What role did Florida play in American history? La Florida digs deeper

Professor J. Michael Francis is on a mission to set the record straight about the early colonial history of the United States and Florida’s vital, but often overlooked role in it. 

He points to a long history of Europeans and both free and enslaved Africans living in Florida decades before the start of English settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth.

Over the past few years, Francis, the Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and his team of researchers have been scouring ship’s logs, parish church records, handwritten notes, and other historical documents.  

It’s a project they call “La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas.”

“We’re looking at a time period from the 1500s when the Spanish first arrived, to 1821 when Florida was formally transferred to the U.S. as a new territory,” says Francis. “It’s a time in Florida of several hundred years of British and Spanish colonial rule.”

Francis has been collaborating with a team of students and researchers, including Rachel Sanderson, a USFSP Florida Studies graduate, and Hannah Tweet, a USFSP Florida Studies graduate student, now both associate directors of the La Florida project. Another key partner is Edriel Intelligence, a company based in Madrid, Spain, that developed the technology for the La Florida project.

"The Spanish kept meticulous records. When you think about the fact that they probably lost more than they saved, the scale of it just becomes magnificent,'' Francis says. "We’ve barely, barely scratched the surface.'' 

Key funders of the program include The Hough Family Foundation; Instituto Nauta; the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation; Town and Gown, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg; and the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine, Inc. Individual donors include J. Michael and Annie Francis, Allen and Delores Lastinger, Hugh Tulloch, and James MacDougald.

A $20,000 additional contribution from the City of St. Augustine was announced at a one-year anniversary celebration of La Florida on April 23  hosted by Red Mesa Cantina in downtown St. Petersburg.

"We want to trigger a new renaissance in interest in early Florida history,'' Francis says. "We’ll get to the place where people will think Florida’s history is quite remarkable.''
Who were the people arriving by ship?

The La Florida team worked with specialists to help transcribe, translate, and digitize some 6,000 pages of church parish records of births, church confirmations, marriages, and deaths of people living in the early settlement of St. Augustine, dating back to 1594. These are chronicled in “Life and Death in Colonial St. Augustine,” a section of the website that he launched last year.

“So far we have close to 4,000 individuals identified -- everyone whose name has been included in the documents we’ve found,” says Francis. “It’s the most detailed history of the colonial Americas that’s been assembled. We’ve created a comprehensive searchable, digital database of the men, women, and children of all ethnic backgrounds -- European, Native American and African American -- who lived in what is now called Florida.” 

The website is still a work in progress and more recently, he’s been building a database focused on the lives, occupations, and backgrounds of free and enslaved Africans and the role they played in La Florida.  

“There were hundreds of Africans, both free and enslaved in Spanish Florida a century before the story of the English bringing slaves to Virginia,” says Francis.

In other initiatives, he is researching a 1566 Spanish expedition of 17 ships to St. Augustine.

“It was the single largest expedition to Florida during the entire colonial period,” says Francis. “We’ve been trying to piece together the details. So far we’ve uncovered more than 2,300 people who were connected with the expedition. We’re looking at where they were from, their ages, marital status, and occupations, where they went once they got to Florida. These people represented the core of early Spanish settlers.''

He is also looking at the Hernando De Soto expedition of 1539 that landed near Bradenton in the Tampa Bay Area, and the team is building a database of people who participated in that exploration.

“We’ve identified some 600 individuals so far, including some free black conquistadors from Spain.

"In addition to tracking people, the team will be adding digital animated maps to the website to help visitors explore La Florida’s “changing landscape.” So far, there are two maps of the Tampa Bay area that date back to 1757, and Francis says more will be added to the website soon and in coming months.

What drives his passion for the project?

“It came out of some level of frustration that Florida’s history is not better known,” says Francis. “We wanted to use the documents we’ve found to share the richness of Florida’s history with a global audience.”

For more information, follow this link to the La Florida website.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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