USFSP Unearths Treasure Trove of Florida’s Distant Past With New Project: La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas

June 8, 2017 – The University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) has embarked upon a groundbreaking journey into Florida’s Spanish Colonial past, launching a bold initiative that will put the state’s rich history and early development into unparalleled perspective on the national and world stage.

La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas – created by J. Michael Francis, Ph.D., the Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies at USFSP – provides an interactive, multidisciplinary and comprehensive vision of Florida that brings a previously hazy picture of Spanish exploration of the state into sharp focus. Like a cold-case detective, Francis has spent years painstakingly combing through thousands of documents, notes and images, chronicling distant lives and events that gradually formed Florida’s unique and vibrant tapestry. The elements he and his team have unearthed represent an enormous contribution to the existing body of historical knowledge, spanning the state’s highly formative period from the early 1500s to the start of the 1800s. The La Florida website will be unveiled in the fall.

As a gauge of the work’s academic value, the USFSP project has already attracted substantial interest and support from academic and cultural institutions in Spain. Spanish partners include the University of Málaga, which, with the support of the Instituto Nauta, the Cabildo Cátedral de Córdoba, and the Fundación MAGTEL, has created a newly-endowed Chair of Global Mestizaje. The site’s innovative technology will be developed under the careful guidance of EDRIEL INTELLIGENCE, located in Madrid. Other tech companies, such as Microsoft, will participate through EDRIEL, under the direction of its Chief Innovation Officer, Francisco S. Guitard.

In addition, the Center is poised to receive donor support from the Hough Family Foundation of St. Petersburg and Frank E. Duckwall Foundation of Tampa.

“The collaborative nature of this project will bring together historical content and technical innovation in ways we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago,” said USFSP Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, Ph.D. “It will transform the way students, teachers, scholars and researchers in the U.S. and abroad view Florida history. And, it’s another fine example of the excellence being produced by our faculty.”

For collegians and scholars around the globe, as well as the general public, the project will serve as a one-of-a-kind database of information and pictures of the men and women who shaped Florida’s colonial past. For teachers from kindergarten through high school, it will function as an innovative resource. And for all visitors, it will provide an accessible, adaptable and bilingual academic window into the formation of Florida like no other.

Through an exhaustive yet enlightening process, Francis and his team have recreated lost history by traveling from St. Augustine, Florida, to Spain to obtain and study parish records, certificates of baptism, confirmation, marriage and death, and ancient ship logs. “We’ve already identified, for instance, nearly two thousand individuals who traveled to Florida in 1566. This expedition, led by a Basque general named Sancho de Archiniega, was the single largest Spanish expedition to Florida, yet it remains relatively unknown,” Francis says.

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. In addition, the research team has conducted an intensive study of an eighteenth-century map of St. Augustine, doing a complete inventory of all the residences in the city circa 1764 as well as the land owners. The results were surprising: an incredibly rich diversity of cultures inhabited St. Augustine at the time, including runaway slaves from the Carolinas and as far north as New York and Philadelphia, some of whom owned property.

“Just think of some of the implications our databases and discoveries will make possible,” Francis says. “Some people of African descent will be able to trace their ancestry directly to this early St. Augustine enclave. And those of Spanish descent will be able to connect to descendants who landed in America more than seven decades before the Mayflower. More than anything, our site will provide the details, visuals and stories to present Florida’s unknown history in a compelling and entertaining way that is unprecedented.”

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