For decades, researchers looking into the history of the California mission system and its residents from 1769 to 1850 had to comb through detailed records using eye-aching rolls of aged microfilm in multiple locations throughout the state.
There was no way to search the complete body of data at once, nor was the data available in one place for tracking historical patterns or a piece of needed information in a reasonable amount of time.
But now, the Early California Population Project (ECPP) has brought all of the information together to provide researchers with a vast body of fully searchable information in one data repository. During the eight-year project, the huge database was developed by manually entering information from microfilmed images of old Spanish texts originally hand-written in ledgers and on papers from the state's 21 missions.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, a research and educational institution in San Marino, Calif., unveiled the ECPP database earlier this month (download PDF). The database provides insights into the lives of some 110,000 Native American, Mexican, Spanish and other settlers who lived in the missions from 1769 to 1850.
Steven Hackel, a fellow at the Huntington Library and an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, said the 4.5GB database is a record of all baptisms, marriages and burials of residents in California's 21 Franciscan missions during the colonial period. All of the meticulous records were originally written by hand by the Franciscans in ledgers and on papers that were stored in each of the missions along the California coast.
The personal data includes a variety of details for researchers, including the villages where the residents came from, their native names and information on their spouses and children, he said.
"It tells about the human relations that existed in California before the Spanish arrived," Hackel said. "It's not every bit of information, but it provides great insights."
For researchers, there has never been a single source of relevant information on the life of the mission residents. "The database itself has a completeness that is very unusual," Hackel said.
One important use for the information, he said, is that it can be used to help researchers better glean details about California during colonial times. One problem with U.S. history books, he said, is that they often tell only about the original 13 colonies on the East Coast, giving short shrift to history and activities in California and the West.
"We think this is part of a monumental effort to move toward a more continental vision of U.S. history, not just the Eastern Seaboard," he said.
Robert Ritchie, director of research at the Huntington Institute, said the database is already providing help to people who have been perusing and querying it online since it went live. "You can glean an awful lot of information about how people survived," he said. "You can see how families survived and interacted with local native peoples."
The records show the interaction of families, how disease spread in the tightly populated missions and the creation of new communities outside the missions, he said. "You can see that in the records, so what you are seeing is the basic population record of California."
Ritchie said the project began in 1998 when a group of historians approached him with the idea of creating a searchable database to better organize and use the scattered records of the mission residents. After obtaining initial funding through grants, the work began with a small team of data specialists who could read Spanish and who had received further training in deciphering the Old World Spanish scripts containing the records, he said.
One challenge for the data specialists was that since paper was difficult for the Franciscans to obtain, they used many abbreviations in the records to cut their paper usage, forcing the researchers to figure out what the abbreviations meant as they entered the data.
What began as an estimated US$125,000, one-year task became an eight-year, US$650,000 project, Ritchie said.
The project began with information stored in Microsoft Access databases because that was the format already used by many historians. Later on, the database was converted for use with a Microsoft SQL Server database because it has broader capabilities and capacities for data, Ritchie said.