Professor’s research brings Florida’s past to life

What started as one man with an Excel spreadsheet has blossomed into a tool for the world to use. La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas hopes to bring the past to life.

The website is the brainchild of J. Michael Francis, a history professor and chair of the Hough Family Florida Studies program at the USF St. Petersburg.
For years, Francis kept an Excel spreadsheet filled with the names of the individuals he had come across during his searches of the archives. Thousands of names pulled from passenger lists, census reports, marriage licenses and death certificates were catalogued and sitting on his hard drive.

While eating hamburgers at The Hangar, Francis met Francisco Guitard, the chief innovation officer of Spanish tech company EDRIEL Intelligence, and realized he could share this research with the world.

After a two-year developmental stage, the website launched March 15. The site allows anyone to search the database and filter results by expedition, gender, occupation and country of origin.

For Rachel Sanderson, a former student of Francis and associate director of La Florida, the launch of the project marks a step toward making our past understandable for all.

“Without sites like La Florida, people would have to be able to travel, often to far away places, to conduct research,” said Sanderson. “If they were lucky enough to visit the archives, they would have to have years of training in deciphering 16th through 19th century handwriting. The tools at La Florida let anyone conduct quality research.”

At the moment, 3,700 individuals are catalogued in the database, but Francis expects that number to exceed 10,000 in the near future.

Dr. J Michael Francis, Archive Raider

Francis didn’t always love history.

“In high school, if you had told me while I was growing up that I was going to be a history major, I would’ve asked you ‘where did my life go wrong?’” said Francis.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta in Canada, he saw a history degree as a way to build the skills necessary for law school. It wasn’t until a professor changed his outlook that Francis began to even consider a career as a historian.

“He changed the way I thought about history and academia. He made history fascinating: He filled it with problems and questions and challenges,” said Francis.

Now, Francis is trying to make that same connection possible for students at USF St. Petersburg and beyond.

Each year he brings a couple of students with him to the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain to help him comb through the thousands of documents on file. The archive was founded in the 18th century to house documents related to colonies of the Spanish empire. Those that have their petition granted can find documents dating as far back to Columbus’s voyage to America.

Though he admits that combing through stacks of passenger lists filled with 16th century Spanish can be incredibly tedious, the feeling of holding a 500-year-old document outweighs the frustration.

“To study [Florida’s history] for so long and then to have in your hands a document written by the founder of St. Augustine or a female Indian chief, and you see that in your hands,” Francis said. “I wish it were an experience that more history majors could feel.”

After seeing the same name pop up in a passenger list or on a marriage license, students start to make connections. Like a detective, they piece together the details to paint a picture of one person’s life.

“All of a sudden they become real to you. You get to imagine faces and voices and motivations. There are people you really learn to dislike in these records, and other people you can’t help but admire,” said Francis.
“These are still people who have senses of humor. They suffer and they laugh and they cry and they go through all the trials and tribulations that we do.”

A Team Effort

Though Francis may be the face, this project is no one-man-show. He’s the first to admit that making the digital archive happen required a team.

Professor’s Research Brings Florida’s Past To Life

Dozens of people received research and production credit on the site; many are USF St. Petersburg students. Students helped conduct research, transcribe and translate primary documents and digitize historical documents.

The parish record were digitized by two students who spent a year driving back and forth between St. Petersburg and St. Augustine.
“There is no such thing as a day-to-day routine,” said Sanderson. “Each day is filled with a variety of projects that change regularly.”

By Delaney Brown

Posted in Uncategorized.