Students of the University of South Florida digitalizing documents in the archive of the Diocese of St. Augustine, photos on this page by David C. LaFevor
Creating a Digital Archive of Spanish Florida: the ecclesiastical documents of the Diocese of St. Augustine
Director: Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University
Co-Director: J. Michael Francis, University of South Florida
This collection contains the ecclesiastical documents of the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine from the late sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries (1594-1882). These documents allow us to capture some of the daily lives of European, American, African, and Indian residents of Florida throughout the territory's tumultuous history. They reveal marriage practices, miscegenation, and the extensions of kinship through god-parentage. In general they show the diversity of Florida and her inhabitants, a subject often overlooked by U.S. history, but truly important to the larger national narrative.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the city of St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. Throughout it's nearly 500 year history, three very different societies governed the city, each leaving indelible marks on the historic settlement. Spanish Florida, with St. Augustine as its base, began in the midst of conflict as both the Spanish and French battled over possession of the territory. Lucky for Menéndez and company a hurricane struck the French ships, scattering their men across the peninsula. With help from the local Indians the Spanish were able to locate and defeat the surviving French colonists within a few months. Thus began the tumultuous history of Spanish Florida.
At one time spreading as far north as present day South Carolina, Spanish Florida was plagued by a myriad of problems from indigenous rebellions to pirate attacks, most famously that of Sir Francis Drake in 1586. In the end these hardships made the Spanish Crown focus on St. Augustine and its immediate environs, abandoning hopes of northward expansion. Though St. Augustine, nor Florida became sources of wealth for Spain, the colony remained of vital importance for the security of the larger Spanish Empire. Each year the galleons of the Fleet of the Indies, loaded with gold and silver from Mexican and Andean mines, sailed up the Gulf Stream with the St. Augustine harbor serving as the only Spanish station for six hundred miles of coastline.
Nonetheless Florida remained on the edge of the Empire throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. As other borderland societies, her residents were often able to take advantage of the lack of royal vigilance, especially African slaves and free blacks. Spanish officials recruited both slaves and free blacks to serve in Spanish militias, most famously at Fort Mose located two miles north of St. Augustine. Here a free black militia was entrusted with the defense of Florida from French, Indian, English, and American interlopers. Residents of Spanish Florida also welcomed runaways from the Southern United States to Fort Mose to better fortify Florida's vulnerable borders.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 Florida became an English colony. In the wake of the transfer, thousands of Spanish colonists, including the free black militia of Mose, fled to Cuba. When the British arrived to claim and colonize Spanish Florida, they found a town barely inhabitable with few provisions. However, the British immediately appreciated the fertility of Florida's soil. By 1771 Florida possessed the beginnings of a plantation economy, resulting in the influx of thousands of African slaves to work on the nascent indigo and rice plantations.
But, British control of Florida was short lived. By 1777 the territory was under attack from Georgia (along with Britain's other rebellious American colonies) and their Spanish allies. While the war destabilized Florida's society, the colony's economy succeeded in benefiting from the America's Revolution by exporting large amounts timber, indigo, tar, and turpentine to British troops. Likewise merchants, bakers, butchers, laborers, artisans, and tavern operators all benefited from the influx of business brought by the Royal Navy who used St. Augustine as a port to re-equip their troops. Meanwhile, the population of Florida continued to grow as loyalists to the Crown fled to Florida for safety, along with large numbers of escaped Southern slaves. Nevertheless, by 1784 Florida had been returned to Spanish hands.
Florida, and St. Augustine, remained Spanish until the treaty of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1821, when the stroke of a pen made Florida a U.S. territory. While the inhabitants of Florida experienced upheaval and transformation under each new government, the transition from a Spanish colony to an American territory was one of the most difficult and disruptive. Key tensions included religious differences and contradictory policies regarding slavery.
Bushnell, Amy Turner. "The Noble and Loyal City (1565-1668)". In The Oldest City St. Augustine, Saga of Survival, edited by Jean Parker Waterbury, 27-55. St. Augustine, FL: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983.
Gannon, Michael V. The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513- 1870. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568. Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1974.
Schafer, Daniel L. "...not so gay a Town in America as this..." 1763-1784." In The Oldest City St. Augustine, Saga of Survival, edited by Jean Parker Waterbury, 91-123.
Siebert, Wilbur H. "Some Church History of St. Augustine during the Spanish Regime," The Florida Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Oct., 1930): pp. 117-123.