Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Bachelor and a Spinster: Sylvester Perez (1822-1905) and Juana Arias (1836-?)

Growing up, I heard a lot of talk in backyards, around kitchen and picnic tables. I used to love the stories told over and over, though I never really understood the plots, nor do I remember what was told. Mostly I loved the stories for the sake of telling, for the familial togetherness and the inevitable roar of genuine laughter after the punchline. Today, many of our storytellers have passed; less and less we get together to reminisce, and because of that many of the stories are no longer told.

In fact, much of what could have been known about our ancestors is gone forever. Trying to discover, save, and record what can be known now is what drives me to spend so much time on this project.

Many of the names I've researched are familiar, but two names I never remember hearing was that of my 4th great-grandparents on my mother's paternal side, Sylvester Perez and Juana Arias. On this branch, they are the earliest ancestors who can be known at this time, and their children are the first conchs in our lineage. Here's what I know:

Sylvester was born in the Canary Islands in about 1822. At some point, he settled in Key West. It is unknown whether he came by himself or family members made the trip with him.

Juana Arias was born about 1836 also in the Canaries. A fellow researcher, a descendant of her brother Blas, has traced them to the town of San Sebastian, capitol city of the island of La Gomera.

Why she left this beautiful island is still a mystery. Blas was 5 years old when he arrived in the States, and he lived with Juana for the first several of his years in Key West. Since he didn't live with his parents in Key West, it is safe to say they did not make the voyage. They may have died before Juana and Blas left, or died on the voyage over.

In any case, Juana made it to Key West at age 15. Blas was 5. When she was 17 and Sylvester was 31, they married. Another researcher was able to share their marriage certificate with me, crude as it is.

Because it may be difficult to read, here it is transcribed best as I can read it:

In the name and by the authority of the state of Florida....judge of the circuit probate court or justice of the peace within said county: Greetings: Sylvester Perez, bachelor, having applied for license to be united in matrimony to Juana Arias, spinster, of Key West, .....is approved for marriage on this 12th day of March 1853 at Key West.
Two years after the wedding, g-3 grandmother Mary Concepcion arrives in May 1855. In 1857, Joseph was born. Two year later, another son was born, Antonio. The first record of their lives together is the 1860 census, which states that Sylvester was a mariner, Juana kept house, and her brother Blas, then age 12, was living with them.

It must have been a stressful time to live in Key West. Because it was a major port, disease was always a fear. This is an interesting excerpt from an article in The New York Times, dated September 1863:

KEY WEST, Monday, Sept. 14, 1863.

Our island has for the last two weeks undergone a period of unusual quietness and repose, resulting mainly from apprehension felt abroad concerning the health of the town, and more particularly as to yellow fever. Steamers pass by us both ways with no more of ceremony or notice than occasionally to stop at Sand Key and leave us a mail. And yet for all this apprehension there has not thus far this season been the slightest real cause, for our town never was more healthy at any season than it is now, and has been all Summer. In fact, we never have the fever here two successive years for palpable reasons. During the season of scourge, every person becomes sensitive on the matter, and the ensuing season every precaution is taken to ward it off. The police of the city is made thorough and complete. Quarantine regulations are rigidly enforced, and observed with willingness, and generally care is taken in all ways to do or avoid doing those things that are calculated to contribute to its introduction.

Regardless of this fear, the next decade would bring 3 more children for Juana and Sylvester: Lena, Amado, and Rafael. In 1870, Blas was no longer living with them, but nearby with a woman named Petrona Armas (also from the Canary Islands) and her young daughter Dominga. At 24, he was a fisherman. Juana was raising her children, and her last child, Blanca, was about to be born. Sylvester was a seaman.

In 1880, Sylvester and Juana had a full house, as their oldest daughter Mary and her husband Antonio (my g3 grandparents) lived with them, along with the first five of their children. How confusing it must have been to have 3 Antonios in the house! Perhaps this is when my g2 grandfather received his nickname, Tony.

