Unveiling of La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas to Revolutionize Early American History

A photo preview of one of the many short videos found in La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas, which highlights numerous lives, key events and gripping stories from early Spanish Florida.

A photo preview of one of the many short videos found in La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas, which highlights numerous lives, key events and gripping stories from early Spanish Florida.

(March 13, 2018) – At receptions in Washington, D.C. on March 15-16, USF St. Petersburg will unveil the groundbreaking La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas in front of dignitaries, international media and the public.

Through short videos, interactive maps and digital reconstructions, La Florida brings to life the diverse melting pot of people that made up early Spanish Florida, from Spanish conquistadors and Native Americans to free and enslaved blacks and Europeans from Germany, Ireland and Eastern Europe. It weaves together in fascinating detail the lives and critical events of America’s earliest beginnings – such as the founding of the first permanent European settlement in the continental U.S. at St. Augustine in 1565; the original St. Patrick’s day celebration that was discovered through this project to have taken place in Florida in 1601; and the first free black settlement anywhere in the colonies at Fort Mose in 1738.

Overall, La Florida produces an engaging narrative and comprehensive vision that will fundamentally alter the way we look at Florida, America and world history.

“La Florida will provide the details, visuals and stories to present Florida’s unknown history in a compelling and entertaining way that is unprecedented,” said Dr. J. Michael Francis, Executive Director of La Florida and the Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies at USF St. Petersburg. “The fundamental philosophy behind this archive is taking the very best in cutting edge technology and combining that with the very best in humanities research so history is accessible to the 4th grade Florida history teacher, the college student and anyone who wants to know more about Florida and its important role in American and global history.”

La Florida is a collaborative initiative with substantial interest and support from academic and cultural institutions in Spain. Spanish partners include the Spanish Embassy, the Instituto Nauta and EDRIEL Intelligence who developed the site’s innovative technology. Other technology companies, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, will participate through EDRIEL, under the direction of its Chief Innovation Officer, Francisco S. Guitard.

“La Florida has incredible value because it is a bridge between our country and the United States as well as others such as Cuba, Mexico and Peru,” said Guitard. “Furthermore, the latest technology is allowing us to digitize and interpret these historical documents that in many cases are unintelligible, making them accessible and experienced by education centers, museums, schools and users all across the world who want to be captivated by this history.”

Dr. J. Michael Francis, Executive Director of La Florida and the Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies at USF St. Petersburg.

Dr. J. Michael Francis, Executive Director of La Florida and the Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies at USF St. Petersburg.

The principle sections of the site are divided into four categories:

  • Exhibits – Interactive, digital exhibits will explore various themes in colonial Florida history. The site opens with the first phase of an exhibit entitled “Life and Death in Colonial St. Augustine,” and houses more than 6,000 pages of original parish records dating back to 1594.
  • People – Building the largest comprehensive and searchable biographical database to draw conclusions on the kinds of people who lived in Florida at any point between the 16th and 19th centuries. The site will launch with a database of more than 2,000 individuals and future research will include a comprehensive catalogue of conquistadors who arrived in Florida with Hernando de Soto.
  • Mapping – Creating interactive maps of Florida that reveal insights and the history of towns and structures when clicked on.
  • Florida Stories –Telling stories through short videos and posts about forgotten men, women and events in Florida’s Colonial period.

Like cold-case detectives, Francis and his team, which includes a number of USF St. Petersburg students, have spent years combing through thousands of original documents, maps and images to chronicle distant lives and events that gradually formed Florida’s historical tapestry. They have recreated lost lives and events by traveling from Florida to Spain to obtain and study original archival records.

The international research provides an educational experience for students like no other, learning how to decipher 16th century Spanish handwriting and examine documents in one of the most important historical archives in the world, the Archivo General de Indias in Seville.

“Having the historical documents in front of me was exciting, but it was finding something interesting and new within a document that was the most thrilling,” Hannah Tweet said, a USF St. Petersburg master’s graduate and now one of two associate directors for La Florida.

The elements Francis and his team have unearthed represent an enormous contribution to the existing body of historical knowledge, spanning Florida’s highly formative period from the early 1500s to the start of the 1800s.

“Dr. Francis’ research provides us a greater understanding of the diversity of early American history and the valuable contribution of Florida to that story,” said Dr. Martin Tadlock, Interim Regional Chancellor of USF St. Petersburg. “We hope that what he has uncovered will be taught in classrooms throughout the country and given a similar focus that early American history on Virginia and Massachusetts receive.”

To date, the USFSP team has identified more than 13,000 of Florida’s earliest colonial settlers, representing men and women from Europe, Africa and the Americas. Contrary to the assumption that most conquistadores and people on the original expeditions came from northern Spain, crewmembers also hailed from such diverse countries as Portugal, Greece, Italy, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and even Croatia.

The international research provided an educational experience for students like no other, learning how to decipher 16th century Spanish handwriting and examine documents in one of the most important historical archives in the world (pictured here), the Archivo General de Indias in Seville.

The international research provided an educational experience for students like no other, learning how to decipher 16th century Spanish handwriting and examine documents in one of the most important historical archives in the world (pictured here), the Archivo General de Indias in Seville.

In addition, the research team has conducted an intensive study of an eighteenth-century plan of St. Augustine, doing a complete inventory of all the residences in the city circa 1764. The results were surprising: almost a third of the city’s properties at the time were owned by women. Moreover, the plan reveals an incredibly rich diversity of inhabitants, including runaway slaves from the Carolinas and as far north as New York and Philadelphia, some of whom owned property.

“Few people realize that the first “underground railroad” ran south to Spanish Florida. Large numbers of runaway slaves fled the English colonies hoping to secure their freedom in Spanish Florida,” explained Rachel Sanderson, a USF St. Petersburg master’s graduate and the other associate director of La Florida.

The 1764 map is the first of many colonial maps that will be displayed on the La Florida site.

For scholars around the globe, the project will serve as a one-of-a-kind database of information. For teachers, the site will function as an innovative educational resource. And for all visitors, La Florida will provide an accessible and engaging window into the formation of Florida like no other.

An evening VIP reception and presentation will take place at the Organization of American States on March 15 at 6 p.m. A public reception will occur at the Former Spanish Ambassador Residence on March 16 at 6:45 p.m.

In addition to Spanish support, La Florida is supported by the Hough Family Foundation of St. Petersburg and Frank E. Duckwall Foundation of Tampa.

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