Library Ladies- Emily Lloyd Wilson

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the St. Augustine Historical Society is highlighting the important women in our history. One of the most influential women to be a part of the St. Augustine Historical Society and the greater St. Augustine community was Emily Lloyd Wilson. Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1868, Wilson was originally an arts student who attended Drexel at the Philadelphia School of Design. An accomplished artist, her talents and interests led her to St. Augustine in 1901. Prior to this, Wilson visited St. Augustine several times during the 1890s to ride out the cold northern winters. In her autobiography, Ms. Wilson also accredits her wintering in St. Augustine to having family in town (her uncle and aunt John L. and Frances Wilson) and to health issues as she got older. John L. and Frances Wilson were benefactors of the St. Augustine Free Public Library and the donors of the Segui-Kirby Smith House, where the Research Library is located today. While Emily Wilson maintained a residence in Beach Haven, New Jersey for most of her adult life, from 1901 on, St. Augustine served as her winter home. 1919 saw her become a member of the Historical Society, and although initially reluctant, she became the resident librarian (1919-1931) and historian (1919-1953).

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Passionately interested in the history of Florida, Emily Wilson’s initial research arose out of a legal dispute over the will of her Aunt Frances. At the county court house to clear up this disagreement, she ended up digging through St. Johns County Court records for information relevant to the history of St. Augustine. The quality of her work greatly impressed Historical Society leaders, who persuaded her to take a position as librarian. Even when she left St. Augustine for New Jersey at the end of the winter months, Emily Wilson continued carrying out her duties. She traveled to both Tallahassee and Washington D.C. repetitively to view and secure records pertaining to St. Augustine. In particular, she purchased maps, documents, and Spanish colonial records, which became the foundations of the library’s holdings. Many of these items remain in our collections to this day. When Ms. Wilson was the Society’s librarian and historian, the library was actually located at the Webb Building on St. Francis Street, having been moved from its previous location inside the Castillo de San Marcos. Today, this building remains part of the Historical Society, serving as a museum and gift shop.

Ms. Wilson was particularly knowledgeable about maps, land deeds, and sales papers, as she briefly worked in real estate after her father’s passing. Her ventures to build up the Historical Society Library’s collection were so successful that they even garnered the support of U.S. Senator Chauncy Depew, who would later serve as president of the Society. Aside from collecting and indexing materials for the Historical Society, one of Emily Wilson’s crowning achievements was her indexing of the Cathedral Parish Records of St. Augustine, which are the nation’s oldest church records. She broke down much of this material into a series of books that continue to be used by various researchers, both professional and amateur, to this day. Her research and collecting of important documents not only greatly increased the Society’s holdings, but also became paramount to the initiative in the 1930s to resurrect the Ancient City’s colonial history. Much of what she found in national, state, and local archives was fairly unknown material, and fundamentally changed how we understand the history of both St. Augustine and Spanish Florida.

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Emily Wilson’s diligent work greatly shaped our understanding of St. Augustine’s history today, and set a strong example for what women could accomplish in a field that was traditionally dominated by men. She also set an example through her passion for the local community. Prior to her tenure with the Historical Society, she had been a teacher at the Trinity Sunday School, an officer of the Guild, and was a member of the Civic League School Association, which later became the Women’s Club. Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that gave women the right to vote, she began a lengthy term as a committee person for the Republican Party in St. Augustine. She continued to maintain such involvement throughout her tenure with the Society. While active as the Society’s historian until 1953, Wilson refused to be reelected librarian in 1931. Age and associated poor eyesight ultimately forced her retirement in 1953, though she maintained correspondence with many individuals around town and within the Historical Society. Ultimately, she would pass away in 1960, leaving behind an impressive legacy that remains an integral part of the St. Augustine Community to this day.

 

**Information in this post was obtained from Emily Lloyd Wilson’s letters to X. L. Pellicer written on April 4, 1939 and Milton E. Bacon on July 12, 1948. Both are contained in the Emily L. Wilson bio file. Additional information was obtained from the Great Floridians 2000 Nomination Form prepared by the City of St. Augustine.

Written by Robert Covert