Yesterday’s News is Today’s Research Gold Mine

Newspapers are one of the most versatile tools available for historical, genealogical and other types of research. Their content ranges from local to international news, serving researchers of all stripes. However, today we’re focusing on newspapers for local history and genealogy research.

Obituaries are a major source of information for local history and genealogy research. They can tell you when and where someone passed away, who their next of kin are, and information about burial arrangements, among other things.

The length and form of obituaries has changed over time. This 1891 obituary for David Shelby Walker, who served as governor of Florida from 1866 until 1868, is quite short, despite his prominence in society at the time.

Obituary for Florida Governor David Shelby Walker, July 21, 1891, Florida Times-Union.

Newspapers are also great sources of information for local happenings of all kinds. Aside from local news, you can peruse information about local businesses or scan the classifieds section. These sections are important because they tell us a lot about what people valued at a given point in history, whether monetarily or otherwise.

Although we often move past them today, full-page ads are a great source for historical information. During the Florida Land Boom, land companies entreated people to invest in their projects. Since many of these developments did not last long, any piece of evidence we can find is valuable. This full-page ad for the Pasadena-on-the-Gulf neighborhood in St. Petersburg gives you the flavor.

Full-page ad for the Pasadena-on-the-Gulf neighborhood in St. Petersburg, November 30, 1924, St. Petersburg Times. Click to enlarge.

Finally, you’ll often see columns in historical newspapers that you won’t find today. “Social and Club Activities of Interest to Women,” for example, lists dances, meetings and other events happening in Tallahassee.

“Social and Club Activities of Interest to Women,” April 7, 1940, Tallahassee Daily Democrat. Click to enlarge.

There are several places you can go to start your own newspaper research. The State Library holds most major newspapers from all over Florida on microfilm. You can use these resources at the State Library Reference Room in Tallahassee, or patrons can request individual microfilm reels through their local library.

Many historical Florida papers are available through the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, hosted by the University of Florida Libraries. An easy way to browse this collection is to type in the name of a city, then see which papers are available for specific years.

Finally, the U.S. Newspaper Directory is a handy tool available through the Library of Congress. You can navigate by state, county or city and learn information such as newspaper publication dates, which can be difficult to find.

The librarians at the State Library are glad to help you with your research. Give them a call at 850.245.6682 or e-mail them at info@dos.myflorida.com.

Archives Month 2016

Happy American Archives Month! Every October, the State Archives of Florida joins with archives throughout the country to participate in a month-long dialogue about what an archive is, who archivists are, and why it matters to the average American citizen. Archivists are a passionate group of professionals dedicated to the faithful preservation of the historical documents that make up state, local, and national histories. Some of the stories living within these records can have far-reaching impacts on the modern people looking at them, and an archivist’s work is driven by the responsibility to provide public access to these potentially life-changing materials. Throughout Archives Month we will be sharing some of our best life-changing stories from the State Archives of Florida vault. But, in order for archived records to change lives they, too, must have a physical repository to call home. With that in mind, we’re starting off Archives Month 2016 with a brief history of how the State Archives of Florida came into existence and why it matters.

History of the State Archives of Florida

The State Archives of Florida as it exists now did not open until 1969, but several Floridians with a passion for preserving state history were at work for much longer. Early on in Florida’s statehood, the Secretary of State was charged with maintaining Florida’s historical records. However, not until the State Library of Florida opened in 1925 did any meaningful preservation begin. Prior to this, original state documents had no official home, and lived in moldy basements, hot attics, and other scattered locations inhospitable to long term preservation.

In the early 20th century, Caroline Mays Brevard, Florida historian and educator, emerged as one of the earliest advocates for the establishment of a “hall of history” for the state documents. In an era before women could vote, Brevard appealed to Florida’s lawmakers for an official state repository to collect and maintain Florida’s historical records.

Caroline Brevard's written appeal for a state repository of Florida's historical documents. Ca. 1900.

Caroline Brevard’s written appeal for a state repository of Florida’s historical documents, ca. 1900.

“We should no longer delay to make provision for the care and preservation of our archives…. Such a hall would be the headquarters for all historical activities in the state, and here thousands of our people would find information. State pride would be strengthened, for patriotism would know its reason for being,” urged Brevard.

Though Caroline Brevard died in 1920, five years before the establishment of a functional state library, her advocacy certainly contributed to the appointment of the first State Librarian, W.T. Cash , in 1927 and the first State Archivist, Dr. Dorothy Dodd, in 1941. After Cash’s death in 1951, Dodd succeeded him as State Librarian.

Portrait of the first State Archivist and the second State Librarian, Dr. Dorothy Dodd. Dodd graduated from Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee before earning her PhD in history from the the University of Chicago.

Portrait of the first State Archivist and the second State Librarian, Dr. Dorothy Dodd. Dodd graduated from Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee before earning her PhD in history from the University of Chicago.

