The “bread box papers” share the 19th century history in the region

Hundreds of Spanish-era documents from Florida that describe land transactions, slavery, shipwrecks and other aspects of life over 200 years ago are part of the county clerk and comptroller office records of St. Johns.

But they are stored in an unusual place: a bread box.

“In a simple, humble breadbox you have these historical documents,” said Court Clerk Brandon Patty.

It is not clear why they are in a breadbox, but it has been their home for many years. And, with the help of the quality of the paper, the documents are still in fair condition, said Patty and clerks historian Susan Parker.

Patty and Parker are working to explore the documents and ensure they are well preserved, along with other projects related to the Clerk’s historically significant documents.

The documents, which date from 1803-1804, were part of the archives in the governor’s office in Saint-Augustin.

A document from the early 1800s shows the signatures of men who sold and bought a slave.  It is one of a collection of documents known as the Bread Box Documents in the Office of the Clerk of the Court and the Comptroller of the County of St. Johns.

Around the time the Spaniards left Florida in 1821, the U.S. government seized their official records before the Spaniards could take them to Cuba, Parker said.

Some of the documents are in the Library of Congress as part of the East Florida Newspapers – at the time, Florida was divided into East and West Florida, and St. Augustine was the capital of East Florida. It’s unclear why the breadbox papers weren’t included in the larger collection, Parker said.

“Here we have a whole book of original Spanish documents from our Spanish past… It’s really unique because most of them are gone,” Parker said.

The documents detail things that would be important to ordinary people at the time, such as wills, sales and deeds, Parker said.

“Can I prove that I own this property? Can I prove that I have paid off this debt? How much did you pay for the ship? Parker said.

The clerk’s office still records this stuff today, and sharing the breadbox papers helps educate people about the clerk’s role, Patty said.

The documents have been in the clerk’s office since 1905, Parker said. They have been known for many years, but interest in them resurfaces from time to time, she said.

Reports say that a man bought the documents at auction towards the end of the Civil War and kept them until they were turned over to the clerk.

While Parker didn’t go through all of the pages – there are around 600 double-sided pages, each one tricky with age she has found some stories that stand out.

The documents tell the story of people who complained and made reports after losing their boats while trying to navigate St. Augustine Inlet, Parker said. They were looking to recover money for the incident.

The pages also reflect a dark period in local history: slavery.

Parker described a page that shows the sale of a man in his twenties who was captured by a privateer.

“(The privateer is) Spanish. He captured an English ship or a British ship with slaves. But if you are a privateer you have to prove that you have the right to the cargo you captured,” Parker said.

The privateer was able to prove his case, and he sold the man to Saint-Augustin.

Documents such as the breadbox papers were used to prove land ownership and establish who lived in colonial buildings, Parker said.

In addition to working on the breadbox papers, Parker and Patty are working on plans to recognize the 200th anniversary of Florida’s integration into the United States, which will take place in 2021.

They also endeavor to showcase other documents in the collection.

“My job here is to … make the documents better known to the public,” Parker said.

Edward K. Thompson