The swashbuckling era of Amelia Island
Amelia Island is the northernmost barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic coast. About the size of the island of Manhattan, Amelia is often referred to as “the island of eight flags”. The French gave the island its first name in 1562 – “Île de Mai”. The Spaniards, to whom it belonged, from time to time, from 1513 to 1821, called it “Isla de Santa Maria”. The British, who owned it from 1763 to 1783, called it “Egmont Island”, and the Americans called it “Amelia”.
Our story today is about the other four flags that were raised and lowered on Amelia Island during the swashbuckling era of its 18th and early 19th century history.
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First the names
In 1735, Georgia’s colonial governor, James Oglethorpe, had actually convinced some Spanish officials to give Santa Maria Island to Georgia. He quickly named it after Princess Amelia Sophia Eleanor, the daughter of George II, who had appointed him as the first governor of his new colony of Georgia in 1732.
Of course, when the King of Spain Philip V discovered it, he took over his island.
Between 1735 and 1810, Amelia Island changed hands and names twice and had returned to Spanish rule. The colonial government acquired, from an English settler named Mary Mattair, 200 acres of land on the bluff overlooking the Amelia River. Here they placed the town, which in 1811 the Spanish governor of East Florida named Fernandina, after King Ferdinand VII of Spain.
The Spanish incorporated a fort into their city plan. It had become apparent to the governors of Spanish Florida that the American assaults on the island were unlikely to stop.
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Flag No. 1
Indeed, even before the town of Fernandina was plated, American settlers in East Florida had, in rebellion against the Spanish Governor of East Florida for perceived abuses, attacked and defeated a Spanish garrison on Amelia Island and hoisted a French flag.
A French flag? It’s complicated, but suffice it to say that the rebellion was fomented by French spies and their American collaborators to rid Florida of the Spaniards. The flag was a symbol of the rebels’ solidarity with the ideals of the recent French revolution…liberty, equality and fraternity.
A few weeks later, the rebels fled at the sight of Spanish ships approaching the island. The French flag is lowered; the Spanish flag is raised.
Flag No. 2
And then, a few months after the city was built, but before construction of a defensive fort could even begin, another American mob, calling themselves the “Patriots of Amelia Island”, defeated the Spanish garrison and hoisted his patriot flag.
Another long story, which I will summarize as follows:
In the early 19th century, the small colony of Fernandina was a hell of saloons and brothels serving cutthroats who smuggled slaves, liquor and luxury items into the United States against its ban on all of the above .
Under the guise of protecting United States business interests, but with the larger goal of annexing the Spanish colony of East Florida, President James Madison sent secret agents to East Florida to incite to the rebellion in this colony against Spain. Georgia’s frontiersmen and militiamen, always ready to fight anyway, were supported by Florida planters who chafed under Spanish rule. The planters were infuriated by the Spaniards’ refusal to drive out all “Indians” and furious at their recruitment of armed, free black militiamen to defend the frontier settlements. They kept the farmers excited over alleged injustices, and eventually nine American gunboats lined up in the Amelia River with their guns trained on Fernandina. Unprepared to counter such an attack (the fort was still in the planning stage), the commander of the Spanish troops returned Fernandina and Amelia Island to the “patriots”.
However, their flag did not fly over Fernandina for long. In 1813, the United States was at war for the second time with Great Britain (War of 1812). And along the lines of “one war at a time, dammit,” Congress refused to support President Madison’s ambitions over Spanish East Florida. The flag was lowered, the “patriots” were sent home to Georgia, and the smugglers happily resumed their usual business.
Flag No. 3
In 1816, the construction of Fort San Carlos was completed. Constructed of timber and earthwork on the southwest side of town, the fort commanded the Amelia River to St. Mary’s Island in Georgia, with four 16-pounder, five 4-pounder, and one 6-pounder carronade books.
No sooner had they completed Fort San Carlos than Amelia Island was invaded by pirates commanded by a Scottish brigand named Gregor MacGregor. I am not joking.
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Calling himself a brigadier general in the armies of the United Provinces of New Granada (Colombia) and Venezuela (recently in rebellion against Spanish rule), MacGregor raised the flag of the Green Cross of Florida over the fort.
