By Martie Thompson
Almost 200 years ago, on July 10, 1821, Spain transferred its flags in St. Augustine to the United States of America. At this time, according to St. Johns County Clerk Historian, Dr. Susan Parker, officials with the United States attempted to seize as many important records and documents from the Spanish period as possible — instead of allowing the departing Spaniards to take the papers with them to Havana. The so-called “East Florida Papers,” which were the Spanish government’s documents, stayed at the Government House in St. Augustine until around 1870, when they were transferred to Tallahassee and then in 1905 to the Library of Congress. One particular set of papers, referred to as the “Breadbox Papers” because they were stored in a metal breadbox, was left behind.
“We don’t know why, but the Breadbox Papers didn’t go with the others,” Parker said. “As far as we know, the papers have always been in St. Augustine. They were apparently in private hands for approximately 40 years and then were brought to the City Clerk of Courts office in 1905, and then at some time turned over to the Clerk of Courts, where they remain today.”
The Breadbox Papers are of particular historical interest as they are the official records, dated from 1803 – 1804, during the Spanish period. There are about 350 sheets of paper containing handwritten records such as deeds, marriage contracts, affidavits and sales of slaves. Parker said it is unknown who actually put the papers in the breadbox.
“These records are well preserved due to the very good paper quality,” Parker said. “They were meant to last.”
According to Parker, the paper was most likely obtained through the Spanish government’s purchasing channels, meaning that it likely came from Spain or Havana rather than more locally, such as from Savannah, which was not Spanish-owned.
St. Johns County Clerk of Court Brandon Patty is particularly fascinated with these papers, due to their age and also timelessness.
“A lot of the records we found, we still do today,” Patty said. “These papers are unique because they are from the Spanish period, but it’s also worth noting that they represent the lineage of recording deeds and other transactions like we do today — and that 200 years from now we will probably still be doing, in some form. Our way of life is built on accurate records.”
The Clerk of Court, in addition to partnering with the court system and acting as the county comptroller, is responsible for being the repository for the county’s official records. Nikki May is the Supervisor of Records Management and said her department is responsible for the upkeep and retention of the documents. St. Johns County has a temperature and climate controlled warehouse, where all the important documents — court cases, Board of County Commission meetings, ordinances, financial and probate records — are kept, some bound in huge journals and some in boxes.
“Since St. Johns County is the state’s oldest county, our records go way back,” May said. “We have marriage licenses that date back to the 1820s.”
May said that a lot of the county’s records back to about 1960 are available online and that generally the only people who come to the clerk’s office for a physical records request tend to be historians researching genealogy.
Patty noted that through the years, fire has been a common threat to records, and so redundancy is crucial. Today, many records are stored digitally, but many years ago the clerk or his assistant spent a great deal of time painstakingly making manual copies in an early form of redundancy.
Going forward, Patty said his office is considering the proper preservation of the Breadbox Papers, which Parker agreed would likely not be in the breadbox.
“It’s good stewardship to continue to use state of the art preservation techniques,” Parker said.
The end goal is to make the papers available for public display. Patty feels it is important for citizens to learn about the importance of historical records as well as the role of the clerk’s office in maintaining them.
“As a historian, I’m pleased about the focus on this history,” Parker said. “These records represent the history of the county. It’s important to realize that just because there are not a lot of historic buildings in the county outside of St. Augustine, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of history. These deeds and records reflect that.”
Patty said that all of the official records help tell the story of St. Johns County.
“This is such a source of pride in our office,” Patty said. “We know that over the years, the personnel will change, but our activities will remain the same.”
Photo by Martie Thompson
St. Johns County Clerk Historian Dr. Susan Parker measures the size of the pages of the Breadbox Papers.