originally called the Spanish Watchtower, completed in 1737 and made of coquina with a house attached, it replaced a wooden watchtower that the Spanish built.
As the first, Andreu also holds the distinction of being the first Hispanic-American to serve in the Coast Guard and the first to oversee a federal installation of any kind. His Menorcan parents Antonio and Agueda arrived in Florida as indentured servants at Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna plantation in 1768. Like the other Menorcans, the Andreus fled New Smyrna and traveled to St. Augustine when Turnbull abandoned his settlement in 1777. The Menorcans became a visible minority in the city, contributing to its maritime culture as fishermen, pilots, and lighthouse keepers. Joseph was the first of many Menorcan Keepers at the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
Tragically, Maria lost her husband in an accident just before Christmas 1859. A newspaper story graphically describes his fall while painting the exterior of the lighthouse. Tradition has it that Maria went to the top of the lighthouse to call out, “What shall I do?” Reportedly, she heard her husband’s voice on the wind tell her to “tend to the light.”
With the overwhelming support from the St. Augustine community, Maria became the first female lighthouse Keeper in Florida and the first Hispanic-American in the United State Lighthouse Service.
She set a precedent for women serving in the military. She was given the position of Head Lighthouse Keeper with pay equal to the men in that position. The U.S. Coast Guard recognizes Maria Andreu as the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard (its predecessor, the United States Revenue Cutter Service) and the first to command a federal shore installation.
Her tenure was cut short by the Civil War, when the lighthouse was darkened to protect St. Augustine from the Union Navy. Maria received no pay or protection until 1862. It is believed that she slipped out of St. Augustine to live her remaining years with her daughter in Georgia.
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