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

 J. Michael Francis

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“The collaborative nature of this project will bring together historical content and technical innovation in ways we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago,” said USFSP Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, Ph.D. “It will transform the way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.”

Francis’ endeavor is loosely modeled after the University of Virginia’s acclaimed Center for Digital History, which promotes historical scholarship geared heavily to the English origins of the American experience. But unlike that undertaking, which operates primarily as an archive of original documentation, La Florida will feature an appealing interactive Web interface designed for a broader audience. Initially, it will concentrate on the original sixteenth-century expeditions into Florida and their lasting legacy in the region.

“The intent is to give users a host of clickable options embedded in maps and graphics, providing opportunities to learn and see more as they explore our visual and written content,” Francis explains.

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.

The Center will proceed with three key priorities this year:

  • Prosopography: Building a comprehensive and searchable biographical dictionary of the men and women who occupied Florida between 1513 and 1821.
  • Mapping: Creating interactive maps of Florida that reveal insights and background when visitors click on select portions of the maps.
  • Florida Stories: Researching and telling stories in written and short video form about forgotten individuals and events in Florida’s Colonial period.

Through this 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. Contrary to the assumption that most came from northern Spain, crewmembers also hailed from such diverse countries as Portugal, Greece, Italy, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, and even Croatia.

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.”


About USF St. Petersburg

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg is a separately accredited, research-active institution within the USF System. USFSP offers more than 40 undergraduate and graduate programs in three colleges: Arts and Sciences, Business, and Education. USFSP is recognized for its significant commitment to community involvement and civic engagement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit


Jessica Blais

Director of Communications


Michael Francis

Hough Family Endowed Chair of Florida Studies