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History of Las Terrenas and Samaná, Two Towns on the Samaná Peninsula, DR
by Susan M. Grady,The Third Foreign Woman To Live In Las Terrenas

In the northeastern corner of the Dominican Republic lies Samaná, a lush, rugged peninsula that has witnessed a forgotten moment in the history of the New World. In the 1820s, thousands of escaping American slaves relocated in Samaná, maintaining their North American customs in the isolation of their new Caribbean home. These Americanos (as their descendants still call themselves) lived beyond the reach of most modern influences until a highway was built in 1969 so that Samaná remained a cultural anomaly: an English-speaking Protestant outpost of a Spanish-speaking Catholic country.

Modern Samaná is more than an anthropological relic: it is changing into a 21-st century resort, popular especially among European visitors. The town, peninsula and bay, which all share the same name, possess the ingredients of a Caribbean resort. The town is small and peaceful, nestled between the steeply rising mountains and the gentle waters of the bay, with many types of hotels. The 30-mile long peninsula’s 90 miles of coast has many beaches. The best beaches are in and near the village of Las Terrenas. The mountains that form the peninsula’s spine rise to heights of 3,000 meters.

Samaná’s combination of development and isolation is rooted in Dominican politics. The government recognized Samaná’s potential in the early 1970’s and began a plan to develop the region as a tourist center. The old wooden town was torn down (with the exception of the Americanos’ Methodist church, which had been moved plank by plan from England) and a new concrete town was constructed. Two government-owned hotels were constructed and there were plans for a park, an airport, a new pier and some traffic circles. The hotels have been sold to private owners and the airport has been upgraded into an international airport.

The best time to see Samaná’s cultural history is during two annual religious festivals: the week before Easter (Holy Week) and the celebration of the region’s patron saint, Santa Barbara (the Patronales) which takes place at the end of November.

During these periods, thousands of peasants from the countryside come into the town, making it seem like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at Carnival time. There are processions, dances, games and contests, some in English, some in Spanish and some in Haitian Creole, a mixture of African and French words. The people dance to the merengue, the Dominican national music.

Samaná’s history of cultural interactions began in 1493. The first hostile encounter between Europe and the Western Hemisphere took place on January 12, 1493, when an army of Taino Indians shot with bone-tipped arrows at Christopher Columbus’ ship. The site where this happened is called the Gulf of Arrows or Bahia de las Flechas.” (Columbus named it.) It is three miles east of the city of Samaná. It has no sign to mark it, but the local people know where it is.

Pirates lived here until the city of Santa Barbara de Samaná was founded in 1756 by people from the Canary Islands who were moved by the Spanish government from there to Samaná to keep the British from settling in Samaná. When Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, declared its independence from France in 1804, many French plantation owners and their slaves left Haiti and went to Samaná and also to the eastern part of Cuba.

Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to build a capital for his New World Empire in Samaná. He had plans drawn up for a new city there to be called Napoleon City, but the British came in and prevented him from building it. In addition, Napoleon became involved in wars in Europe, so he gave up this plan. In 1822, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic and occupied it for twenty-two years. It was a bloody occupation.

The most important event in the development of Samaná occurred about this time. Haiti’s leader, Jean Pierre Boyer, made contact with abolitionist groups in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States and paid money for them to send to Samaná by ship all the freed slaves they could. He also paid for their resettlement in Samaná. Boyer said he wanted to help the slaves obtain their freedom, but the Dominicans said Boyer wanted to repopulate this area over which he had taken control with people who would support him. Nearly six thousand former slaves made the voyage from the United States to the Dominican Republic. Many died in Samaná or returned to the United States because they could not adjust to the changes in the climate and culture they found in Samaná. About two thousand of them stayed in Samaná and prospered.

These immigrants retained their cultural traditions. They ran their own schools, paying for the importation of English teachers, and maintained Protestant churches (primarily Methodist). Rafael Trujillo, who was dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930-1938 and 1942-1952, did not like the cultural independence of Samaná. He introduced the Spanish language into Samaná and forced the people to speak it. Anyone heard speaking English was publicly beaten by armed men. Most of the people in Samaná today are bilingual. The English spoken is a colloquial English that was spoken by the slaves in the southern United States a century ago. The remaining Americanos have farms in small mountain villages all over the Samaná Peninsula. They grow coconuts, coffee, cacao, mangoes and citrus fruits, which they sell.

In 1824 a ship, the Turtle Dove, filled with freed slaves from the United States (slaves who had escaped from the southern part of the United States and run away to the northern part of the United States) left from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a state in the northern part of the United States). The ship was purchased by two Protestant sisters named Freeman who were of the Quaker Protestant religious faith. The ship was sailing to Liberia, a country in West Africa founded by freed American slaves in 1820. There was a big rainstorm in the Atlantic Ocean in front of Las Terrenas and the ship sank. The freed slaves swam to Las Terrenas. They spoke English. Their great- grandchildren still live in Las Terrenas and they speak English. They are called cocolos. On Sunday, you may attend a religious service at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in the village of El Limon near Las Terrenas. There you will hear people singing American spiritual hymns in English.

