Amelia Island History
Our Island’s History
When the first Europeans, a group of French sailors lead by Admiral Jean Ribault, landed on the
island on May 3, 1562, they were greeted by Native American Timucuans, who were descendants of the first inhabitants who had lived here since 2000 B.C. What the native Timucuans called Napoyca, Ribault promptly renamed L’isle de Mai, honoring the month he arrived. He claimed it for France and raised the first of eight flags that would fly over the island.
In 1565, the Spanish, who had just established St. Augustine as America’s first town, arrived on the island commanded by Pedro Menendez. They vanquished the French, killed Ribault and set up the Santa Maria Mission. They named the island for the mission and raised the Spanish flag for the first time.
The island technically remained Spain’s possession until 1763. By a quirk of chronology, however, the island got the name “Amelia” before the English actually took possession. James Ogelthorpe, who was founder and governor of Georgia (the English colony which he named for King George II), led a scouting expedition south and came upon the island in March 1736. Ogelthorpe immediately named it Amelia Island in honor of King George’s daughter. Ogelthorpe established a fort on the island but abandoned it in 1742 during the war between Spain and England.
The island then became an uninhabited buffer between Spanish Florida and English Georgia. In 1761, during the French and Indian War, the Spanish sided with the French, which cost them the island. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris ended the war and made Florida England’s possession. The English flag was raised over the island.
During the English period (1763 to 1783), the island was known as Egmont because nearly all of it was owned, under a royal grant, by John Perceval, the Second Earl of Egmont, who never actually came to the island. Stephen Egan was the resident superintendent looking after things for Lady Egmont after the Earl died in 1770. Egan’s name is remembered today on creeks and subdivisions.
In 1784, after the American Revolution, the second Treaty of Paris gave Florida back to Spain because of its support for the Americans. The second Spanish possession lasted until 1821. It was during this period that the town of Fernandina got its name. In January, 1811, the Spanish post on the island was named Fernandina in honor of Spanish King Ferdinand VII. (Fernandina is the feminine diminutive form of the monarch’s name.)
However, during this second Spanish period, two other flags were hoisted over Amelia Island. With the blessing of President James Madison’s government, which feared the British buildup in Florida prior to the War of 1812, a group of American “patriots” in St. Marys, Georgia, made a bloodless invasion of Amelia Island and raised their flag on March 17, 1812. The Spanish, in retaliation, amassed a force of freed blacks and Seminole Indians, which exerted so much pressure that the American patriots left Amelia Island on May 16, 1813.
In June, 1817, yet another flag was raised over Amelia Island. General Sir Gregor MacGregor, a British army veteran who went to South America and fought under Simon Bolivar for independence from Spain, was determined to help America rid north Florida of its Spanish presence. With financial backing from certain Americans in Baltimore, MacGregor launched another successful bloodless invasion against aging and not very aggressive Spanish garrison troops on Amelia Island and raised his own family flag with St. George’s Green Cross on a white field. In early September, MacGregor, and what was left of his troops, most of whom had left him, departed the island upon hearing the news that the Spaniards were readying an attack on Fernandina.
In the meantime, a Frenchman named Luis Aury was displaying his dislike for the Spanish by plundering their ships in the Gulf of Mexico. He had been a colleague of MacGregor in South America and considered himself legally sanctioned as a privateer (a semi-legitimate pirate) because he had a letter of marque from Mexican revolutionary leaders. He ran into troubles in his base on Snake Island (now Galveston, Texas), making his departure advisable. He had heard his colleague MacGregor needed help in Fernandina and he headed for the island, which was known as an excellent deep water harbor.
On September 17,1817, after MacGregor had already gone, Aury sailed with his armada of three ships into Fernandina harbor and, three days later, hoisted the red-bordered, blue and white checked flag of the Mexican revolutionaries and declared himself ruler of the island.
Aury’s rule lasted only a few months because on December 23, 1817, five American ships sailed into Fernandina and disembarked 200 troops to reclaim the island “in trust for Spain.” When Aury surrendered without a fight, the American flag flew above the island, which the Americans occupied.
Although the island still legally belonged to Spain, the Americans wanted it and President John Quincy Adams refused to withdraw the garrison of American troops, even during a yellow fever epidemic in 1818 when the commander asked to leave. After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, America had its eyes on acquiring Florida from Spain. President Adams, taking advantage of political problems in Madrid, pushed for Spain to relinquish her possessions in Florida which she officially did on July 10, 1821.
While the American flag was now flying over Amelia Island, one more was yet to be hoisted. On
January 8, 1861, two days before Florida seceded from the Union, the Third Regiment of Florida Volunteers marched into Fort Clinch and raised the Confederate flag.
When word got to Fernandina in early 1862 that a Union flotilla of 28 gunboats was on its way, a great majority of citizens decided to leave. Most of the Confederate forces deserted, and the Confederate flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes, which has remained the island’s flag ever since.