Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Being Critical of our Sources

I am currently reading a book called The Cana Sanctuary by Frank Marotti.  It concerns the way African-Americans in St. Augustine, Florida, both in Spanish colonial times and after Florida was acquired (that's putting a nice face on it) by the United States, worked the system to their advantage in a number of ways, particularly by finding an ally in the Catholic Church.  The theme of how black citizens leveraged the system to their advantage is also explored in Jane Landers's seminal work, Black Society in Spanish Florida.

The first chapter of Mr. Marotti's book sets a background describing St. Augustine in the late colonial period (1784-1821, the Second Spanish Period) as being prosperous and bountiful, concentrating particularly on 1811-1812.  It is a rosy picture, painted from the testimonies Mr. Marotti found in claims filed after the so-called "Patriot War" of 1812, which was a blatant invasion of Spanish Florida by a ragtag "army" of mainly Georgians and South Carolinians, backed secretly at the highest levels by the United States government.  (For more on this, read James Cusick's The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida.)

These claims were filed by St. Augustine and rural East Florida residents to exact from the United States government reparations for destroyed properties and lost crops and other business losses.  Mr. Marotti appears not to have been terribly critical of these sources, for he asks no questions about what they contain.  There are descriptions of great bounty from the fields and farms of the area.  At one point he says, "Indeed, money grew on trees for numerous rural East Floridians."  He describes a five-acre plot owned by a Minorcan and worked by him and his family as being ample in its production to support a large family and to provide some profit as well.  He seems to indicate that this was a norm among the Minorcans, and states that the family in question was able to set aside money each year off the profits from such endeavors. This does not seem to square with the death records in the Catholic cathedral's archives, which cite instance after instance of Minorcans dying intestate because they were poor.  But then, we have to ask what constituted poverty in St. Augustine.

He also does not question one statement that the orange groves were so productive that 5,000 to 6,000 oranges could be got off of one tree. 

There are other statements that require questioning, but let's examine what we have here.  First, the oranges.  No one is going to get 5,000 to 6,000 oranges off one tree in a season.  According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, one mature orange tree can bear at most 1,250 oranges per tree "if you properly care for and fertilize the tree."(3)  The Department of Agriculture, for this figure, is presupposing modern agricultural methods.  I have a childhood memory of a particularly productive orange tree we had in our back yard.  My mother picked something like 100 oranges off that tree in one day, preparing to make and freeze orange juice, and it looked like it had not been touched at all.  I estimate there may have been a total of 250-300 oranges on that tree, which was pretty much just left to its own devices.

Also, this rosy picture does not square with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's soil survey of St. Johns County, where St. Augustine, and many of the rural farms surrounding it, are located. Most of the soils in St. Johns county are naturally low in fertility according to the soil survey. Soils in the county also tend to be strongly acidic, needing applications of lime to bring the pH more towards neutral. These soils also tend to be low on phosphrous and potassium. Soil tilth – preparation of the seed bed so that seeds can germinate properly and roots penetrate the soil – is important for germination and for the infiltration of water. When a soil has good tilth, the soil is porous and granular. Most St. Johns County soils do have good tilth, with their sandy surface layers. Organic matter is present in the county’s soils in low to moderate amounts, so the soil must be amended. The soil can get crusty if allowed to dry out after a heavy rain. Cover crops, plowed under, add organic matter and increase fertility.(4)  While it is true that southern St. Johns county is highly productive of such crops as potatoes, cabbages, and sorghum, these results are obtained with 20th century agricultural methods such as plowing under cover crops to add organic material, fertilization, irrigation using modern equipment and technology, and methods not available to the farmers of Spanish colonial St. Augustine.  What methods were in use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

But the broader consideration is that Mr. Marotti did not once bring up the question of what was behind his sources, the Patriot War claims.  One thing we have to keep in mind while looking at these documents is, these were people who were seeking to get money from the U.S. government, and the likelihood was high that they were going to exaggerate their claims in order to extract as much money as they could.  They were motivated to inflate their estimates. 

Much of the testimony he cites is from neighbors testifying on a neighbor's claim, not from the individual claimants themselves.  These neighbors testify as to how many acres their friend had, how much money he received from the sale of his produce, how much he paid his workers, how much he had in expenses, and other such figures.  We need to ask the question, "Where did they get these figures from?  Who did they get the information from?"  Was there someone advising them on their testimony and advising the claimants on their claims?  Were they being told that they had to inflate their claims in order to get anything at all?  Did their friend and neighbor come to them and say that he needed them to testify as to these figures, and give them the numbers he needed mentioned?  After all, the ones testifying for their friends also had claims pending, and who doesn't need a little quid pro quo in such circumstances?

We must also remember that these claimants and their witnesses were people who had been stripped of their properties and livelihoods.  Their fields and crops destroyed, they went from the reality or even the prospect of prosperity to abject poverty.  One resident is quoted as saying that the invasion "had stripped us of nearly all that we possessed, and left ourselves, our wives, and children to the cold charity of the world." (5)  Others expressed their bereavement and their resentment.  Thus, we have not only a population motivated to garner as much as they could by inflating their claims, but also a population motivated by resentment and a wish for vengeance against the government that had supported such depredation and impoverishment among them.  This is not to say that St. Augustine was not prosperous at one time, because it certainly was not as abjectly poor as some have made it out to be in the past.  The truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and we also must take a further look to see what the income distribution was in St. Augustine, and where and how great was the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Being critical of sources raises questions such as these, some of them useful, some of them silly.  Further research can answer some of them, and some are left to speculation on the possibilities, tempered with a knowledge of human nature and psychology.  But not asking the questions at all is inviting being fooled by the sources.  It is better to ask the questions, however silly they may be, than to ignore them.  Even if our conclusions, our answers to these questions, proves at a later date to have been in error, they may lead future historians down a path that will lead to a better understanding, to better insights, and a picture that much closer to "how it essentially was." 

(1) Marotti, Frank.  The Cana Sanctuary: History, Diplomacy, and Black Catholic Marriages in Antebellum St. Augustine, Florida. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 21.

(2) Ibid., 20.

(3) Florida Department of Agriculture.  Producing Citrus in Florida.  PDF document at http://faitc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/Producing-Citrus-in-Florida.pdf (accessed 15 May 2017).

(4)  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Survey of St. Johns County, Florida (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1983), 56.

(5) Marotti, The Cana Sanctuary, 30.

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