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“John” of All Trades

The unfinished story of John Ney Reynolds, 19th century salt proprietor, merchant, cattleman, and guano exporter.

Story & Historic Images By Jeff Dodge

John Ney Reynolds and his wife Bridget were an Irish couple who emigrated to the Turks & Caicos Islands around 1865. The story of this entrepreneur and his family has been painstakingly re-constructed with original source material, although there are still some loose ends. What a fascinating life they lived over a century and a half ago!

Origin and family

John Ney Reynolds was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1828. There he married a woman named Bridget (last name unknown). They had at least one child, Leonore (Norah), before they moved to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Leonore was born in 1860.

It is not certain when John and Bridget Reynolds moved to the Turks & Caicos Islands, however it was at least by 1865 because by then Reynolds was in the salt business at East Harbour (now  Cockburn Harbour) on South Caicos Island.

John and Bridget had seven children that survived childhood and were alive when John Reynolds wrote and signed an addendum to his Will in February 1890. The children: Mary, Leonore (Norah), Eleanor, Alice, John N. Jr., Robert, and Henry were mentioned in this addendum as was Grace, a daughter by John’s second wife.

John married Elizabeth A. S. Adams of the Turks & Caicos Islands in 1872, just a year after Bridget’s death. They had a daughter, Grace or Gracie, as she was called, in 1880.

Salt proprietor and merchant

This picture postcard presents a view of East Harbour (Cockburn Harbour) on South Caicos Island circa 1907.

By 1865, John Reynolds was in the salt business at East Harbour. His business interests there eventually included the Victoria Salina, which was probably the largest salt pond on the island, and a company store that catered to his salt workers.

Reynolds paid his employees with copper tokens that could only be exchanged for goods in his store. Although Reynolds was the first on the Turks & Caicos Islands to use the “truck system,” he was not the last. Reynolds’ tokens were issued in three denominations—25 cents, 12 1/2 cents and 6 1/4 cents (U.S. currency).

East Caicos land purchase and the Stamers–Reynolds connection

On December 13, 1871, acting as trustee for his children, John N. Reynolds purchased 1,288 acres of land at Breezy Point on East Caicos—once considered part of Grand Caicos (now Middle Caicos)—from Copeland Place Stamers, who was acting on his own behalf and as attorney for his two siblings, Benjamin Henry Stamers and Susan Deborah Stamers. They were the children of Hon. Copeland John Stamers who passed away in 1866. Copeland John Stamers acquired the 1,288 acre parcel of land at Breezy Point in the early 1800s.  

Included in this sale to John Reynolds was a 99-year lease for additional property on East Caicos. Copeland Place Stamers had obtained this lease from the Government of the Turks & Caicos Islands on March 14, 1871. The size of the leased property is unknown, but it likely included most of East Caicos not already part of the 1,288 acre parcel at Breezy Point. The lease stipulated that the lessee pay the government £10 a year for five years and that he maintain at least 25 head of horned cattle on the property. The lease specified that the government would retain mineral rights. 

John Reynolds paid the three children of the Hon. Copeland John Stamers $1,000 (£200) for the 1,288 acre parcel at Breezy Point and the 99-year lease for additional property on the island. 

The story of John Ney Reynolds includes a mystery. What happened to land on East Caicos for which he had a 99-year lease from the government?

Copeland John Stamers

Copeland John Stamers was born in Bermuda in 1802 and by about 1825 was living on the Turks & Caicos Islands—at least on a part time basis. Stamers married Caroline Samuel Smith of Bermuda in 1830. They had five children—three survived early childhood. Those surviving were: Benjamin Henry, Copeland Place, and Susanna Deborah. Copeland John Stamers was appointed to the Legislative Council of the Turks & Caicos Islands circa 1862—hence the title “Honorable.” He died in Brooklyn, NY in 1866.

An inheritance denied?

It has been alleged that Copeland John Stamers did not actually have legal title to the 1,288 acres of land at Breezy Point, East Caicos. In 1807, Bermudians John and Thomas Ingham were the first to acquire the Breezy Point property by way of a separate land grant to each brother from the Governor of the Bahamas, Charles Cameron Esq. According to the original documents, their two land grants totaled approximately 1,368 acres. A proper survey later may have changed this figure to 1,288 acres. Thomas and John’s intention was to raise cattle on East Caicos. (Note: In 1766, the Turks & Caicos Islands were placed under the jurisdiction of the Bahamian Government. In 1799 they were placed under the control of the British Colonial Administration with the Bahamas maintaining control, but now the Islands had an appointed representative in the Assembly. Bahamian control of the Islands ended in December 1848.)

