It is a common practice for writers to have a “Google alert” for their names to make sure they catch any mention of their books. I tell you this so you won’t think I’m vain. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m vain. I like being mentioned. And, yes, also the first thing.
Since the start, when an alert notification would come in, I’d click through to see the article it referenced. Often it was something I already knew about, a promotional post I’d cooperated with, or notice of a book festival I’d been scheduled to attend. Sometimes it was even a link to this site, or my Twitter feed. But sometimes it was something about a lighthouse.
I ignored it as a glitch for a while. Finally, I clicked through. Apparently there was a Maria Andreu who worked in some lighthouse. I skimmed the piece and closed it out.
In true vain style, I was initially annoyed by this usurper. The spelling of my last name is unusual in the United States, and I don’t meet a lot of people with it. To have this other Maria Andreu running around cluttering up my Google mentions was a nuisance. She popped up with irritating regularity, there in my inbox, a big fake-out when I thought some new, grand mention of my book might have occurred.
But, finally curiosity got the better of me. This Maria was active, and her mentions were getting more frequent. What was she up to? I had to know. Maybe we could be friends? I’d once done that, randomly, when I first got on to Facebook and wasn’t quite sure how it worked. I’d searched for Andreus in the U.S. and friended them. It must have been some vestige of the longing for family I had as a child growing up in a small family of three with no extended group of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins around.
But, alas, no. While no one is sure when it happened, Maria Andreu of lighthouse fame died sometime in the nineteenth century. So while there would be no Messenger chats, her story actually turned out to be pretty interesting. Here it is:
In the 1800s, before radar and sonar, lighthouses provided a critical service to ships, which were at the time the best mode of moving goods around. And it wasn’t all just “plug it in and forget it.” Lighthouses at the time were kept lit with lard oil and a Winslow lamp as a reflector, the kind of labor-intensive and critical work that made it so that lighthouse keepers were appointed by the sitting president at the time.
St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest port in the nation, and at some point in the 1500s Spaniards built a watchtower where the lighthouse currently stands. Sometime around 1737 (possibly earlier), a beacon was added to the tower, creating the lighthouse. That would make it among the earliest built in what would become the U.S. In 1824, Juan Andreu was appointed its first lighthouse keeper. Because lighthouse keepers were so critical to navigation, they were considered members of the Coast Guard. That made Juan Andreu the first Hispanic-American Coast Guard member. He’d been born to immigrants from the Spanish island of Minorca, and there he was, helping his country. What an American story.
His wife, Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu, was his partner and helper. Lighthouse work was tough, and while the government sent some supplies, food was not among them. So they kept a vegetable garden and hunted. Maria was the backup lighthouse keeper. It’s unclear how many children the Andreus had, but records show at least six, and the children would have had to be cared for and educated. The lighthouse was on a wild and desolate island off the coast, and the life must have been lonely and hard.
In early December, 1859, Juan went up a scaffolding to whitewash the lighthouse tower. He fell and died instantly. The community mourned. Who would keep ships safe now, helping navigate them away from rocky shores? Everyone rallied around Maria, who had done the job so long she knew just what to do. With community support, at 58 years old she was named the lighthouse keeper, making her the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard and to lead a federal shore installation. The Coast Guard also honors her as its first female employee.
So there she is, the other Maria Andreu. I’m sorry I didn’t learn about her sooner. She reminds me that there are countless stories, some small, some isolated and seemingly forgotten, but all moving and special in their own way.
Learn more about the other Maria Andreu: click here.