MARIANA BONIFAY: PRE-AMERICAN PIONEER
First recorded in North America in 1784, French aristocrat Mariana Bonifay brought her children to Spanish Florida to begin a new life and profoundly influenced the development of one of America's oldest cities.
As children, we learned about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, escaping religious persecution in
England and setting up housekeeping in Massachusetts (where less than 70 years later they would ironically use their religious freedom to persecute more than 20 of their neighbors). We also learned about Jamestown early, having the apocryphal story of Pocahontas and John Smith taught to us as truth, and we may have even learned about the other English colonies at Roanoke, Charleston, Savannah etc. But too many children leave school without the knowledge that the English were not the first Europeans to colonize North America. Even excepting the controversy over whether or not the Vikings beat Christopher Columbus to the continent, general education in America ignores or glosses over the fact that Spain established successful colonies here long before the English did.
Pensacola and Saint Augustine, Florida, will be fighting over who gets to officially call themselves “America’s Oldest City” until we are long in our graves. Juan Ponce de Leon sailed past Florida in 1513 and claimed it for Spain as well as giving it its name, and then in 1559, explorer Tristan de Luna established a settlement on Pensacola Bay. The town was ravaged by a hurricane only a few weeks later, killing many and scattering the rest. They tried to keep the colony together until 1561 but eventually gave up and essentially wrote off west Florida. The Spanish didn’t return for more than 130 years. Meanwhile, in 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed to Florida’s east coast and established the colony of Saint Augustine, named for the saint on whose day the expedition landed on the coast. The town was hardscrabble but maintained an uninterrupted population through hurricanes, wars and disease and continues to call itself “the Ancient City” today.
While the Spanish settlements in Florida, Central and South America were rising and falling, the English and French struggled to maintain a foothold on the continent. Irritated by both the Spanish and the English, the French devoted little time and money to much below the Canadian border until a boom in sugar production in the mid-eighteenth century forced France to take a closer look at the tropics.
French planter’s wife Mariana Bonifay has been called “the mother of Pensacola” due to the fact that something like a third of Pensacola’s population during the Civil War could trace their lineage back to her. In addition to mothering children, Mariana is well-known as a real estate developer and brick manufacturer at the beginning of Pensacola’s Second Spanish Period, when the bricks she produced at the Gull Point brickyard were stamped with her own first initial and surname, not those of the men who sometimes assisted her in her business ventures.
Mariana was born Mariana Pingow in Nantes, France to Joseph Pingrow (1740-1800) and Josepha Renee le Compte (1742-1766) between 1752 and 1758 (the 1820 census lists her age as 68, which would make her birth year 1752, and the 1784 census lists her age as 26, making her birth year 1758).
Nantes was a major French port, culturally and historically in the region of Brittany, although not included in the region’s modern boundaries. Nantes was the primary residence of the 15th century Dukes of Brittany until the 1532 union of Brittany and France. It gradually became largest port in France and was responsible for nearly half of the 17th century French Atlantic slave trade.
The city of Nantes passed back and forth during the Middle Ages between the Dukes of Brittany and Counts of Anjou (who would eventually become the English House of Plantagenet) before eventually becoming a holding of the House of Montfort when they acceded to the ducal throne in the 14th century. Port traffic became the city’s main activity. Unification with France in 1532 moved the Montforts’ seat of power to Rennes. Despite the Edict of Nantes, legalizing Protestantism in France, signed in 1598, the local Protestant community numbered less than 1000 in a city of more than 10,000 and Nantes was one of the last places to resist the authority of Protestant-raised King Henry IV. By 1600, coastal navigation and export of local goods dominated the economy. In the 1640s shipowners began importing sugar from the French West Indies (which included the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue) which became very profitable under protectionist reforms implemented by French Minister of Finance under Louis XIV Jean-Baptiste Colbert, preventing the import of sugar from Spanish colonies. Between 1664 and 1700, Nantes moved from France’s eighth largest port to its largest due to the sugar market. Plantations in the colonies needed labor to produce sugar as well as rum, tobacco, indigo dye, coffee and cocoa, and Nantes shipowners began trading in African slaves in 1706. The port was a major component of Triangular Trade (by which ships leave Europe for West Africa to buy slaves, transport their human cargo to the West Indies to be sold, then return to European ports with a cargo of sugar and other exotic goods from the West Indies). From 1707-1793, Nantes was responsible for 42 percent of the French slave trade; its merchants sold about 450,000 African slaves in the West Indies.
Mariana’s will indicates that she married Joseph Bonifay on the Island of Saint-Domingue; how she arrived there and whether her parents were with her, we don’t know. Saint-Domingue was a French colony on the island of Hispañola from 1659-1804, in what is now Haiti (Hispañola being the island on which Christopher Columbus landed, mistakenly believing he was in Asia, in 1492; today the island is half Haiti and half the Dominican Republic). Spanish interest in the island waned as mainland North America was explored and settled, and for a time the only inhabitants of the island were bands of pirates living in abandoned settlements across the island. In 1665 French colonization of Hispañola and nearby Tortuga entailed slavery-based plantation agricultural activity such as cultivation of coffee and cattle farming and was officially recognized by Louis XIV, although ownership of the island was technically Spanish. The Spanish were never able to reclaim the territory from the French. A plantation economy exploded and the island became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” as the richest and most prosperous French colony in the West Indies. Thus income and taxes from slave-based sugar production became a major source of the French budget. By 1700 Saint-Domingue produced 40 percent of the world’s sugar supply and 60 percent of its coffee. Around 40,000 West Africans were imported to the island each year because of the miserable working conditions, making the population 90 percent black and only 10 percent white. Around 75 percent of the slave and free black population were women.
