March 12th, 2014

Digitizing America’s Oldest Documents

A collection of centuries old papers filed away in the basement of a Catholic convent in St. Augustine, Florida have turned out to be America’s oldest written historical and genealogical documents. The documents date from 1594 till the mid-18th century, and are actually vital records (birth, death, and marriage records) and baptismal records of residents of St. Augustine. They are written in Spanish, and are now being digitized by a team from the University of South Florida headed by Michael Francis, professor of history.

The students and Professor Francis have spent many months digitizing the 6,000 plus pages so that the records survive beyond the life of the paper they are currently printed on. The documents have a historical value as well as a genealogical one. “The documents shed light on aspects of Florida history that are very difficult to reconstruct,” Francis said. Florida was discovered in 1523 by Juan Ponce de Leon after Spanish monarchy sent him on a mission to find another island off Cuba rumored to have vast riches.

It is moist likely that De Leon wasn’t the first European to land in Florida, and it is uncertain whether or not he visited St. Augustine or cities more to the north and south. St. Augustine is however America’s oldest European settlement, settled nearly a century before Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. Because America is an English speaking country, historians believe that emphasis is placed on the accomplishments of English speakers rather than those of foreign nations.

The documents discovered in St. Augustine however hold the key to the forgotten history of 16th century Florida. They are written in a beautiful, flowing script, and for genealogists and historians researching early Florida inhabitants, they are a treasure trove of information. They have even revealed that early Florida life was quite comfortable, and not the terrible struggle that it was in the colonies further north. “People’s daily lives here weren’t the difficult struggle that was often represented,” said Professor Francis, “most homes had gardens and fruit trees.”

Although the documents are worn and yellowed as expected, they are not as well preserved as they could have been, as someone in the past had attempted to preserve them by enclosing them in shrink wrap. The acids in the plastic have damaged the paper, though it is generally around the outer edges of the pages, so most of the text is intact.

The parish where the documents were found was established inn 1565, but parish records from the first 25 years are missing. They are however continuous from 1594 through 1763 (the year the British took control of the city), giving researchers nearly 200 years of historical records that were previously unavailable. Initially the records were sent to Cuba, but were returned to St. Augustine in 1906.

The documents reveal that 16th century St. Augustine was a very diverse place, as the records contain accounts by and references to Spanish missionaries, Irish priests, Native Americans, and freed slaves. Francis was particularly amazed at the accounts of slaves who had escaped plantations from other southern states and as far north as New York.

“Many accounts are of slaves who escaped plantations in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, slaves in fact who had come all the way from New York City, to come to St. Augustine,” he said. “And when you read those, one immediately begins to imagine a situation in which they’re in these plantations, and they decide, one day, to try to escape and make their way to St. Augustine.”

The documents will eventually be made available online for anyone to view; they are currently hosted by the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine.