ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Inside a Catholic convent deep in St. Augustine's historic district, stacks of centuries-old, sepia-toned papers offer clues to what life was like for early residents of the nation's oldest permanently occupied city.
These parish documents date back to 1594, and they record the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of the people who lived in St. Augustine from that time through the mid-1700s. They're the earliest written documents from any region of the United States, according to J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Francis and some of his graduate students in the Florida Studies department have spent the past several months digitizing the more than 6,000 fragile pages to ensure the contents last beyond the paper's deterioration.
"The documents shed light on aspects of Florida history that are very difficult to reconstruct," Francis said.
Eventually, the digital images of the records will be put online for anyone to view.
Francis' project is timely because the state is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.
In April 1513, the Spanish monarchy contracted explorer Juan Ponce de Leon to find another island off of Cuba that was rumored to have great riches. Instead, he landed in Florida and named it "La Florida," after the "feast of the flowers" during Spain's Easter celebrations.
De Leon probably wasn't the first European to set foot in Florida, and there is debate on whether he landed in St. Augustine or the sites of present-day cities to the north or south. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by another Spanish explorer, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
Many Americans don't even realize that St. Augustine's stature among the country's first European settlements. Jamestown, Va., was founded in 1607 and Plymouth, Mass., in 1620, and both are routinely emphasized in school history classes. Historians believe that because America is an English-speaking country, an emphasis was put on the British settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth and not the Spanish-speaking St. Augustine.
St. Augustine holds many of the secrets to 16th Century Florida, largely because of these documents. Written in flourishing script, they are a treasure trove for scholars and genealogists who want to know more about who lived in Florida centuries before it became a state.
"People's daily lives here weren't the difficult struggle that was often represented," said Francis, adding that most homes had gardens and fruit trees.
The documents are yellowed with age and many have worn edges that resemble lace. Francis said that in previous decades, someone tried to preserve the documents by essentially shrink-wrapping them in plastic – but it's destroying the paper faster due to acids and the plastic used.
While the parish there began in 1565, records from its first 29 years are missing for unknown reasons. The documents are continuous from 1594 through 1763, which is the year the British took over the city. Spanish colonialists shipped the records to Cuba and they remained there for more than a century. A Catholic bishop had all of the records sent back to the St. Augustine by 1906.
Francis said the documents surprised him by revealing what a diverse place St. Augustine was in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. By reading the records in Spanish, Francis has pieced together tales of Irish priests, Spanish missionaries, Native Americans. He's discovered family tragedies and stories of freed slaves.
"Slaves who escaped plantations in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, slaves in fact who had come all the way from New York City, to come to St. Augustine," he said. "And when you read those, one immediately begins to imagine a situation in which they're in these plantations, and they decide, one day, to try to escape and make their way to St. Augustine."
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush