Lost Voices from America’s Oldest Parish Archive
October 28, 2022 • Diocese of St. Augustine

By Lilla Ross

One of the most valuable treasures in the archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine is now available for anyone to see and, more importantly, to use.

Sacramental records from 1594 to 1821, including the Golden Book of the Minorcans, have been transcribed, translated and registered in a biographic database by a team led by Dr. J. Michael Francis, Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

The records are available at LaFlorida.org, the site of the La Florida Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas.

A couple of examples of the worm-eaten pages of parish documents from the early colonial materials.

The parish registers from the Spanish colonial period are the oldest surviving parish documents in the United States. They record over 200 years’ worth of baptisms, confirmations, marriages and burials of the residents of St. Augustine, both enslaved people and free.

In 2012, Dr. Francis and a team of graduate students digitized the records for the Slave Societies Digital Archive at Vanderbilt University. This project made the records stored in the diocesan archives in St. Augustine available to a wider audience. But the records are difficult to read. The information, written in early-modern Spanish or Latin, is on parchment, which often looks like old lace from damage inflicted by insects and water. 

In 2019, Dr. Francis, with a grant from the National Archives, assembled a team to begin transcribing, translating and registering the records and developing an online platform to make the records available in English to anyone with an internet connection.

One of the team members, Esther González of Seville, Spain, is a paleographer, an expert at deciphering old handwriting. She transcribed the old documents. 

“In terms of transcription work. There are more than 8,200 pages, including 1,000 pages written in Latin. It’s staggering. It took her almost two years,” Dr. Francis said. “Three of us were involved in the translation work. That took us a little over two years.”

Then the hard work began – registering information in the biographic database.

“We recorded thousands and thousands of data points on Excel spreadsheets, more than 40 separate spreadsheets, tens of thousands of lines of data,” Dr. Francis said. “This was the most complicated and time-consuming part of the project.” 

A team of seven worked on this phase, which was completed a little quicker than expected because of the COVID-19 lockdown. “Everyone was in lockdown, and with fewer distractions, we got a tremendous amount of work done,” Dr. Francis said. “It probably would have been a four-year project, but we crammed it into 2 1/2 years.” 

Rachel Sanderson, associate director of La Florida, said the material was in 

15 boxes of loose parchment pages and 16 bound books.

Each sacrament was put on a spreadsheet, with as many as 250 columns to accommodate all the data. The database has about 75,000 people. Some people show up only once, others multiple times. The records also include race, place of origin, occupations and relationships. 

“We’ve spent three years inputting the data, but we haven’t had a chance to analyze it,” Sanderson said. “But three things jump out.”

La Florida’s research team found that between the years 1600 and 1763, the parish records documented 138 esclavos reales (enslaved people supported by royal funds). Over that same period, the number of enslaved individuals in private households numbered nearly 3,000. More surprising still, enslaved women, significantly outnumbered enslaved males. 

“Were people of African descent in almost every home? Enslaved women had a significant influence on shaping domestic life, and they were crucial in creating community in colonial St. Augustine. Midwives were baptizing and naming babies. On occasion, the wife of the governor served as the interim governor. Women really ran the show,” Sanderson said.

And it’s really a misnomer to call it “Spanish” St. Augustine because the population was incredibly diverse, representing more than two dozen present-day countries. People from all over Europe, not just Spain, could be found in the colony. Blacks, both free and enslaved, came from all over Africa. About a dozen indigenous tribes are documented, including some Mexico and Yucatan, making them Mayan and Aztec. And they all intermarried. 

Dr. Francis and his team are anxious for people to start using the database, designed in collaboration with a team in Spain. They think the La Florida database at laflorida.org will interest a broad range of people: scholars doing academic research, genealogists doing family research and teachers teaching history.

Dr. Francis said the free website is user-friendly and easy to search using several filters. 

“We want people to get a better understanding of colonial Florida. People in Spain can use the database to find people from their towns or family. Scholars can get a better understanding of St. Augustine in the broader narrative of early American history. And teachers can engage their students using original documents. It’s really accessible to fourth-grade Florida history students,” Dr. Francis said.

Dr. Francis

“This is the most rewarding project I’ve done,” Dr. Francis said. “The measure of its success is how people use it. Does it lead to other scholarships based on these records? Does it end up in the classroom?”

Dr. Francis will talk about “Lost Voices from America’s Oldest Parish Archive” at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3 at the University Center Banquet Hall at the University of North Florida. Admission is free.