24 Fun Facts to Treasure About Amelia Island

Learn the curious history of the Isle of Eight Flags.
  1. Amelia Island is Florida’s “Golden Isle” and the only location in the U.S. to have been under eight different flags including French, Spanish, Mexican, Confederate and American, among others.
     
  2. The island’s first recorded European visitor was France’s Jean Ribault in 1562, three years prior to the founding of St. Augustine. The island was settled by the French Huguenots, who sought religious freedom in the new world. The Spanish, under Pedro Menendez, defeated the French, founded St. Augustine and developed a mission on Amelia Island to convert the natives.
    Pirate on Amelia Island
  3. Amelia Island is named after the daughter of England’s King George II, whose forces drove the Spanish out in 1702. After the American Revolution, Britain ceded Florida back to Spain. During the war of 1812, so-called “American Patriots” overthrew the Spanish and hoisted their own flag, only to have the island returned to Spain in 1816.
     
  4. A Scottish-born soldier of fortune, Gregor MacGregor, seized the island in 1817 and raised his family’s flag, the Green Cross of Florida. He withdrew when Spanish forces tried to regain Amelia, but U.S. forces drove them back and took control of the island again.
     
  5. The French-born pirate and privateer Luis Aury sailed into the Port of Fernandina 13 days after MacGregor fled and annexed the island in the name of the Republic of Mexico, raising a Mexican rebel flag over Fort San Carlos. Aury surrendered to U.S. forces in December of 1817 and remained as an unwelcome guest on the island for two months before sailing for the western Caribbean. Amelia has since remained in the hands of the United States with one interruption by the Civil War.
    Fernandina Harbor Amelia Island
  6. Amelia Island’s Fernandina Harbor was once considered North America’s busiest seaport, counting more than 500 ships sailing in and out of its waters every day.
     
  7. The Amelia Island Lighthouse is Florida’s oldest lighthouse and is the westernmost lighthouse on the East Coast. It's the only lighthouse in the U.S. to have stood in two separate states and the only surviving lighthouse from the Territorial Period. It was constructed in 1820 on nearby Cumberland Island, Georgia, was dismantled brick-by-brick in 1838 and then reconstructed on Amelia Island when erosion shifted the shipping channel more southward.
     
  8. Fernandina Beach is the historic birthplace of the U.S. shrimping industry with more than 150 trawlers delivering the day’s catch back in its peak 40 years ago. Today only six shrimp trawlers remain active due to global competition from farm-raised shrimp driving the price down.
     
  9. Wild oleander flowers flourish throughout Amelia Island and local lore tells of scorned women making tea with its petals to poison their philandering fellows.
    Amelia River Cruise; Fort Clinch State Park
  10. Fort Clinch, the Civil War-era fortress on the northern tip of Amelia Island, was occupied by both Confederate and Union forces though it never saw a single shot fired. It’s currently a state park with regular tours and re-enactments and home to the longest jetty system on the East Coast.
     
  11. Nearby Cumberland Island is the nation’s largest wilderness island meaning there are not motorized vehicles or paved roads. It’s also America’s largest stretch of undeveloped coastline, with 82 percent of the island belonging to the National Park Service. It’s home to only 37 permanent residents year round and only allows 300 visitors on the island per day.
     
  12. Tiger Island, which sits directly across the Amelia River from Fernandina Beach, is home to the highest concentration of rattlesnakes in North America.
    Cumberland Island Wilderness
  13. Cumberland’s first inhabitants were the indigenous Timucua, who settled there as early as 4,000 years ago.
     
  14. Local lore tells of a curse the Timucuan people placed on the island when they were driven away by the Spanish. Legend has it that men who settled on the island were damned to an untimely death by age 44. Historically, all male residents on the island have since passed just prior to their 44th birthday. (Maybe that’s why only 37 people live there.)
     
  15. During the plantation era, Cumberland was home to Catherine and Phineas Miller, who built Dungeness, the first mansion on the island. The plantation was the first major producer of Sea Island cotton and home to more than 200 slaves. During the war of 1812, the plantation was used as British Military Headquarters and all slaves were freed. In 1818, an ill General "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and old friend of the Millers, died at Dungeness and was buried on the island. His son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, had a tombstone placed over the grave and visited his father's final resting place several times. The Millers' Dungeness burned down in 1866.
    Dungeness on Cumberland Island
  16. Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of Andrew Carnegie, and his wife Lucy bought land on Cumberland for a winter retreat in the 1880s. The purchase was partly due to the family’s longstanding rivalry with the Rockefellers who had recently built an estate on nearby Jekyll Island. They built the second Dungeness mansion on the island in 1884, but Carnegie never lived to see its completion, dying just before his 44th birthday. Lucy and their nine children continued living on the island until the Great Depression and Dungeness burned down in 1959. Today, the ruins of the mansion remain on the island's southern end.
     
  17. At one point in time, the Carnegie family owned 90 percent of Cumberland Island, building additional estates for their children; Greyfield, now a private inn, Plum Orchard, donated to the National Park Service in 1972 and the Stafford Plantation, which is still owned by the family.
     
  18. Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry and is a welcome retreat for celebrities like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson who have spent winters at Greyfield.
     
  19. Anywhere between 130 and 250 wild horses live free-range on Cumberland Island at any given time. These horses are descendants of the breeds brought by the Spanish during Colonial Times that mixed with the thoroughbreds kept by the Carnegies during the Gilded Age. The herd’s size remains constant due to common health issues stemming from a steady diet of salty and sandy grass from the meadows by the water's edge.
    Wild Horses on Cumberland Island
  20. The large factory seen from Fernandina Harbor is Rayonier Advanced Materials’ first cellulose production facility in the Southeast, constructed in 1937. The plant produces 160,000 metric tons of softwood cellulose per year, which is a natural polymer utilized in the manufacturing of everyday consumer products like food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, digital display screens and disposable diapers. The vaporous discharge from its chimneys is not pollution but steam, which is sold at a low cost to nearby power plants.
     
  21. The other large factory in the town of Fernandina Beach is WestRock paper mill, which transforms wood pulp of Southern yellow pine trees into paperboard and corrugated cardboard and pumps warm purified water into the Amelia River. Locals call it a “Manatee Jacuzzi” because hundreds of West Indian Manatees gather around its drain spout during the cool winter months.
     
  22. Amelia Island’s tide rises or falls one inch every ten minutes. Watch where you anchor or you might end up run aground.
    The Palace Saloon on Historic Centre Street in Fernandina on Amelia Island
  23. During Fernandina’s shipping heyday, between 1880 and 1910, more than 20 saloons welcomed sailors who docked there. But only one deemed worthy of a "Shipcaptain's Bar" was the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest continuously operating pre-Prohibition bar. According to local lore, it was the last bar in Florida to close on the eve of Prohibition, selling drinks up until the clock struck midnight.
     
  24. The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island hosts daily pirate toasts at sunset, a tradition that goes back to the early days of the island. There are also Friday pirate treasure hunts and nightly bedtime tuck-ins by bearded buccaneers bearing a blue and gold macaw, bedtime stories and a pirate's chest of goodies for the wee lads.

Justin Braun
About the author

“An adventurer at heart, I...