Sunday, February 28, 2010

Census Problems: Dos Semillas or Doce Millas?

In working with the St. Augustine, Florida, Spanish colonial census if 1783, I have come across problems similar to those we encounter in more modern censuses. First among these is that we do not know who the informant was for any entry in that census. And there are also problems such as one I have encountered, that is: What did the respondent say vs. what did the enumerator hear? This is one way we come up with some of the creative spellings of names and places in the censuses.

In this particular instance, there was a woman named Honoria Clarke who lived in an area which is named in the census as "dos semillas" -- two seeds. However, this place-name is also found as "doce millas" -- twelve miles. It is quite likely that Honoria Clarke, being a "Doña," or a lady of quality, would not have been the individual responding to the census enumerator. Doña Honoria was actually British, this census having been taken right after Spain re-acquired control of Florida after it had been in British hands for twenty years (1763-1783). So the respondent was probably a servant or even a slave, and most likely a fluent Spanish-speaker, and they tend to speak quite rapidly.

The property of Doña Honoria is stated as being between three and four miles northwest of St. Augustine. We must remember that in those days, a "mile" was probably not the 5280-foot statute mile we use today. And mapmaking was not nearly as accurate as it is today, either. Something like five miles, today, northwest of St. Augustine is an area known as Twelve Mile Swamp. I have a suspicion that it is this area in which Doña Honoria's property was located. And if the respondent in this case was a fluent Spanish-speaker, he or she could have said "doce millas" and the enumerator could not be blamed for hearing "dos semillas."

On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the area was indeed, in those days, known as Two Seeds, and the homophone phenomenon occurred, leaving us with "doce millas" -- Twelve Miles. I have to seek out a contemporary map to see if that area is labeled, and as what. Place names can undergo curious metamorphoses.

Such an instance happened in St. Augustine. Early on, there was a street named Calle de la Marina. That has been rendered in one source I examined for my book on the censuses of Florida as "Street of the Marine." Such a word-by-word translation is not a refined piece of work. Today, the street is known, translated with proper regard to usage in the language being translated to as well as from, as Marine Street. This, however, is a misnomer. The Spanish word for "Marine," as we Americans and the British call a certain military member type, is spelled exactly the same way -- marine -- and is pronounced "mah-REE-nay." The word "Marina" is pronounced in Spanish pretty much as in English, where it has come to mean an area for mooring recreational boats. But in Spanish, "Marina" is the word for NAVY. I suspect a faulty translation during the British Period for this error. What today is called Marine Street in St. Augustine should be Navy Street.

Disclaimer: My father was in the Navy. He taught his dog a trick. He would ask the dog, Smoky, "What would you rather be? A dead dog or a Marine?" and the dog would roll over with all four legs in the air.


Pyno Mrah said...

Honoria Cummings Clarke was Irish, but raised Spanish. Her family arrived in Florida during the First Spanish Period. She married her English husband, Thomas Clarke, the year of the Treaty of Paris. She was at least conversant in several languages and would have made sure to answer the census taker herself as she would have wanted to have control over the facts of the record. Her family would go on to play a major role in Florida history.

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

Thank you so much for that information. I have to wonder about the census taker, then. Might have been the sort of mishearing usually referred to as a "Mondegreen."