During the administration of the United States President Ulysses S. Grant (President 1869-1876), a proposal was made by the United States, at the suggestion of the Dominican President Buenaventura Báez, to annex the Dominican Republic and to use Samaná Bay as a base for the United States Navy. Samaná Bay is well suited for this purpose, as it is wide, sheltered at its seaward end, long and has deep water. An American envoy was sent to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic by President Grant. signed two treaties providing for the annexation of the Dominican Republic by the United States and for the United States to lease Samaná Bay for ninety-nine years. The United States Senate, which must approve all treaties with foreign countries, refused to ratify both of these treaties so the Dominican Republic never became part of the United States.

Condé Nast Traveler, a magazine from the United States, said in its November, 1996 issue that the second most beautiful beach in the world is Playa Rincón, which is northeast of the city of Samaná. The road to Playa Rincón is not good. In order to go there you must have a Jeep or a four-wheel drive truck.

Between World War I and World War II, a Polish-Jewish family named Paiewonski (one of the first members was named Joseph or José (in Spanish) Paiewonski.) bought much land in Las Terrenas and just west of Las Terrenas near the El Portillo Resort, next to an airport for small planes. They built general stores all over the Dominican Republic and became very wealthy. In the 1940s, they brought a Dominican man named Señor Peña from Puerto Plata to work for them on their farm. He came by boat from Puerto Plata to Las Terrenas. (There was no road over the mountain from Sanchez to Las Terrenas until 1969.) In addition to fruits and vegetables, this Jewish family had coconut, cacao and coffee plantations --- these foods were exported.

In 1955 Señor Gigillo Espinal, who was born in Sanchez, came from Sanchez to work in Las Terrenas for the Paiewonski family. In 1975, he had a small grocery store, a colmado in Spanish, on the road by the sea some two miles west of Las Terrenas, between Las Terrenas and El Portillo. In 1977, he moved his store into Las Terrenas on the beach next to the police station. You could only buy rice, black beans, dried codfish and rum at the store. The store was where Beach Garden Plaza is today.

The first mechanic in Las Terrenas was Señor Ezequiel (Sequiel) Lara. He came from Samaná where he was apprenticed to a mechanic. On August 15, 1971, he was brought by the Paiewonski family to work for them in Las Terrenas. Mr. Lara opened his own auto repair shop in 1981 in Las Terrenas.

In 1975, Las Terrenas was a small village of farmers and fishermen. Everyone spoke Spanish. Las Terrenas had no food to buy, no stores, no gasoline station, no ice, no electricity, no telephones, no cars, no motorcycles, no post office, no newspapers, and no tourists. Las Terrenas was very beautiful and quiet. The road over the mountain from Sanchez to Las Terrenas was first built in 1969. It fell into disrepair and in 1975 it was in very bad condition. It was repaved in 1989 and again in 2010.

There was no road to Playa Bonita and Playa Coson in 1975. You had to drive slowly on a dirt path across the private coconut plantation of Señor Maximo Galvan to go to those beaches. Señor Galvan owned the largest general store in Sanchez. It was called Casa Galvan.

A private Dominican company brought electricity to the village in 1994. In 1997, a public water system was installed, bringing water from a large river in the mountains to individual homes and businesses. The telephone office opened in 1991. There is still not a public sewage disposal system for the village. 

History of the Dominican Republic

December 5, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti and claimed the whole island of Hispaniola, (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) for Spain.

1795, The Dominican Republic was given to France under the Peace Treaty of Basel.

1809, Spain, with the aid of the British navy, defeated France at the Battle of Palo Hincado. Spain regained control of the Dominican Republic.

1821, The Dominicans expelled the Spaniards from the Dominican Republic.

1822-1844, Haiti conquered and ruled the Dominican Republic. It was a very bloody occupation.

1844, The Dominicans expelled the Haitians from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic was free until 1861.

1861, The Dominicans returned voluntarily to Spanish rule of the Dominican Republic.

1865, The Dominicans defeated the Spaniards. The Dominican Republic became independent again.  

This article is published with the permission and was written on November 16, 2012 by Ms. Susan M. Grady, 3709 South George Mason Drive, #1713E, Falls Church, Virginia 22041, United States of America. She is the widow of Dr. Adelphia Dane Bowen, Jr. of Strawn, Texas, a U.S. diplomat. In 1977, He was the first foreigner to build a private home in Las Terrenas. Dr. Bowen was Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo from 1974-1977. Ms. Grady and Dr. Bowen lived in Las Terrenas three months a year from 1978-1999. Ms. Grady was the third foreign woman to live in the village. Dr. Bowen and Ms. Grady lived in Alexandria, Virginia, United States of America. In July 2011, he died at their home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 84 years old.
The Willmore sisters, Samaná, 2010
Samaná Map, XIX Century
Napoleon's Samaná Plan
Frederick Douglass in Samaná, 1871
Playa Bonita, Las Terrenas
Tainos in Quisqueya
Captain Teach, Black Beard, XVIII Century
A Dominican family today