OLDEST CITY: Coquina, unpaid labor helped shape city’s early buildings

Who knew that so many people would care about the old coquina chimney on Old Beach Road? After the Oldest City column of July 30, I received a number of emails, phone calls and face-to-face comments about its preservation.

Built from the coquina no doubt dug out of the ground close by, the silent stark chimney spurs our imaginations of the people who worked and lived near the quarries. Luis Arana and Albert Manucy wrote in “The Building of Castillo de San Marcos” that “on August 8, 1671, the first workman began to draw his pay.” It would be more than a year of demanding labor to amass an adequate supply of construction material before actually beginning to build the fortress. Spanish Florida Gov. Manuel de Cendoya broke ground on Oct. 2, 1672.

On Anastasia Island the laborers pried the shell stone out of the ground while fighting sweat, bright sun, and mosquitoes. Yes, the old report noted that the first worker was paid in August of 1671, but many of the quarry laborers were unwilling and unpaid although they did receive their food. Most of them were either enslaved blacks (considered property of the Spanish crown), conscripted mission Indians or convicts. Native Americans from the Spanish missions came to St. Augustine to do all sorts of work, not just quarrying. The chiefs of the villages selected the workers, who ideally would serve in St. Augustine for a specified time. But that period was often extended.

Sometimes, mission Indians sent to our city did not wish to return to their villages, located possibly as far as Tallahassee or the Georgia coast. The “bright lights” of St. Augustine offered activities and entertainment not found in the villages. In 1695, two teenage villagers succumbed to the evils of the big city and opportunities not available in their “home towns.” The young men counterfeited small denomination coins and were caught when they used the money to buy pastries.

Convict workers arrived from Cuba or Mexico. The Spanish government moved convicts away from the locations of their crimes to other venues. Centuries ago, very few persons served lengthy sentences in jail. Those convicted of capital crimes were executed quickly. Minor criminals were relocated. The persons usually found in jail centuries ago were political prisoners. Most of the convicts sent to Spanish Florida were guilty of bad debts, not dangerous crimes. Records reveal that convicts in St. Augustine with skills or knowledge served their sentences as workers in the hospital or “pharmacists.” One convict became the school teacher. Today he could not pass the background check to get onto school property.

The Spanish could not rely on mission workers when they returned to Florida in 1784, after the colony was transferred back from Great Britain. There were no longer mission villages in Florida. But the convict workers kept coming.

The Castillo construction project had been completed decades earlier, but there was still need for coquina. During this second Spanish period, the building of the parish church (today, the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine) was the single largest project to use the stone from the barrier island. But there were plenty of other building projects as well as repairs to be made.

One of those small projects that used coquina was another chimney. There are quite a few reports of coquina chimneys in the 1700s and 1800s. However, usually those reports or appraisals list the cubic feet of stone used, but do not give dimensions.

In 1789, workers built a coquina chimney at Twenty Mile House (the building was located in today’s Nocatee). The Spanish engineer’s report notes that the building served as a barrack for four soldiers appointed to carry the mail between St. Augustine and the post at St. Johns Bluff.

Twenty Mile was the halfway point The report provides us with the succinct measurements of that chimney: 7 feet wide by 22 feet high. (A Spanish foot was slightly less than 11 inches.) It was built of stone quarried on Anastasia Island not far from the chimney that stands today.

Contributed to the St. Augustine Record, October 2, 2017 by Susan R. Parker who holds a doctorate in colonial history.