Until the State Archives opened as its own entity in 1969, the State Library assumed archival functions, and was responsible for collecting and storing archival materials. During her tenure as State Archivist, Dorothy Dodd traveled the state in search of significant Florida-related historical records and manuscripts. She later recounting how she “started [the State Library’s Florida Collection] with the idea that anything that had to do with Florida had a place in th[e] collection.” By the time she retired in 1965, Dr. Dodd had collected 260 linear feet of territorial and state papers, and it is these items that formed the original core of the State Archives of Florida’s holdings.

A view of the State Library’s storage area in the basement of the Old Capitol in 1947. Before the Department of State built a designated repository in the 1970s, the library’s collections were kept on different floors and wings of the capitol. Though archival best practices were not well-established at the time of this photograph, modern professional archivists follow a strict set of guidelines to ensure the longevity of their collections. Because of moisture’s deteriorative impact on paper, damp basements are not considered acceptable library and archive storage spaces. Modern archival best practices recommend a climate controlled setting for the preservation of historical records.

A view of the State Library’s storage area in the basement of the Old Capitol in 1947. Before the Department of State built a designated repository in the 1970s, the library’s collections were kept on different floors and wings of the capitol. Though archival best practices were not well-established at the time of this photograph, modern professional archivists follow a strict set of guidelines to ensure the longevity of their collections. Because of moisture’s destructive impact on paper, damp basements are not considered acceptable library and archive storage spaces. Modern archival best practices recommend a climate controlled setting for the preservation of historical records.

When the State Archives of Florida first opened in 1969, it was located at the old Leon County Jail in Tallahassee. In 1976, the state constructed the R.A. Gray Building on 500 S. Bronough Street in the heart of Florida’s capital city. Since then, the R.A. Gray building has been the site of the State Archives as well as the Museum of Florida History and the State Library.

When the State Archives of Florida first opened in 1969, it was located at the old Leon County Jail in Tallahassee. In 1976, the state constructed the R.A. Gray Building at 500 S. Bronough Street in the heart of Florida’s capital city. Since then, the R.A. Gray Building has been the site of the State Archives as well as the Museum of Florida History and the State Library.

Italian cartographer Baptista Boazio’s original engraved, hand-colored map of Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 siege of St.Augustine is the oldest collection item currently held by the State Archives of Florida, and is the earliest known visual depiction of a European settlement in what is now the United States. In 1982 the State Archives acquired Boazio’s map of St. Augustine from the private collection of longtime Florida judge and historian, James R. Knott. Aware of the map’s historical significance, Knott wanted to transfer the map to the people of Florida and trusted the Archives to carry out that vision. Without a functional State Archives, though, the Boazio map, along with many other priceless records of Florida’s history, might still be sitting in private collections only available to a handful of people.

Italian cartographer Baptista Boazio’s original engraved, hand-colored map of Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 attack on St. Augustine is the oldest single item currently held by the State Archives of Florida. Additionally, it is the earliest known visual depiction of a European settlement in what is now the United States. In 1982 the State Archives acquired Boazio’s map of St. Augustine from the private collection of longtime Florida judge and historian, James R. Knott. Aware of the map’s historical significance, Knott wanted to transfer the map to the people of Florida and trusted the Archives to carry out that vision. Without a functional State Archives, though, the Boazio map, along with many other priceless records of Florida’s history, might still be sitting in private collections only available to a handful of people.

Why Celebrate Archives?

For over four decades, the State Archives of Florida has served Floridians with access to the records of their state.  Specifically, the State Archives is statutorily mandated to “collect, preserve, and maintain the significant official records of state government and to inform the public about the existence and location of these records.” Additionally, the Archives is also permitted to collect, preserve, and maintain historic local government records, manuscripts, photographs, maps, plans, and other evidence of past activities in Florida.

View of the climate-controlled stacks at the State Archives of Florida.

View of the climate-controlled stacks at the State Archives of Florida.

The State Archives of Florida now holds approximately 50,000 cubic feet of archival records.  A staff of professional archivists is responsible for the continued acquisition and processing of archival records,the maintenance of existing records, and making them available for public access.

Collections Management Archvist, Tyeler McLean. Before a patron can make use of an archival collection, an archivist must arrange and describe the materials first.

Collections Management Archivist, Tyeler McLean, processes a newly acquired collection. Often when the Archives acquires a new collection, it arrives in a disorganized condition.  Before researchers can make use of a collection’s contents, an archivist must arrange and describe the materials first.

In reflecting on why archives should be celebrated, seasoned archivist Elisabeth Golding opined:

Why celebrate? Because American archives, and Florida archives, preserve and protect the foundations of our freedoms. Archives collect the records that make transparent government possible and preserve evidence of civil and property rights. We can cite a state or federal Constitution in defending our rights as citizens because archives preserve the integrity and authenticity of those original documents. We can hold government agencies accountable because archives preserve the original laws that set forth those agencies’ responsibilities and limitations and the budgets that show how those agencies spent taxpayer dollars.