John Ingham’s Will has just surfaced from the Bahamian Archives in Nassau and it is hoped that it and other archived documents will shed light on exactly how Copeland John Stamers ended up as the owner of the Ingham’s land at Breezy Point. It has been alleged that fraud might have been involved because John Ingham had two children and at least one, his daughter Rose, survived him, but this is a subject requiring additional research.

Reynolds sells salt works

By 1882, Reynolds had decided to sell his salt properties and his “company” store at East Harbour to Alfred Stubbs (born 1847). Negotiations took more than a year but it was finally agreed that Reynolds would finance Stubbs’ purchase of the properties. The agreement also stipulated that Reynolds would supply Stubbs’ store with merchandise and would act as the sole export agent for all the salt Stubbs produced less 20,000 bushels a year.

A few years later, Reynolds accused Stubbs of selling salt to Hiram T. Jones and thereby not abiding by the terms of their agreement. Reynolds also accused Stubbs of falling behind in his payments.

Stubbs, in turn, argued that Reynolds was manipulating his accounts and accused him of overloading vessels with his salt. A settlement must have been reached because Stubbs remained in the salt business at East Harbour, passing it on to his daughter Emilie Jane Stubbs following his death in 1913. She improved the Victoria Salina and remained in the salt business until she was forced to sell it to the Turks Island Salt Co. circa 1951. Emilie passed away in 1956. John Reynolds remained in the business of exporting salt.

East Caicos cattleman and guano exporter

Copeland J. Stamers owned over 3,500 acres of land at Blue Hills on the island of Providence Caicos (Providenciales) as well as salt properties on Salt Cay. He also owned approximately 1,368 acres on East Caicos.

John Reynolds must have started raising cattle at Breezy Point shortly following his purchase of the 1,288 acres and the 99-year lease in 1871 in order to comply with the terms of the lease. At some point, possibly about 1882, Reynolds became aware that bat guano from the caves on the northwest side the island would be a profitable export commodity and before long he was exporting it to Jamaica and other islands where sugar cane was grown.

The guano operation petered out after a few years, but the cattle operation was successful and eventually Reynolds had as many as 1,500 head of cattle on the island. He sold beef to the inhabitants of Grand Turk and hides to Haiti. After Reynolds’ death, the cattle were hunted by local Islanders—possibly by Americans as well—to the extent that by 1939 there were no cattle left on East Caicos.  

This was confirmed when a small group of Californians that included John Reynolds’ daughter, Grace Reynolds Lake, went to East Caicos in 1940 with the intent of forming a colony on the land Grace had inherited from her father. They had been led to believe that they would be able to supplement their diet with beef from wild cattle roaming the island. However, after three days of searching the island for cattle the “colonists” came up empty handed—there were no cattle to be found.

Sisal on East Caicos

Following the death of John N. Reynolds on March 5, 1890, the property he held in trust for his children on East Caicos was leased to a newly formed company that intended to grow and process sisal there. The East Caicos Sisal Company was officially registered in 1891. It was managed by Frith & Murphy Co. They hired A. Lewis Jones as their manager as well as an engineer, several clerks and 300–400 workers. It’s possible Reynolds explored whether sisal would grow successfully on East Caicos prior to his death, but there is no evidence of this.

Buildings where the sisal was processed and barracks for the workers were built at Breezy Point and Jacksonville. In addition, a 14 mile long rail system was constructed so that donkeys pulling rail cars could move sisal from the fields to Jacksonville where it would be processed and then shipped. 

The Hon. Thomas Capper A.B., Jamaica’s Inspector of Schools, observed during a brief stopover at Jacksonville in 1885, that the truck system was being employed there and that laborers were being fired unless they spent most of their wages at the company’s store even though the truck system was outlawed in 1881. (Note: Tokens bearing the name of the East Caicos Sisal Co. have never been found.) By 1919, the superior qualities of manila hemp from the Philippines caused sisal prices to decline to such an extent that the East Caicos Sisal Co. was forced to cease operation.  

This image shows a building and sisal plants at the East Caicos Sisal Co., circa 1895.

