The 8 Flags of Amelia Island
July 24, 2017
When it comes to rich and fascinating history, Nassau County has a good story to tell. This thriving region of northeast Florida has been highly sought-after for economic gains for centuries. Amelia Island, the most eastern portion of Nassau County, has changed possession and name, breaking records of title, for over a two-hundred year period.
In total, eight flags have flown over the area. But who flew those flags and when, and what was the final outcome in all these goings-on, that the United States finally acquired the state of Florida, including Nassau County?
The French Flag
In 1562 the French first took possession of Nassau County land inhabited by Native Americans associated with the Timucuan mound-building culture, who called the island Napoyca as far back as the year 1000. French explorer, Jean Ribault, was the first European visitor recorded in the region. When he landed and saw Amelia Island, he named the land Isle de Mai, meaning island of May, and proudly raised his French flag.
The Spanish Flag
Spanish forces led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles drove out the French in 1565 and decided that they wanted to claim Amelia Island as their own. They killed Ribault, along with 350 French colonists, and the Spanish flag was raised. In 1573, Spanish Franciscans established the Santa Maria mission on the island. They renamed the island Isla de Santa Maria. Fernandina was settled in 1685 and was located in the area now called “Old Town.” The Spanish held their position for some time until the year 1702, when James Moore, South Carolina's colonial governor, led a joint invasion of Florida with British and Indian forces and deserted the area for many years until…
The British Flag
James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia and a colonial governor, was the next person to make history here, landing and calling the island Amelia Island, the name it still carries today. The name was given in honor of King George II's daughter, Princess Amelia. At the time, the island was still in Spanish possession, but Oglethorpe managed to set up a small settlement on the island's northwestern edge. With negotiation, Oglethorpe convinced Spanish officials to transfer the island to the British sovereignty. Unfortunately, the two parties failed to include the King of Spain in negotiations, and the agreement was nullified.
In 1763, Florida (and thus Fernandina) was officially handed to Britain in exchange for Havana and the English flag was raised as the third flag. The order was part of the Treaty of Paris, which subsequently nullified all Spanish land ownership in Florida. During the American Revolution, Fernandina became home for English Loyalists fleeing the colonies.
The Spanish Flag…again
In 1783, Spain again controlled Florida. A land grant became a plantation on the site of present-day Fernandina. The Spanish harbor of Fernandina became the nation’s center for smuggling slaves, liquor, and foreign luxury goods. British inhabitants of Florida had to swear allegiance to Spain and those who did not were meant to vacate within 18 months.
The Patriot Flag
During the second period of Spanish occupation and with the agreement of President Madison, a group called the "Patriots of Amelia Island" seized the island in 1813 and the Patriot Flag of the Republic of Florida appeared as the fourth flag. The flag flew for only one day as their planned attempt to transfer Amelia Island to the control of the United States failed and Spain regained its position.
Green Cross of Florida Flag
In 1816, Spanish forces erected Fort San Carlos on the island, which turned out to be short-lived thanks to a Scottish adventurer by the name of Sir Gregor MacGregor along with a small force of 55 musketeers who captured the island in June of 1817. They raised their own Green Cross of Florida flag, which became the fifth flag. Smuggling and slave trading were still thriving in the area and he had originally raised enough funds to carry out a full-scale invasion of Florida, but his expensive tastes and other frivolous spending squandered away most of these funds. Nevertheless, he succeeded in his mission to overrun Amelia Island, at least for a short span of time.
Mexican Rebel Flag
By now, Fernandina became a pirate haven and location for buried treasure. In September 1817, MacGregor was forced to withdraw from Amelia Island by the Spanish, however, Spanish forces were foiled from taking full control of the island by a group of American irregulars organized by Jared Irwin and Ruggles Hubbard. Irwin and Hubbard then joined forces with a French pirate by the name of Luis Aury. Aury, on behalf of the Republic of Mexico, laid claim – and raised the sixth flag that flew over the island – until U.S. Naval forces drove him away.
United States Flag
In 1821, the United States took control of the territory from Spain. The American flag, the seventh flag, was raised. Because of its excellent harbor, Fernandina became a prosperous and important city. Construction of Fort Clinch was begun. U.S. Senator David Yulee built Florida’s first cross-state railroad connecting Fernandina on the Atlantic coast with Cedar Key on the Gulf coast of Florida. Trade grew and flourished during Florida’s period as a U.S. territory and the early years of statehood.
Two days before Florida's secession, on January 8, 1861, Confederate sympathizers took over Fort Clinch, a structure located on Amelia Island that federal construction workers had abandoned, and the Confederate flag, the eighth flag to fly over Fernandina, was flown. It was used by Confederate forces as a safe haven during the Civil War, but was found to be vulnerable to attack. In March of 1862, General Robert E. Lee ordered forces to abandon the fort. The fort was re-occupied by Federal troops who took control of the adjacent Florida and Georgia coasts. Fort Clinch would later be used as a base for many more Union operations during the Civil War. It is possible to visit Fort Clinch today, and witness a reenactment of the battles of that time period.
United States Flag
On March 3, 1863, Union forces, commanded by Commodore Samuel Dupont and consisting of a fleet of 28 gunboats, restored control of Amelia Island. The United States flag was raised for good.
And the Rest is History
With 13 miles of beautiful coastline, pristine waters and an abundance of wildlife, this barrier island has been a popular destination for residents and visitors alike. It is also a thriving business hub thanks to its excellent rail system and highly traversed shipping lanes. While the fighting may have ceased, it's easy to see why Nassau County, and Amelia Island in particular, were so sought after for hundreds of years.
If you are looking to relocate your business to the area, or wish more information on Nassau County, contact the Nassau County Economic Development Board