Florida parish records, dating from 1594 through to 1763, are being digitised and will be put online for anyone to view.
The records, held in a Catholic convent in the city of St. Augustine, detail the births, marriages and deaths of the early residents of the USA’s oldest permanently occupied city.
Professor J. Michael Francis, a historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, believes they are the earliest written documents from any region of the United States. Professor Francis and a team of his graduate history students have spent the past few months digitizing over 6,000 fragile pages in a race against their destruction. In previous decades, someone tried to preserve the documents by shrink-wrapping them in plastic, which has actually made them deteriorate faster because of the acid content of the plastic coating.
The project coincides with Florida’s 500th anniversary this year. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, searching for rich, undiscovered islands to the northwest of Hispaniola, first set foot in Florida on 3 April 1513. He named it La Florida because of its verdant landscape and because it was Easter season, which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida (Festival of Flowers). The city of St. Augustine was eventually founded in 1565, after the failure of several early attempts at European colonisation.
The fact that St. Augustine was the USA’s first European settlement, over a half-century earlier than Jamestown, Virginia, has often been understated in American history. Historians believe that this is because America is an English speaking country and emphasis was placed on the British settlement of Jamestown in 1607, rather than on Spanish-speaking St. Augustine.
Professor Francis believes that the documents will now shed further light on life in 16th century Florida: “People’s daily lives here weren’t the difficult struggle that was often represented,” he said, adding that most homes had gardens and fruit trees. The documents also reveal the diversity of St. Augustine in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with records of Irish priests, Spanish missionaries, Native Americans, and slaves who had escaped from the plantations of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, even from as far afield as New York City, all living in the settlement.
Source: Associated Press