Amelia Island is known as one of the top golfing, outdoor sport and beach destinations in the United States, but the island is steeped in an intriguing history, with 8 different flags having flown over it during the past several centuries. The Fernandina Beach community on Amelia Island is filled with historic sites that tell the tale of an island that was often fought over by multiple nations and groups at one time.
An Island with 8 Flags
Incredibly, Fernandina Beach has had the flags of these 8 distinct nations flown over the community since 1562: France, Spain, Britain, the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America, and the U.S. It is the only city America with this unique distinction.
First inhabited by the Timucua Indians
The area was first inhabited by the Timucua Native Americans who were known for their tall height, athletic build, and imposing appearance. Research suggests that this group lived in the region as far back as 2000 B.C.
The territory of the Timucua tribe at the time of first European contact included Amelia Island but also stretched across 19,200 square miles in Northern Florida and Southeast Georgia. The Timucua tribe consisted of multiple chiefdom’s with very little organization between each unit.
In 1513, the Spanish colonists led by Ponce de Leon first claimed the area now known as Florida for themselves, but hadn’t explored Amelia Island yet. The Timucua Native Americans numbered approximately 200,000 at this time. However, prior to this, the Native Americans in the region had already begun suffering from diseases imported by the natives of Cuba, as Cuba was already a Spanish colony.
The Spanish were interested in the Floridian natives as slaves, porters, and food suppliers. The explorers faced fierce resistant from the native tribes in Florida including both the Timucua and Calusa, however infectious diseases ravaged them. By 1595, the population of the Timucua tribe had been reduced to 50,000 after multiple battles with the Spanish and epidemics, and by 1700 the tribe numbered no more than 1,000.
The first recorded visitor to Amelia Island arrived in 1562
Jean Ribault was the first recorded visitor to Amelia Island who arrived in 1562 and he found the Timucua natives living there. The island hadn’t been claimed by the Spanish at this point, so Ribault claimed it for the French and named it “Isle de Mai” after the month of May, and the nation’s flag was the first to fly.
The Spanish came to the area soon afterward in 1565 led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles and claimed it for Spain after driving out the French and killing Ribault along with around 350 French colonists. Afterward, the Santa Maria mission was established.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded Amelia Island to Great Britain
James Oglethorpe was colonial governor and founder of Georgia, and he first named the island “Amelia Island” after Princess Amelia of Great Britain. However, at the time he named it, the island was still owned by the Spanish. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 eventually ceded Florida and Amelia Island to Great Britain for Havana, representing the third nation’s flag to fly over the island.
The island was given back to the Spanish in 1783
Spain cooperated with the United States throughout the Revolutionary War, and under the 1783 Second Treaty of Paris, Great Britain ceded Florida and Amelia Island back to Spain. The British inhabitants of Amelia Island then had to swear allegiance to Spain or leave, and the Spanish flag flew once again over Amelia Island.
Fernandina Beach was platted in 1811
After the United States Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, the importing of slaves was prohibited. Around this time, Fernandina became a free port that shipped large quantities of Florida cotton and lumber.
Fernandina also became a headquarters for the contraband slave trade and smuggling into Georgia and other areas where slavery was still legal. The town had a rapid period of growth around this time with shacks springing up right next to more luxurious homes. Streets were primitive and vegetable gardens were recklessly planted around the town.
Governor Enrique White was disturbed by the chaotic structure of the town and ordered surveyor and George F. Clarke to plat Fernandina Beach in honor of King Ferdinand VII of Spain. The town was formally platted on May 10, 1811. The town’s streets were then aligned along with the lots into a more organized structure.
Patriots of Amelia Island
Insurgents who called themselves the “Patriots of Amelia Island” took over the island and harbor in 1812 with eight American gunboats with the approval of President James Madison and Georgia Governor George Matthews, and Clarke surrendered the island and the port to America. The Patriots of Amelia Island shut down the port to foreign vessels and thus put an end to the smuggling operation. They first raised a Patriots of Amelia Island flag and then replaced it with a United States flag.
Fort San Carlos established
Later in 1813, the Spanish forced the Americans to evacuate the island and they established Fort San Carlos in Fernandina in 1816. Gregor MacGregor and a group of 55 musketeers took over Fort San Carlos in 1817 and raised the Green Cross flag on the island. At this time the island was mainly inhabited by pirates, slaves and criminals.
The Spanish soon forced MacGregor to withdraw, but another force led by French pirate Louis Aury and Americans Jared Irwin and Ruggles Hubbard foiled the Spanish and temporarily took over the island to claim it for the Republic of Mexico.
Afterward, the Navy pushed Louis Aury and his forces out of the island. In 1847, after the end of the Second Seminole War, the United States constructed Fort Clinch as a part of its Third System of coastal defenses. The Fort featured a pentagonal shape with a brick construction.
Amelia Island and the Civil War
The Confederate army seized Fort Clinch in 1861 and it was used as a fort for blockade runners during the early Civil War. However, the development of the rifled cannon made the fort’s defenses obsolete and it was abandoned in 1862 by General Robert E. Lee.
Union forces took over the island on March 3, 1862 led by Samuel Dupont and flew the U.S. flag. The Emancipation Proclamation was read in Fernandina in January of 1863 by a group of former slaves in the military who had been recruited by the Union. The island and Fort Clinch were then used by the Union for the rest of the war, and the United States flag was the last and most recent flag to fly over the island, leading into its modern history.