Sylvester is still working on the water, Juana and Mary keep house. The most interesting thing about this census is that it says Juana and Sylvester's son Antonio, then 20 years old, had chronic syphillis which is why he was not able to work. Some info about chronic syphillis:

A skin rash, with brown sores about the size of a penny, often marks this chronic stage of syphilis. The rash appears anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks after the chancre appears. While the rash may cover the whole body or appear only in a few areas, it is almost always on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Because active bacteria are present in the sores, any physical contact-sexual or nonsexual-with the broken skin of an infected person may spread the infection at this stage. The rash usually heals within several weeks or months.

Other symptoms also may occur, such as mild fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat, patchy hair loss, and swollen lymph glands throughout the body. These symptoms may be very mild and, like the chancre of primary syphilis, will disappear without treatment. The signs of secondary syphilis may come and go over the next 1 to 2 years of the disease.

In 1887, Sylvester is listed in Bensel's Key West Directory as a seaman living on the corner of Julia and Whitehead St.

When Juana died is unknown at this time, as there are no more records for her. The cemetery did not have a burial record for her, which doesn't mean that she isn't there, she just wasn't recorded.

Sylvester's 1900 census can't be found, but his burial record was found at the cemetery. Though it's barely legible, it says that he died in 1905 of heart disease. The Florida Death Index confirms this information. He was 83. The cemetery does not have a record of where his grave is located.

Juana nor Sylvester ever learned to read or write, and it's probable neither spoke English fluently, if at all.

Juana & Sylvester's legacy, in birth order:

Mary Concepcion, g3 grandma, married Canary Islander Antonio Cruz and they had 11 children together. (See earlier post The Earliest Known Cruz.)

Joseph (1857-1918) married local Key West girl Adela Ann Johnson (1854-1919) in 1882. They never had any children. Joseph worked as a cigarmaker.

Antonio is a confusing one. What happened to him after 1880 is unsure. There is an Antonio Perez, born the same year, 1859 in Florida, living in New Orleans married to a woman named Sophia with 4 children: Josephine, Frances, Mattie, and Raul, but that 1900 census claims his parents were born in Cuba. Considering he had syphilis, it is unlikely he married and had healthy children. It is also unlikely he would have gone to New Orleans, but perhaps this is what happened. The Canary Islands has a long history of sending Spanish to Louisiana, so there may have been some family in that state. No other record of Antonio can be found in Key West.

What happened to Lena, born in 1862, is also a mystery. When she came of age she still lived at home. After 1880, she disappears.

Amado was 7 years old during the 1870 census, but he is not present in the 1880 when he would have been 16. It's possible he left home early, seeing as it was rather crowded with Mary's family in the house, but it's more likely that he didn't survive his childhood as no other records of him can be found.

Rafael is also a bit confusing. The 1900 census says that he had a wife name Letha who was from the Bahamas. They have a daughter, Maria, who was born in 1890 yet it also states that Letha and Rafael have only been married 1 year and that Letha has no children. This leads me to believe Maria was Rafael's daughter from a previous relationship and that Letha was her step-mother, as given the dates Letha would have only been 12 when Maria was born. What happened to Maria's mother is unknown. Rafael was the proprietor of a coffee house. They lived on Flemming Street. In 1910, Letha has claimed Maria as her only daughter. Maria, age 20 still lives at home. Rafael is the janitor for the opera house. What happened to them after 1910 is also a mystery.

Blanca, born in 1870, also disappears after the 1880 census. She would have been 20 during the 1890 census. Had that record survived, perhaps we could know if she married, or even if she lived to see her 20th birthday.

Some information on Blas Arias, Juana's younger brother who just so happens to be my Aunt Diane (Knight) Cruz's great-grandfather on her father's side of the family:

Blas married Josephine Thrift in 1875. He was naturalized as a citizen in 1876. He and Josephine had 11 children together, 8 of whom lived, and 1 daughter who died in childbirth at the age of 25.

Blas worked as a fisherman and a cigarmaker his entire life. After a long illness which caused him to go blind, he died in Key West in 1935 at the age of 89.

I plan to continue working with Blas's descendent to find further information on Juana and Blas's parents, which includes writing a letter to the priest of the Catholic Church in San Sebastian requesting he look up their birth records. Much information exists for Blas's family, including photos of almost all of his children. Hopefully some photos and documentation will surface for Juana and Sylvester.

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