Florida, now liberated by Gregor MacGregor from the tyranny of Spain, is now proclaimed the “Republic of Floridas”.
You have to hand it over to that explosive thug; sail to an island and take it with a handful of pirates and musketeers, then announce that the “supreme director” of Mexico has appointed you general-in-chief of the armies for the two Floridas, which you must liberate from Spain, is all simply magnificent.
Over the next few weeks, MacGregor, supposedly awaiting reinforcements so he could capture Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, assigned privateers to seize Spanish ships and sell their cargoes to fatten his hoard.
Now remember, while this pirate was planning the forcible “liberation” of Florida from Spain and waging war on Spanish shipping, President James Monroe was trying to acquire Florida from Spain through negotiation .
Finally, disgusted by his inability to secure the reinforcements of men and supplies he needed to attack St. Augustine, MacGregor sailed for the Bahamas and was forever written out of Amelia Island history.
Now the Spaniards are preparing to retake their island. They erected a battery of four brass guns on McLure’s Hill east of Fort San Carlos and, with two gunboats, began shelling Fernandina. But the cohorts of MacGregor, the former high sheriff of New York and a former congressman from Pennsylvania, refused to give up their island. The guns of Fort San Carlos responded to the fire. The firing continued until nightfall. The Spanish commander withdrew his forces that night, and the former high sheriff and former congressman drank in their victory.
Two weeks later, however, their smiles have faded.
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FLAG NO. 4
At the end of September 1817, a former comrade in arms of Gregor MacGregor, sailed into the port of Amelia. The two mercenaries had fought together for the revolutionaries of Venezuela and New Granada. But now the Parisian Louis Michel-Aury was a pirate, and a dangerous one.
Commissioned as a privateer by the Revolutionary Republic of Mexico, Aury sailed into the port of Fernandina aboard his flagship, the Mexican Congress, accompanied by two other privateer ships. His ship was 12 long 18-pounders and had a crew of 300 American recruits and former Haitian slaves, free blacks and mulattoes known as “Blacks of Aury”.
Upon disembarking from his ship, Aury rushed into town with a bodyguard of armed men and demanded money. The governor and his treasurer protested that they had nothing to give. Negotiations ensued and the terms of the subsequent agreement stipulated that Aury would be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Military and Naval Forces, with the former Congressman and High Sheriff installed as Adjutant General and Civil Governor of Amelia Island respectively. .
And so it is that a French pirate annexes the island of Amelia to the Republic of Mexico. The flag of the said Republic was hoisted over Fernandina.
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Aury created the administrative “Supreme Council of the Floridas”, ordered its secretaries to write a constitution, and urged the people of Florida to unite in revolution against Spanish tyranny.
Although the people of Florida and the United States were greatly entertained by the continuing saga of Amelia Island, President Monroe was not amused. Now Aury’s corsairs were attacking and looting Spanish shipping (half a million dollars worth of goods taken in a period of just two months), yet President Monroe was still in negotiations with Spain for Florida. Finally, he put his foot down hard. He sent forces to recapture Amelia. Aury was not fooled. He cedes Amelia Island to the Americans.
The Mexican flag is lowered and the Spanish flag is raised. But, seriously, after 300 years, on and off, of trying to manage their cumbersome Florida colony, Spain had had enough. On February 22, 1821, under the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty, Spain ceded the problem to the United States.
Fort San Carlos was quickly abandoned by the American military and Fernandina, now an American town, was abandoned by its freewheeling bandits. The almost deserted town became calm and respectable.
Forty years later, when Fernandina Beach was created to serve as the terminus for the first interstate railroad, Fernandina on the Cliff became known as “Old Town.”
About two-thirds of the land once occupied by Fort San Carlos has crept into the Amelia River. All that remains are traces of earthworks and the old parade grounds along Estrada Street, at the edge of the current Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park.
This park, the stage on which two centuries of Amelia Island’s utterly spellbinding history, with its international cast of thieves and villains, was played out, is now just an unfenced grassy area of 0 .8 acres. It is Florida’s smallest state park. Historical markers tell the story, which begins on the website, floridastateparks.org/learn/history-fernandina-plaza, as follows:
“At a site above the Amelia River is the parade ground once known as Plaza San Carlos…”
Cynthia A. Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org)