A History Professor Unfolds Florida's Vivid and Violent Past

Annie Francis

J. Michael Francis, of the U. of North Florida, at the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century fort built by Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Fla. He has ideas about how to observe the city's 450th anniversary.
September 25, 2011

If J. Michael Francis gets his wish, replicas of enormous Spanish ships from centuries ago will dock in Florida in 2015, as part of a celebration 450 years in the making.

Mr. Francis, a professor of history at the University of North Florida, is helping organize the national observance of the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest permanently occupied European-established city in the continental United States.

He was appointed this year by Ken Salazar, U.S. secretary of the interior, to the event's 13-member Commemoration Commission. The panel includes two other academics as well: Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, and Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.

The tale of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of youth typically overshadows much of the other early colonial history of the region, something Mr. Francis hopes to change through his work on the commission.

St. Augustine was once a collection of French, Greek, German, Spanish, and Flemish colonists who came to the port city, where they found themselves outnumbered by the American Indian population already in place. The conflicts between the two groups were the subject of Mr. Francis's latest book, Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida: Don Juan and the Guale Uprising in 1597. Written with Kathleen M. Kole, a graduate student, it provides a window onto Spanish civilization in the Southeast through a case in which several Indians kidnapped and killed some Franciscan friars.

"It's a 400-year-old murder mystery," Mr. Francis says. "We probably won't ever know precisely who killed the friars or why, but perhaps those aren't the most important questions. This is an episode still worth examining because it reveals a great deal about Southeastern chieftains and the tenuous nature of Spanish authority."

He got his first taste of Latin America after graduating from high school, when he received a grant to travel around Peru for a year. After hiking in the Andes and exploring Lima, the country's capital, the Calgary, Alberta, native considered going into the Canadian foreign service to see the world.

But when he took a course in modern Latin American history during his sophomore year at the University of Alberta, everything changed. After writing a paper on political parties in Peru during the 1930s, he became fascinated with the ways that the New World's colonial past have affected its modern history. He earned a master's degree at Alberta—his research included a stay in Bogotá, Colombia, where the cobblestone streets and buzzing plazas of the richly historic city left a lasting impression on him. His doctorate is from the University of Cambridge, in England.

Mr. Francis, who is now 43, landed a tenure-track position at the University of Northern Florida, in Jacksonville. In one of his courses, "Introduction to Spanish Paleography," he taught undergraduates to transcribe 16th-century Spanish documents into English.

Now his passion for colonial Latin America has won him a seat on the St. Augustine commission, which is seeking ways to make the past come alive for Florida residents.

Among his ideas is to have the replicas of the old wooden ships built by a foundation in Spain. They would sail across the Atlantic and visit various Florida ports.

A challenge for the commission, Mr. Francis says, will be to bring Floridians beyond a conventional view of colonial history, one that is narrowly focused on the mythical fountain of youth and on the real clashes between the Europeans and the American Indians.

"What people don't understand was that the relationships between the natives and the Europeans were extremely complex," he says. "There were alliances, back-stabbing, and revenge, and if you ignore that, you invite controversy and public distrust."

The goal, says Mr. Francis, is to shift the thinking about Florida as a solely Spanish colony, and to see it as a caldron of ethnicities and cultures. "We're still trying to piece that history together. What you want to try and do is write a history that reflects an accurate account of the region. And you can't do that if you only focus on the Spanish."