Spanish Colonial Archival Sources

Primary historical sources relative to Georgia’s earliest colonial era are mostly in Spanish archives, or in archival repositories in the United States that contain collections of microfilm or photostat images of original Spanish documents. While English documentary sources are available relating to the early Virginia and Carolina colonies, these sources are only applicable to the area of Georgia after the period of initial (and documented) direct contact, beginning with the 1674 journey of Henry Woodward to the Savannah River-town of the Westo/Chichimeco slave-raiders, and becoming more-or-less continuous after his 1685 voyage to the Coweta/Kasihta province on the Lower Chattahoochee in western Georgia. Anything prior to that time lies in Spanish archives, which constitutes the primary reason this period in Georgia’s early colonial period has been given such limited treatment in the history books. The discussion below provides a general introduction to Spanish archival sources relative to early Georgia history; most of these repositories also possess internet sites, which are listed on the Links page.

THE principal archival source for all of Spanish Florida’s long history, extending from the 16th-century exploratory period through the establishment of Georgia in the 1730s, is the Archivo General de Indias (AGI), or the Archive of the Indies, located in Seville, Spain. This important archival resource contains virtually all the original official Spanish documentation relating to the entire Spanish exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Indies (North and South America), and as such it must be considered one of the most important historical resources for all of humanity, given the ultimate import of the Spanish colonization of the “New World.”

The AGI contains hundreds of thousands of bundles (called legajos) of original handwritten manuscripts dating from the late 15th century (Columbus era) through the 19th century (when most of the colonies gained independence). These documents are organized into different sections based primarily on the administrative structure of the Spanish colonial empire. Much of the documentation pertaining to Florida falls under the section entitled Santo Domingo, since Florida was within the jurisdiction of the audiencia (a district governing body) of the city of Santo Domingo, located on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). Within this section, documents were generally organized by their authorship, including letters from governors, royal officials, ecclesiastical officials (friars, etc.), and private individuals (typically soldiers or their widows). What remains of Florida’s official accounting records, including ration lists, equipment inventories, etc., is filed under the section called Contaduría, most of which was severely burned during a fire in the 20th century (and which is thus only fragmentary). Official reviews of Florida’s gubernatorial terms were filed in yet another section, called Escribanía de Cámara, and Florida’s very early exploration is mostly filed within the section entitled Patronato, which includes most of the earliest materials of the era of Spanish conquistadores.

Gaining access to the original materials within the AGI requires a formal letter of introduction, followed by the issuance of a photo identification card with a researcher number. Casual visitors to the Archivo will only be able to see the permanent public display of a small selection of documents and maps, and should notexpect to be able to gain access to the inside reading room without having made arrangements in advance.

There are some original manuscript collections relating to Spanish Florida in the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) in Madrid, and these collections may be viewed by visitors who register for a visitor’s pass to the library. A published guide to the collections can be used to lead researchers to the Florida materials.

Other archives in Spain undoubtedly contain Florida materials, such as the archive in Simancas (the original home of the AGI until its relocation in the late 18th century), or several independent military archives around Spain, but since I have yet to visit these repositories I will not comment on them here.

Microfilm and photostat copies of original Spanish records are available in the United States, though only at a few select archives and libraries. Easily the best archival repository for the history of Spanish Florida (including Georgia) is the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, located on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Not only does this library contain several important private collections of copied documents (including the Stetson Collection, which is easy to search using a card-file calendar organized by date), but it also contains full microfilm copies of virtually all major legajos pertaining to Spanish Florida during the First (1565-1763) and Second (1783-1821) Spanish periods. In addition, the collection of secondary published works on Spanish Florida at the P.K. Yonge is unparalleled. A visit to Gainseville would be my recommendation for anyone interested in embarking on serious research into Spanish Florida, including early colonial Georgia.

Georgia resources are even more limited. The Georgia Department of Archives and History in downtown Atlanta possesses the important Mary Letitia Ross Collection (in both original and microfilm formats), which contains a substantial amount of Spanish archival material, including some photostats of original documents, and even more transcriptions (many with English translations) in typed or handwritten form. The Georgia archives also possesses microfilm copies of many important early English documents, including several reels of early Carolina Indian Affairs journals.

In Athens, an excellent collection of original maps and manuscripts is available at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens (in the Georgia Room). Their internet site contains one of the best collections of digitized maps available, and even more of this collection is available for on-site viewing on CD-ROM.

There are, of course, several other archives and libraries that contain primary and secondary materials relating to early colonial Georgia, including the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Until I have an opportunity to review these collections personally, I will not include any further commentary on them here.

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