Life Under Eight Flags: Amelia Island

Life Under Eight Flags: Amelia Island

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Posted January 17, 2024

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Amelia Island in Florida is a blend of cultures that lived under eight flags. It was a haven for pirates, con men, and hardworking settlers from many countries. From the Timucuans who met the first French and later Spanish settlers, to the Jim Crow era and the founding of American Beach, where African Americans could frolic freely, it has a unique history and offers a perfect vacation spot with fewer crowds than better known Florida beach towns. 

Amelia Island Museum of History

The Amelia Island Museum of History is the perfect place to begin your Amelia Island trip. Its exhibits of the earliest inhabitants, the Timucuans, take you to the pre-European period. The museum is in the former Nassar County Jail. One of the more modern-time exhibits is a letter from a Black inmate to his friend “Billy.” The letter tells the difference in how white and Black prisoners were treated. 

Visitos Center photo by Kathleen Walls
Visitos Center photo by Kathleen Walls

Throughout the island’s history, there is a thread of one culture trying to best another. Take the Museum’s Eight Flags Tour to learn more. Our guide, Barbara, took us through the museum exhibits sharing the island’s history. In 1513, Ponce de Leon sailed near here and claimed all of Florida for Spain. The French were the first to lay claim to Amelia Island. The colony was composed of Huguenots who were not welcome in France. Spain sent Menendez to found the Spanish colony of Saint Augustine in 1565. The Spanish realized the French were too close and needed to be removed, so they did so and raised the Spanish Flag over Northeast Florida. England quickly saw they were missing out on a wonderful island, and they took control.

Eight Flags Tour photo by Kathleen Walls
Eight Flags Tour photo by Kathleen Walls

Pirates loved the island because of its fresh water and good harbor. The museum has an interactive replica of a pirate ship, Margery. For several days, a group known as the patriots took over. The next flag was raised by a notorious con man, Gregor McGregor, who claimed to be representing a group called Free America. MacGregor raised what he called the “Green Cross of Florida”, a flag showing a green cross on a white field. Spanish soldiers, combined with American irregulars, and French-born pirate Luis Aury, forced MacGregor out and raised their plain white and blue checkered flag claiming the island for the Republic of Mexico. When the Civil War erupted, Confederates seized abandoned Fort Clinch. Union forces regained control of the island on March 3, 1862, and raised the American Flag.

Pirate Ship Marery at the Museum of History. Photo: Kathleen Walls
Pirate Ship Marery at the Museum of History. Photo: Kathleen Walls

Cumberland Island Cruise

A cruise on Amelia Island Cruises takes you past much of the history you learned at the museum of history. You pass the old town, the site of the original Spanish Fort San Carlos, now Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park. You get an excellent overview of Fort Clinch from the water, plus a very different view of Cumberland Island by cruising around it. The two captains, Bob and Benny, did an excellent job of sharing Amelia Island’s history.

Cruise boat to Cumberland Island. Photo: Kathleen Walls
Cruise boat to Cumberland Island. Photo: Kathleen Walls

Maritime Museum of Amelia Island

The water views give you a good idea why pirates loved Amelia Island. For more about the pirates and the treasure they may have left somewhere on Amelia Island, visit the Maritime Museum of Amelia Island. The museum has models of galleons, a map showing known wrecks along the coast, and some fantastic artifacts. One display case has a jeweler’s furnace — the only one like it in the world.

On July 31, 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet composed of 12 ships ran into a storm on their way back to Spain. Eleven of the ships sank. Thousands of dollars’ worth of silver, gold, and jewelry, including the Queen’s jewels and the small cast-iron Jeweler’s Furnace, were found near the south end of Amelia Island under three feet of sand.

Fort Clinch

The first fortifications started in 1736, but construction of the present-day fort began in 1847. By the start of the Civil War, it was about two-thirds completed. First, it was under Confederate control. The Union gained control in 1862 and completed the fort. 

  • Gatlin gun at Fort Clinch Museum, Amelia Island. Photo: Kathleen Walls
  • Reenactor Corporal Ludy at Fort Clinch. Photo: Kathleen Walls

The fort’s museum has a video telling workers’ stories, ranging from the