But that’s not all we celebrate. Archives serve as the recorded memory of a community, a state, a nation, a society. Every day, students, teachers, historians, journalists, attorneys, and members of the public use records from the State Archives and other archival repositories to search their family history, study the development of communities and transportation networks, analyze legislative intent, trace land ownership and use, find resources for History Day projects, and find information about the actions and decisions of elected and appointed government officials.

If you live in the Tallahassee area, celebrate Archives Month with us at our special after-hours Archives Month events throughout the month of October.

It’s in the Directory

Remember back before the Internet when you needed the “phone book” to find a phone number or address for a person or business? These days, we tend to use printed directories for booster seats and doorstops more than for their intended purpose, but these volumes do have a critical role to play as a historical resource. Especially the older ones.

A few of the printed city directories available at the State Library of Florida - others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

A few of the published city directories available at the State Library of Florida – others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

For many Florida municipalities, city directories have been published annually for over a century. The content in each volume varies by town, year, and publisher, but generally they include an alphabetical list of residents with addresses, a classified business directory, information about local officials, clubs, public services, and societies, and a street guide. Some directories also include information on nearby towns too small to have their own published directories.

City directories are a goldmine for genealogists, because they can potentially provide several kinds of information about an individual:

  • Where the person lived
  • The person’s occupation
  • The names of persons living in the same home (including spouse) or neighborhood
  • Who lived at the same address before someone moved in
  • Where the person moved to/from (if in the same city)
  • How long a person lived in a particular city

These volumes are also useful for local historians because they can help with tracing the history of a particular building, a business, a club or society, or other local entity.

City directories may be found in public libraries, the State Library of Florida, or through one of a number of online databases. Ancestry.com provides searchable digitized editions of many Florida city directories, and a number of Florida cities have completed their own digitization projects to make the directories available online.

So how do you use these city directories for family history research? Let’s make an example of this gentleman whose portrait is included in the Florida Photographic Collection:

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

Read more »

When Florida Touched the Mississippi

The calm, winding Perdido River currently serves as Florida’s western boundary, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Florida’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River!

Read more »

When Dade County Was On the Gulf Coast

It doesn’t take a genius to realize map-making has come a long way since the early 19th century. Today’s Floridians would also likely agree that it shouldn’t take a genius to know where Miami-Dade County ought to be on a map of the Sunshine State. If that’s the case, then how in the world did THIS happen?

An 1838 map of Florida showing Dade County incorrectly on the Gulf Coast, just north of Tampa Bay (Florida Map Collection, State Library).

An 1838 map of Florida showing Dade County incorrectly on the Gulf Coast, just north of Tampa Bay (Florida Map Collection, State Library).

That’s right – in 1838, at least one mapmaker believed Dade County was supposed to be on Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa Bay instead of down in South Florida on the Atlantic Coast where we would expect it to be. All jokes aside, the error in this case was probably only partly to do with the mapmaker’s wits and smarts. Some of the confusion likely resulted from the events leading up to Dade County’s establishment in 1836.

Prior to 1836, all of the land in what is now Miami-Dade County was part of Monroe County, which at that time contained everything south of an irregular line running from Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf coast, down to Lake Okeechobee (then called Lake Macaco) and down the course of the Hillsboro River to the Atlantic. When the territorial legislature met in January 1836, the representatives drew up a bill to create a new county using some of this expansive territory. Legislative records show that no representatives voted against the bill, not even Richard Fitzpatrick, Monroe County’s delegate.

The name didn’t provoke much debate either. Seven days before the legislative session convened, two companies of U.S. troops led by Major Francis Dade had fought one of the most violent battles of the Second Seminole War, in which Major Dade and a number of his men were killed. The legislators consequently agreed to name the new county “Dade” as a memorial to the fallen commander.

Historical markers at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park near Bushnell in Sumter County (circa 1950s).

Historical markers at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park near Bushnell in Sumter County (circa 1950s).

Here’s where our mapmaker may have gotten into trouble. Since the new county was supposed to be a memorial to Major Dade, perhaps he thought it was supposed include the site of the late commander’s final battle. There was also a fort in the area that had just been renamed Fort Dade in the major’s memory – perhaps this was a contributing factor. It’s tough to say for sure. Even had this been the mapmaker’s thinking, Dade’s Battlefield is actually located more to the east in present-day Sumter County. More importantly, the act creating Dade County clearly situates it in the southeastern corner of the peninsula.

We may never know the full story behind Dade County’s short-lived Gulf coast career, but it’s one of those humorous little mistakes that help remind us that the historical actors we study were human beings. The history we learn from them wasn’t predetermined – it involved a multitude of individual decisions, actions, and even a few missteps.

This unusual map is one of over 1,700 individual items in the Florida Map Collection housed at the State Library in Tallahassee. Visit library.florida.gov to search the Library Catalog. If you want to limit your search to just maps, choose “Florida Map Collection” from the drop-down menu below the search box.

Use the drop-down menu below the search box on the State Library's catalog to narrow your search.

Use the drop-down menu below the search box on the State Library’s catalog to narrow your search.