Museum demonstrates lives of 19th-century women

Workers and caretakers at the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum tell intriguing stories from St. Augustine’s multi-layered past. The museum focuses on the property’s role as a boarding house during the tranquil time after Florida gained territorial status.


In 1821, when Florida became a territory, people from the north began to visit the novel and tropical location where oranges grew on trees and balmy breezes aided extended recuperation.

In 1826, when Ralph Waldo Emerson recuperated from tuberculosis in St. Augustine, he wrote “the air and the sky of this ancient, fortified, dilapidated sandbank of a town are delicious.”

Ximenez–Fatio House Museum Executive Director Julia Vaill Gatlin has delved into the history of the Ximenez-Fatio House and its inhabitants.

Gatlin has conducted hours of research into the lives of the women who figure so prominently in the house’s history, and through her expertise in grant writing, she has been instrumental in the restoration and preservation of the property.

Gatlin compiled “The Ladies of the Ximenez-Fatio House,” an on-site presentation documenting the strong presence of five women, some whose lives overlapped.

Gatlin’s presentation chronicles a rich tradition of enterprising women operating within the limited parameters of commerce available to them.

It began with Juana Ximenez when her husband, Andres, built the Aviles Street house, circa 1798.

Gatlin said Juana was very likely to have helped her husband with his livelihood.

Louisa Maria Phelipa Patricia Fatio caps the history over 50 years later with her namesake’s boarding house.

“Women had few entrepreneurial opportunities available to them,” Gatlin said. “They could be teachers or run a boarding house using their domestic skills.”

Two centuries later, Fatio’s life resonates with Gatlin.

“Louisa never married and raised five of her deceased sister’s children,” Gatlin said. “She did it all, and I can relate to that while working and having raised four boys by myself.”

Fatio was born in 1797 and lived on her grandfather’s plantation on the St. Johns River. Her mother died when she was 2 years old. She was well-educated and spoke four languages.

At 15, her travails began in earnest when the plantation was burnt to the ground during the Seminole war. A year later after relocating, her home was destroyed by a hurricane, which was followed by still another fire where she almost died after being pulled out unconscious.

“She was a hardy frontier’s woman who survived many hardships to go on and thrive in one of the few occupations open to women,” Gatlin said.

Charles Tingley, St. Augustine’s Historical Society’s Senior Research Librarian, said the Fatios became a prominent family in the colony after Louisa’s grandfather, Francis P. Fatio, received a 10,000-acre land grant on the St. Johns River in the 1760s.

“The Fatios belonged to the elite of the colony and were one of the few families that stayed into the second Spanish period,” Tingley said. “They were influential, and there are lots of descendents in the area.”

Wilma L’Engle and her younger sister Claudia, who reside in Jacksonville, are two such descendents. According to Wilma, the sisters claim a Fatio as being their great-great grandmother.

“I always heard that her father purchased that house for Louisa, so she would be able to support herself,” Wilma said.

The historical landmark was acquired from the Fatio heirs by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in 1939 and has since been painstakingly and lovingly returned to the bustling boarding house it was in the 1800s.

In the 1970s, the Colonial Dames hired William Seale, a nationally known preservationist, to bring the Ximenez-Fatio House back to the way it was when several women owned and operated a boarding house out of it, Tingley said.

The home was considered at the height of success when Fatio ran it. She was able to add a wing, thereby doubling the square footage.

In their desire to celebrate Fatio and her accomplishments, the Colonial Dames had more to go on than evidence of growth and expansion of the boarding house under her governance.

The museum’s informational booklet cites an 1868 Floridian guidebook as indication of Fatio’s success as a businesswoman.

The guidebook, which listed places to stay in St. Augustine, contains a handwritten note in the margin that reads, “Fatio’s is said to be the best.”

Fatio ran the fashionable boarding house for 20 years.