Researching Florida Roots
9/27/2009
It's a small world after all when the nation's genealogy societies converge in Orlando for their annual conference. Whether you're attending FGS or just researching Sunshine State ancestors, our guide will get you started shaking your Florida family tree.

Move over, Pilgrims. Sorry, John Smith. When it comes to roots, Florida's go way back. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon came here in search of the Fountain of Youth, and named the area La Florida for its flowers. Little more than a half-century later, the Spanish set up their first settlement in St. Augustine in 1565㬦 years before the English founded Jamestown. Today, St. Augustine is one of the few American cities with its own Department of Heritage Tourism (904-825-1000). The city's Colonial Spanish Quarter living history museum (904-825-6830) lets you step back into the era when St. Augustine was a remote outpost of the Spanish Empire, with costumed interpreters portraying Spanish soldiers and their families circa 1740.

Modern Florida ranges from the salsa beat and Cuban expatriates of Miami to the sugar-sand beaches and "Redneck Riviera" charm of the Panhandle. But for most visitors, Florida wears mouse ears. Walt Disney World (407-939-7675), built in 1971, has expanded to four theme parks—the original Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom—plus a bevy of resorts, water parks and other attractions. It's been joined in the Orlando area by Universal Studios (800-711-0080), SeaWorld (800-327-2424) and countless smaller tourist magnets.

Sept. 3-6, Orlando will attract thousands of genealogists to the Federation of Genealogical Societies' annual conference, themed "Countdown to Discovery: A World of Hidden Treasures." Attendees can learn how to discover genealogical treasures at sessions on European, US, Canadian, ethnic and religious research, as well as records and technology. One of the program tracks will focus exclusively on Florida roots research. For registration information, call (888) 347-1500 or visit the FGS web site. The conference hotel is the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld (6677 Sea Harbor Drive, 800-327-6677). For other lodging options and attraction guides, contact the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau (407-363-5872).

Though visiting genealogists no doubt will find a few spare minutes for Mickey Mouse and friends, the main local attraction for family historians is the Orlando Public Library (101 E. Central Blvd., 407-835-7323). The 290,000-square-foot downtown building is the largest public library building in the state. Its genealogy collection was built on a 1923 gift from Capt. Charles Albertson, an avid genealogist, and its 1929 designation as the official repository of the state's Daughters of the American Revolution society. The collection contains more than 25,000 books and bound periodicals, 10,000 microfiche and 15,000 reels of microfilm—including the recent addition of all 2,667 reels of the 1930 US census. Florida holdings include state censuses from 1885, 1935 and 1945, and indexes covering deaths (1877 to 1997), marriages (1927 to 1997) and divorces (1927 to 1997).

Researchers with Sunshine State ancestors will want to stray even farther off the beaten tourist path to Tallahassee, the state capital, which is home to the Florida State Archives (500 S. Bronough St., 850-245-6700). You can get a glimpse of the archives' riches without ever leaving home—via the online Florida Memory Project. This site includes a searchable image database of more than 98,000 photographs, an online exhibit of historical documents, an interactive timeline and access to highlights of the archives' genealogical collections, such as Florida Confederate Pension Application Files and Spanish Land Grants. You also can search the entire collection catalog online. Resources worth seeing in person include US census microfilm (up to 1920 for most Southern states, plus 1930 for Florida, Georgia and Alabama); state census records (every 10 years from 1845 to 1945—the most complete are 1885, 1935 and 1945); microfilmed marriage, deed and probate records from most county courthouses; military records from the Revolutionary War to World War I; and Florida Pioneer Certificate files, which trace the genealogies of people living in a county at the time of its creation or living in Florida prior to statehood. The archives also boasts a 10,000-volume genealogy book collection.

The archives is located in the R.A. Gray Building, two blocks west of the state Capitol. On your first visit, you'll need to show identification, complete a registration form and obtain a research card. Archives staff will photocopy your finds for you. If you can't make it to Tallahassee, the staff will conduct limited research for specific information, searching indexed records and books for a maximum of 30 minutes per request. The same address is also home to the Museum of Florida History (850-245-6400), repository for the state's historical artifacts. The permanent collection of nearly 44,000 items documents the daily lives of Florida's diverse populations through its long history. Admission is free. The museum system also includes five sites in Tallahassee, each highlighting a different period of Florida history: the Main Gallery, the Old Capitol, the Union Bank, Mission San Luis de Apalachee and the Knott House.

Tallahassee hotels handy to the archives and museum include the Governors Inn (209 S. Adams St., 850-681-6855), Doubletree (101 S. Adams St., 850-224-5000), Holiday Inn Select (316 W. Tennessee St., 850-222-9555) and Radisson (415 N. Monroe St., 850-224-6000). For more area information, contact the Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-628-2866).

Note that the Florida Office of Vital Statistics is not located in the state capital, but rather in Jacksonville (1217 Pearl St., Box 210, Jacksonville, FL 32231, 904-359-6900 Ext. 1029). You can find information about obtaining certificates, as well as an explanation about gaps in the records caused by a 1901 fire, on the office's Web site. A backup resource for vital records is the courthouse in each county, especially for records before 1900. You'll find a useful guide to Florida counties, as well as queries, a surname registry and links to other special library collections, at the Florida GenWeb Project site.

If you're heading to Tallahassee or Jacksonville from Orlando, consider a detour to Gainesville, roughly midway. At the University of Florida there, you'll find the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History in Smathers Library (352-392-9075 Ext. 306). The library's holdings include collections of historical maps, manuscripts, photographs and postcards, plus a special Spanish Borderlands collection. You'll also find the state's largest newspaper collection, the fruits of a preservation effort begun in 1944 to acquire at least one newspaper from each of Florida's 67 counties on an ongoing basis. The library began to microfilm its Florida newspapers in 1947 and continues to regularly microfilm 64 current Florida papers.

You can get help with your search for Florida roots from the Florida State Genealogical Society. If you're doing a lot of Sunshine State research, consider joining; annual membership is just $25. Contact Leslie Jeffcoat Maddocks, 606 Nelson Point Road, Niceville, FL 32578. The society also has a library collection, which is maintained at the Alma Clyde Field Library of Florida History in Cocoa (435 Brevard Ave., 321-690-1971), affiliated with the Florida Historical Society (321-254-9855).

Don't overlook the state's other smaller libraries, some of which boast excellent genealogy collections, such as the Indian River County Main Library in Vero Beach (1600 21st St., 772-770-5060 Ext. 108). Singled out as the Best Small-Town Library in Family Tree Magazine's special libraries and archives issue (October 2002), its genealogy collection includes more than 15,000 books, 10,000 microfilms, 35,000 microfiches and all US census records to 1880. And remember, you're in Florida—so don't spend all your time inside at the microfilm reader. The state's Division of Historical Resources (850-245-6300) can help you plan a heritage tour of Florida. You can explore Miami's Art Deco district, shipwrecks, Indian mounds, Spanish missions and Civil War forts. Who knows? You might even find some historic attractions that are close to a beach.

Toolkit

Other major Florida libraries and special collections include:

And link to these Florida genealogy Web sites: