Spanish was the only language used in the city for years
The issue of Spanish-language ballots for Florida is being discussed right now with a workshop scheduled for Tallahassee on Friday. And, of course, the issue is controversial.
Yet making government information available in Spanish and English dates back to the early days of Florida’s integration into the United States.
At least two weeks after St. Augustine’s July 10, 1821, transfer to the United States (and possibly in less time), a St. Augustine newspaper, East Florida Gazette, printed important information in both languages .
For the people of St. Augustine, Spanish was their first language and for many their only language for decades. Florida Territorial Governor Andrew Jackson issued a number of executive orders and ordinances that addressed government activities affecting the ordinary person. They were published in both languages.
Ordinances debated or passed by the City Council also appeared in Spanish and English in the Gazette.
One of the government offices created by order of Jackson was the Public Translator. Jackson’s orders also established the fee the translator could charge: 25 cents for 100 words.
Other ordinances established the city limits of St. Augustine and the organization of the courts and their procedures. The ordinances allowed the use of Spanish in court proceedings if “both or one of the parties are Spaniards.” Jackson’s order, however, warned that the presiding judge would “follow as closely as possible the forms in use in Spanish courts.”
Certainly one of the most distressing articles to read in the Gazette was that people who owned property under Spanish rule now had to prove they had a valid claim to the property in order for the property to be recognized by the US government.
For some elderly residents, filing claims would become a nightmare.
They had to gather enough evidence to prove their ownership. Many had kept the necessary documentation. But for others, their paper proof of ownership had been lost or ruined over the years.
Applicants with incomplete documentation should provide witnesses who could testify to the applicant’s occupation and use of city lots or farms or plantations beyond St. Augustine. All would have to pay for the translation of documents or affidavits into English.
Early deed books in St. Johns County (and thus St. Augustine) contain deeds and bills of sale in both languages. In some cases, the bilingual documents came from Cuba, not St. Augustine. Some of St. Augustine’s Spanish period residents had chosen to leave St. Augustine for Cuba when transferring from Florida to the United States. Their deeds or similar documents, usually written or signed in Havana, were of course in Spanish and they appear in both languages. in the books still preserved in our county.
A few Gazette advertisers have chosen to advertise their services or merchandise in both languages. It is perhaps unsurprising that liquor and wine advertisements are often “bilingual”.
Probably the most heated election question of the early days of US government in Florida was recorded in Spanish and English. The election was the 1823 race for territorial delegate from Florida. And this competition led to a long complaint printed in English and Spanish in the local newspaper.
The delegate was Florida’s voice in Congress. Territorial delegates could speak and persuade, but had no vote in Congress. In 1823-1824, Alexander Hamilton, Jr., ran for territorial delegate of Florida. Many St. Augustins and especially Minorcans backed fellow Menorcan Joseph Hernandez for the position.
A petition claimed that Hamilton was intimidating voters into electing him. The St. Augustine newspaper of June 23, 1823 published a copy of a petition in Spanish and English saying that Hamilton, who was one of the United States Land Commissioners for Florida who assessed property claims, had “threatened to consider unfavorably the land claims of anyone he learned had voted for his opponents.”
The petition that appeared in the local newspaper was a verbatim copy of the petition, written in Spanish and English, sent to Washington, DC, to US President James Monroe, who nominated Hamilton for a post in Florida.
Neither Hamilton nor Hernandez would serve as a territorial delegate. Another candidate, Richard K. Call, won the election.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.