John Ney Reynolds’ death and legacy

John Reynolds wrote and signed his Will on December 28, 1889. In it he states that “being of sound mind, but advanced in years owing to the uncertainty of life deem it advisable to make this my last Will and Testament to whit . . .” In this Will, he leaves the 1,288 acres of land at Breezy Point to his wife Elizabeth and daughters Alice and Grace—each to receive a 1/3rd interest. He nominated his wife, Elizabeth, to be the sole Executor.

On February 4, 1890, John Reynolds wrote an addendum to his last Will and Testament whereby he left the remaining years of the 99-year lease for land on East Caicos to his eight children. Here he names them:  Mary Reynolds; Norah (Leonore) Baker, (the wife of Dr. W.W. Baker); Eleanor Reynolds Frith, the wife of Daniel T. Frith; Alice Bridget Reynolds; John Ney Reynolds Jr.; Robert Reynolds; Henry Reynolds and Gracie Reynolds. In addition to the leased land on East Caicos, the addendum included the buildings and houses erected thereon and cattle and other animals thereupon as well as three boats.

Little is known about Mary or Eleanor Reynolds though they both probably moved to the Boston area in the 1880s. Robert moved to Boston in 1882 and John N. Jr. in 1884. He was followed by Henry in 1886. John Jr. and Henry worked for a steamship company. Leonore moved to the US in 1888 and  married Dr. W. W.Baker—they lived in Ohio.

Just a few months following the death of John N. Reynolds on March 5, 1890, John’s wife Elizabeth and daughters Gracie and Alice moved to Boston to join and live with John N. Jr. and Henry.

Afterwards

On April 29, 1890, Elizabeth A. Reynolds, acting on her own behalf and on the behalf of her children, agreed to lease the the land at Breezy Point to Jeremiah Murphy for a period of 20 years together with any houses, outhouses, buildings, etc. as well as the sloop O.K.. In the terms of the lease, Murphy was to pay the Reynolds family $2,500 upon execution of the lease and an annual rent of $1,100/year payable in equal quarterly payments for the duration of the lease. Murphy of Frith & Murphy established the East Caicos Sisal Co. on this land. 

In April 1890, Mary Reynolds, Robert Reynolds, and Henry Reynolds, all of Boston, Massachusetts, appointed John Ney Reynolds Jr., the oldest son of the late John Ney Reynolds, to be their attorney to represent them—“to act, demand, levy, require, recover and receive all of and from all and every person … their share of money, debts, goods, wares, merchandise, owing them” as a result of their father’s death. 

Grace became the sole owner of the 1,288 acre parcel at Breezy Point following the death of her sister Alice in 1909 and her mother Elizabeth in 1928.  

There is much more to the story of Grace Reynolds and her East Caicos inheritance. You can read about it online. See “Modern Crusoes” in the Winter 2020/2021 Times of the Islands  (https://www.timespub.tc/2021/01/modern-crusoes-2/). Keep in mind that there are some inaccuracies in the story as John Reynolds’ Will had not been found at the time it was written. 

An unfinished story

It is not known what caused John and Bridget to move to the Turks & Caicos Islands or what their life was like in Ireland. Did they have friends or relatives living there? Did John arrive on the Islands with the funds to buy salt properties or did he have investors, and if so, who were they?

Did John, his second wife Elizabeth, and their children live on South Caicos or move to Grand Turk following the sale of John’s salt interests in 1883? 

The addendum to John’s Will gave the land leased from the government for 99 years to his eight children.  In April 1890, they leased their East Caicos holdings to Jeremiah Murphy (East Caicos Sisal Co.). But what happened following the demise of the sisal company in 1919? Was this leased property sold or given to Grace who in 1928 was the sole owner of the 1,288 acre parcel at Breezy Point?

Only time will tell.

The author wishes to thank the following for their invaluable assistance with this article: John Adams, former Bermuda Government archivist; Linda Abend and Toni Butz for their contribution of original source material from the Bermuda National Trust; Christian Buys, author of the book Historic South Caicos, Turks and Caicos Islands; Dr. Donald Keith of Ships of Discovery; the Sailrock Archival Collection; Margorie Sadler, author of the revised edition of Turks Islands Landfall;  Nigel Sadler of the Sands of Time Consultancy; Lisa Talbot, Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum; and Deborah Dodge for her help transcribing original documents and editing this story.



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