J. Michael Francis, the newest professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is a native Canadian who's become one of this country's leading experts in early Florida history. Francis, 44, grew up in Calgary and studied in Canada and at Cambridge in England. His interest in Latin American colonial history led to a particular passion for Florida. After 15 years at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, he starts in St. Pete in August — just in time for 2013, the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon's landing on the Atlantic coast of what he dubbed La Florida.
Florida is a state that sometimes feels synonymous with newness. Why is it important to study its earlier history?
Early Florida history is part of Atlantic maritime history. It's a narrative that is an Atlantic world story. It's a Caribbean story. It's an African story.
I think Florida's colonial history is as rich — or dare I say richer — than the history of any part of the United States. By a significant amount. I really do. But at the same time it's also one the most poorly understood.
There's just a tremendous amount of scholarship that still needs to be done. I realized I could spend my entire career, and live to the age of 150, and still not get through just the Florida material in the Archive of the Indies in Seville.
There's material that we can use to reconstruct this period between 1513 and 1607. Once people become exposed to these kinds of stories, I think it will absolutely transform our understanding of Florida's past.
People think of the start of this country and they think of Plymouth Rock. They do not think of North Florida. Why?
The narrative is still driven by the British narrative and Anglo historiography.
Colonial Florida history is very much a place without an academic home. It's marginalized in colonial Latin American history, and within early U.S. history it's only been in recent years that early Americanists are starting to look at Florida.
And there are so many people who live here who were not born here. They arrive in Florida without a strong sense of identity to that specific place. This is changing. What I'm seeing increasingly in going around the state is there's a sense of curiosity about the local. In other words, what happened in this community, in this particular city or county? I think right now when I go to Ormond Beach, or Pinellas County, or Miami-Dade, there's a real interest. Wow. What happened here? I think with this comes an appreciation of place and an awareness of the richness of a history that contains a great deal of surprises.
Fort Morse was the first free black community in the United States. If Fort Morse was in Massachusetts or Virginia, I guarantee you it would be a national historic site, but Fort Mose is just outside of St. Augustine. And it's almost unknown.
The first Irish parish priest in the United States was the parish priest in St. Augustine. In 1597. Ten years before Jamestown.
The Indian chief of the mission called Name of God in St. Augustine had beautiful penmanship in 1600. She wrote letters to the Spanish governor. She wrote letters to the king. She.
Is Florida part of the American South, Latin America, both or neither?
I think both. When you're in parts of the Panhandle or Northeast Florida, I think people feel more Southern than they do Floridian, whereas Miami has a very different feel to it, as does Orlando. What strikes me every time I travel around the state is just the incredible diversity that most people don't appreciate. Europeans I talk to think about the beaches, Disney and maybe the Everglades, this hostile, gator-infested, python-infested swampland. I think one of the things I've learned traveling around Florida giving talks is that I had similar impressions of Florida before I moved here. And they're not accurate representations of what the state is. Trying to come up with a single Florida identity, I think that doesn't exist, and what you begin to see is that Florida has always been a place of multiple regional identities.
The USF St. Pete regional chancellor says you represent "the vanguard of scholars who are reinterpreting the meaning of 1513 …" What is the meaning of 1513?
I think it's going to mean different things in different places. From my own perspective, most historians are, I guess, a little nervous about commemorations. There's a tendency to oversimplify complex historical processes. That can be frustrating. But for me, in the case of Florida, it's a tremendous opportunity. Because I think there's this general sense of curiosity building. It seems to me the role of historians is to try to move the discussion beyond what's the oldest and what's the first and to try to be more engaged with the public in sharing the incredibly rich history.
I think people 50 years from now will look back at 2013 as a critical moment where the study of Florida history transformed. I think the Florida story is a story that needs to be understood beyond its borders and in a much broader context.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.