Could the founder of Palm Valley have had Jewish roots – roots that his ancestors hid during the Spanish Inquisition to avoid persecution?
A Zoom program presented on Wednesday, March 31, by the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society and the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies sought to answer that question.
The featured speaker was author, genealogist and award-winning educator Genie Milgrom, who had researched the issue extensively. She presented her findings, as well as information regarding the challenges of tracing Jewish roots in St. Augustine’s colonial period.
The Edict of Expulsion signed in 1492 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ordered practicing Jews to leave Spain.
Milgrom said about a third of those expelled went to the Ottoman Empire, where they became known as Sephardic Jews. Another third remained and converted to Catholicism.
But the final third only pretended to be converted, practicing their Jewish faith underground. These were known as crypto, or hidden, Jews.
Milgrom said Crypto-Jewish genealogy was extremely different than regular genealogy, and there were several unique challenges.
Many of her sources were located overseas in difficult-to-find places.
“We’re talking about physical books and libraries that are not on the internet,” she said. “Books and libraries in obscure little towns all over Spain.”
She also tracked down Inquisition records and manifests of ships traveling to the New World, and consulted all of the sources most commonly used in genealogy.
Palm Valley traces its roots back to 1703 when Don Diego Espinosa settled in the area and established a large ranch on territory known as Diego Plains. In the 1730s, the ranch was fortified against attack by native Indian tribes.
By 1739, Great Britain and Spain were at war and Florida, being a Spanish colony, was a target of the British. The Spanish fortified the Diego farmhouse further and called it Fort San Diego.
After the Spanish military abandoned the site following the defeat of the British in St. Augustine, other people began to move into the area, which in the early 20th century would come to be called Palm Valley.
The surname Espinosa comes up so frequently among Crypto-Jews that scholars began to ask the question: Was Palm Coast’s founder among their number?
Milgrom meticulously investigated, in part because she herself had Diego Espinosas in her family tree. She even collected information on all 2,900 entries of every person who came before the Inquisition in Mexico City, because Espinosa lived in Mexico before coming here.
In the end, she had some answers to her questions.
“Was he my personal ancestor?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t believe that he was. Was he Crypto-Jewish when he lived, pretending to be Catholic? We don’t know this with certainty.”
She did conclude that Espinosa probably had Jewish ancestry, but an important life choice indicates that he was not a hidden, practicing Jew.
“He married a freed slave,” Milgrom said. “That is very telling. Crypto-Jews that were going to continue as Crypto-Jews wanted, more than anything, to continue these lineages. That was like, number one, to continue the Jewish lineage.”
But Milgrom’s findings are not the final word on Palm Valley’s founder. Milgrom encouraged her audience to further explore the issue.
“I have given you a presentation of circumstantial evidence,” she said. “You will have to go deeper into it.”