As dissatisfaction with the aristocracy brewed in France, the colonies were much the same. Poor whites (the "petit blancs") who favored colonial independence from France and a democratic government stirred discord, resentful of the planter class ("grand blancs") as well as the free black populations, often descendants of European planters and slave women, many of whom were well provided for and financially better off than the petit blancs, although their rights were severely limited. When the French Revolution eventually took control in Europe, rumors began to spread that the king had freed the slaves and the calling for democracy grew louder. Uprisings were rampant and the climate was extremely violent.
It was during this time that the Bonifays, married between 1776 and 1779 on Saint-Domingue, seem to have abandoned their cane plantation and escaped: the family story is that Mariana was warned by one of her house maids that an uprising was eminent, and the family fled in the night with few belongings. Some sources say that they came first to New Orleans, then held by the Spanish, before Mariana and the Bonifay children arrived in Pensacola. We know that she and her seven-year-old son Carlos (Charles) are listed as living in the home of Josef Domingo and his family on the Prado or Main Square. Mariana’s daughter Josepha Eugenia Bonifay is not listed on the census, and was likely born later that year in Pensacola, although her daughter Maria Louisa born 1781 is also not listed for reasons unknown. Josepha Eugenia was followed by son Emanuel in 1787, daughter Margaretta in 1788 and son Joseph (or Jose) Bonifay, Jr. later in 1788 or 1789, so we know that Mariana and her husband were in contact until sometime in 1787 or 1788. They must have lost contact at that time, though, because no more Bonifay children are born after Joseph Jr. According to the Pensacola News Journal, all of Mariana’s children wrote and spoke both French and Spanish, and may have picked up some indigenous dialects as well.
Also in 1784 she is thought to have purchased a house for herself and the children in her maiden name on West Intendencia Street. Why she would have done this in her maiden name when she was still in contact with her husband is unknown. There is no record that she and Joseph ever lived together in Florida or Louisiana. Mariana’s will says that her husband was in the Spanish army and killed in 1800 in Louisiana. She is next thought to have settled with her children in an area of Pensacola then called Campbellton (now called Bohemia), established by the English and recently abandoned at the beginning of the Second Spanish Period when control of Florida was ceded back to Spain (1783). It is said that there were untended rice fields and orange groves in the area, making the land rich for new settlers to claim.
Around 1790, Mariana took on a business partner, the younger Charles LaValle, perhaps drawing on the assistance of family to purchase property and either renovate homes or subdivide land and build modest cottages on the lots before reselling the property at a profit. One of these homes still exists on Church Street in Pensacola’s historic district. The property business boomed and before long, Mariana owned a large tract of land at Gull Point where she built a home (some records say she and Charles may have lived in a home at Gavronne Point), kept a large cattle enterprise (there was still more cattle on a property at Cantonment), and maintained orange groves. Arguably the most lucrative enterprise was a brick factory at Gull Point which churned out building materials stamped with “M. Bonifay” and no mention of LaValle or her son Carlos, who had been assisting with her businesses for some time by then. Although they never married, Mariana was probably pregnant with her third child by LaValle when she received word in 1801 that her husband Joseph Bonifay had died in Louisiana the year prior. There were five LaValle children in total, the oldest born about ten years after Mariana’s last Bonifay child, so we can assume that she had not heard from or had contact with her husband in quite some time before she received notification of his death. According to her will, she and LaValle “dissolved” their “community of interests” in 1822, when they liquidated and divided their property with a deed of sale registered with the city on June 30 of that year.
Upon her death in 1829, Mariana’s will states that she owned City of Pensacola lots numbered 233, 234, 252, 253, 256 and 279, as well as “a part” of lots 163, 165 and 208, all of 184 and all of lot 10 “situated at Barrancas,” and stated that some of these lots had improvements upon them and some did not. She also listed as assets the enslaved persons Pedro, Jamies, Bauptista, a girl named Pate, Sophia and Sophia’s daughter Josefa. In that document she fixes the price for Pedro at $150 and states that he should not be sold for any price exceeding $150, and should be allowed the time by her executor to procure a master of his own choosing. Perhaps she wanted to fix Pedro’s price and allow him time to come up with the funds to purchase his freedom? She also allocates $25 as a gift to Pedro, and a later codicil adds a gift of another $50, as well as $50 to Bauptista and $100 to Sophia, later changed in the codicil to $25 only. She gives Sophia’s daughter Josefa to her own daughter Josefa Candelaria, the youngest daughter and unmarried (she married Joseph Riera two years after Mariana’s death), and also gives her the furniture and contents of her house. She sets aside $1,000 for the care of her developmentally disabled son Andres Antonio, and leaves the balance of her estate to be divided equally among her children, less a certain amount already given to Carlos to leave Pensacola and establish himself in New Orleans in a house she purchased for $3,000. She seems to have become estranged from Carlos when he went to New Orleans, as the original will names her second son Manuel as the executor, but after his death in 1827, the codicil changes the executor to Jose, the third son. It specifies that she is indebted to Jose for “the frame of a house, the value for which I do not know, and it is my will that he be satisfied by the impairment of whatever my said son Jose will claim for said object.”
When Mariana died in 1829, her children had married into many prominent Spanish families in Pensacola.