Joseph Marion Hernandez was the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Congress. Born in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1793, when the colony was still ruled by Spain, Hernandez transferred his allegiance from Spain to the United States when the Spanish ceded the Floridas to the United States as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1822.
Hernandez's parents' arrived in North America in what is now Volusia County, Florida, as early settlers of Dr. Andrew Turnbull's New Smyrna Colony. That colony is notable for its size, with Turnbull recruiting roughly 1,300 settlers. That figure was considered especially large at the time, and Turnbull intended for his settlers to grow hemp, sugarcane and indigo. He also intended for the settlers to produce rum. But Turnbull proved a difficult ruler of his colonists, who had been recruited from Minorca, an island off the coast of Spain, as well as Greece and Italy.
The colony also is notable for its collapse, with only about half of its settlers surviving mistreatment from Turnbull and his overseers. The surviving settlers, including Hernandez's parents, who had arrived in the colony as indentured servants, would resettle in St. Augustine.
Despite his family's humble beginnings, Hernandez would grow up to own three plantations just south of St. Augustine. One of those plantations was then known as Bella Vista, which is now known as Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. That park is known for its formal gardens as well as its preserved habitats that include beach, coastal scrub and tidal marshes.
When the Florida Territory was organized, Hernandez was elected as the territory's first delegate to the United States House of Representatives. His election was officially approved and recognized by President James Monroe on September 30, 1822.
Though Hernandez's time in the House lasted just six months, that did not mark the end of his time in public service. He later served as the presiding officer in the Territorial House of Representatives, which was the predecessor of the Florida House of Representatives, which remains an integral part of the Florida Legislature today.
Hernandez also served as Brigadier General over a troop of volunteers during the Second Seminole War and was later commissioned by the United States Army, serving from 1835 to 1838.
After an unsuccessful attempt to win election to the United States Senate in 1845, Hernandez moved to Cuba, where he passed away in 1857.