In its earliest years, the swamps and wetlands of Florida were as much a frontier as the Western mountains, deserts, and plains; travelers and frontiersmen often faced extremely harsh conditions in their search for prosperity in a new land. A wide range of first-hand accounts of these experiences is now openly accessible online in the University of Florida Digital Collections due to the efforts of Dr. James Cusick, who is the recipient of the 2015 CRL Primary Source Award for Access.
Pioneer Days in Florida, funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), digitized over 45,000 pages of the rarest and most fragile materials in the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries, including all 19th-century materials from the Florida Manuscripts Collection. The content ranges from late colonial days (1784) through the Wars of Indian Removal, Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the 20th Century (1912). Items include 14 collections of family papers, 134 volumes of diaries and memoirs representing 40 different writers, and 240 folders of additional letters, reports, and sketches. Selections highlight some underrepresented topics, such as women pioneers, slavery and race relations, and the Second Seminole War. The digitized materials document “the experiences and conflicts of native peoples, settlers, soldiers, and travelers during [Florida’s] turbulent 1800s,” beginning when “settlers in Florida faced a harsh and alien environment, a patchwork of forts, ranches, and wilderness.” They also paint a picture of Florida’s first land boom in the 1880s, and the development of the tourist industry.
Dr. Cusick and his team worked to make the primary source database as user-friendly as possible. He engaged undergraduate history majors and graduate students on student projects to supplement existing transcriptions of handwritten items, increasing text-searching capability. He also worked closely with IT and digital experts to implement “page turner” functionality for the diaries in the project. Since its launch, usage statistics and feedback from scholars and students have exceeded expectations. In its first two years the collection had just over 83,000 views.
One award reviewer noted: “The content, volume, and accessibility of the project are the clear strengths. The content intersects with multiple important historical periods and events that have broad application in university and high school settings.” Dr. Cusick is creating lesson plans to demonstrate the relevance of the digitized materials to topics including environmental history and the history of development and transportation in the region.