If you have a question pertaining to St. Augustine’s history, there’s a good chance Matt Armstrong is your guy. As a history guru and Digital Preservation Curator at the Government House, Matt Armstrong spends his days digging up history buried deep inside the Research Library (managed by the University of Florida). Matt gave us the inside scoop on his day to day work, historical findings, and shed some light on sights and happenings in St. Augustine that oftentimes go overlooked by the general public.
How long have you been involved with the St. Augustine community in a historical capacity?
I started by volunteering and interning with the city archaeologist, Carl Halbirt. My first job in St. Augustine was in 2006 with Karen Harvey, giving history themed walking tours of the downtown area. Interestingly enough, the tours started in the Government House lobby.
What keeps you passionate about history?
Unanswered questions, I suppose. Knowing that the answers for my own, or someone else’s, questions are hidden somewhere in the library collection keeps you digging.
Do you identify yourself as a historian?
History nerd would probably be a more accurate description. St. Augustine is so lucky to have a gaggle of fantastic historians: Susan Parker, David Nolan, Leslee Keys, Tom Graham, Charles Tingley, Alison Simpson… I could go on and on.
What type of work do you do at the Government House?
I manage the research library and run the digital preservation lab, where I digitize material so it can be accessible online to everyone. The library itself is a very cool and unique collection: it’s made up of archival research material, archaeological documents, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, and slides. It was the research collection of the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board (1959-1997). UF assumed the collection in 2009. Most of the material is from the 1940s to the 1980s. The collection tells a big part of the story of historic preservation in St. Augustine’s history. Why does the city look the way it does today? The answer is in the Government House library. The library is open to anyone who wants to use it for research. I have been fortunate enough to assist in projects with the City, the County, the Historical Society, the Florida National Guard, and projects with students from Flagler and UF.
What’s the most interesting part of your job?
It’s exciting to find something that was believed to be lost or non-existent, whether that be a photo, research paper, or piece of handwritten correspondence. You’d be surprised how often that happens. This usually happens when I work with students. It is an absolute joy to work with students (of all ages). Having History/Public History students from Flagler and Historic Preservation and Museum Studies students from UF using the space is exciting because they approach the material with a fresh set of eyes, they aren’t being held back by preconceptions about what did or didn’t happen in the city. The questions they ask, and by virtue of that, the answers they discover, are fantastic and enlightening for me as well.
What’s one historical happening in St. Augustine you would highlight for visiting tourists?
I think something that tourists don’t expect is how much archaeology is happening in the Ancient City, literally every day. It’s not just something that happens around the pyramids in Egypt or Indiana Jones films. It provides the concrete (or in our case, coquina), physical evidence of what existed here throughout the ages and that helps to inform how historic buildings are reconstructed and how we can interpret historic sites accurately. Yes, history is all around us, but there is infinitely more of it beneath us, which is why ours is one of the few cities in the country to have a City Archaeologist on staff. Carl Halbirt and his tireless team of volunteers are excavating and doing lab analysis every day. Dr. Kathleen Deagan has excavated at the Fountain of Youth site and Mission Nombre de Dios site recently, and is currently doing a really cool excavation at the Tovar House (part of the Oldest House Museum). And we are so fortunate to have the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) Northeast Regional Center here in St. Augustine. They are practicing and educating about archaeology and protecting heritage resources in the coolest and most fun ways you can imagine.
What are your favorite historical sites in town that you feel go overlooked?
Some of my favorite overlooked historic sites are on Anastasia Island. All of the coquina stone in any of the historic buildings you see downtown was quarried on the Island. You can visit the site where they started the large scale quarrying in Anastasia State Park. There is a nice little trail just to the right when you enter the gates to the park. The “Old Spanish Chimney” is all that remains of the house of a quarry foreman in a separate park on Old Beach Road. These sites are also a reminder of another legacy in the city’s history which goes overlooked–the back-breaking labor required to quarry and construct some of the most enduring historic structures in St. Augustine was performed by African slaves, prisoners, and indigenous Timucua from Franciscan missions who were required to provide tribute to the Spanish colonial government in the form of labor and crops.
Any historical happenings this fall the community should know about? — i.e. digs, events, etc.
Tolomato Cemetery (across Cordova Street from Mojos BBQ) is restoring the historic wall and constructing a new fence and entry gate. The cemetery is a very important local site and unfortunately it’s currently being obscured by a nasty chain-link and barbed wire fence. The site will really stand out after these improvements. A local blacksmith is creating the new entry gate and it’s going to be stunning.
What do you feel the value of St. Augustine’s history on present day St. Augustine to be?
Well, the obvious one for citizens would be the monetary value–and the Tourist Development Council keeps track of those numbers very well. But, the intangible value is very real too. St. Augustine fascinates people. You meet a lot of people who visited and then decided to stay, or moved back here because they just couldn’t stay away. I feel that for a lot of people something in the city latches onto your being and the further away you go, the harder it tugs. I imagine Pedro Menéndez felt something very similar when he landed here 450 years ago, and here we are.
What’s one historical misconception you’re always eager to debunk?
Wow, that could be a whole article for you. The pope is not coming for the 450th. We can at least clear the air on that one.
Featured in August/September print issue of St. Augustine Social Magazine
Photography by Brian Miller