ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- The yellowed pages tell the tales of early life in St Augustine, Florida. For historians like J. Michael Francis: it's the jackpot.
These are the first Europeans and recorded Africans and obviously recorded Indians that we have, even though Indian populations in Florida date back more than 10,000 years," he said.
Francis, who's a professor at the University of South Florida, is taking on a big task. He and a team are digitizing more than 6,000 pages of parish documents. In other words, scanning them and putting them online. They date back to 1594 and record births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of the people who lived in The Ancient City.
The groups ranged from Spaniards, to Native Americans and African slaves.
"St. Augustine of course in the 18th century was home to the first free black community in the United States, Fort Mose," Francis said.
The documents are housed in the Sisters of St. Joseph's convent. They'll take a while to get through, but are important in unlocking secrets to the nation's oldest permanently occupied city.
"We see that people who lived in St. Augustine tended to live quite long lives and were not subject as sometimes you get the sense in the documents that it was a place riddled with disease, constantly attacked by pirates and nothing to eat but edible roots that you can scrape off the surface of the soil. Really, that daily life was not that kind of experience."
In the 1700's, Spanish colonists shipped the records to Cuba, where they remained for more than a century. A Catholic bishop had them sent back to St. Augustine by 1906.