American Proprietors, 1818-1860

Transfer of Florida to the United States had less perceptible effect on Fernandina than on other sections as it had been under American influence since 1817. However, as in the case of St. Augustine and Pensacola, Fernandina’s population did not relish the idea of American ownership.

At the time of the cession the community was described as a town of about 40 wooden houses on six streets laid at right angles and bordered by Pride of India trees. Beside the river and in front of a public square stood the small fort with eight guns. About one hundred and fifty people lived there at the time.

In 1824 Nassau County was created with Fernandina as the county seat. The town was incorporated that same year, and a plat was made for a large town, but the community did not prosper enough to take up the new sections. While West Florida towns were developing rapidly, and people were hurrying to the new town of Jacksonville, Fernandina seemed caught in an eddy. Only one ship a year visited the harbor. One small store, a boarding house with four rooms, and a few houses comprised the town. There was no post office; mail came from prosperous St. Mary’s across the Sound.

So stagnant did business become between 1835 and 1840 that the county seat was removed from Fernandina to a community known as Court House Ditch at Waterman’s Grant, between King’s Ferry and Fernandina. Eventually, because of its great harbor, Fernandina was deemed worthy of special protection, and an act reserving land from the public domain for military purposes was signed in 1842. In 1844, General Duncan Lamont Clinch, a distinguished veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars, visited the plantation of Kingsley Gibbs on Fort George Island, at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Here he met the sister of Mr. Gibbs, Mrs. Sophia Couper, a young widow. Early in 1846 they were married in Jacksonville, where the many distinguished connections of the Gibbs family in northeast Florida made their wedding a notable event. The general became such a figure of public interest locally that the new fort at Fernandina, begun in 1847, was given his name. Fort Clinch was located on the north end of Amelia Island, where 420 acres were set aside for a reservation. At the same time this tract was acquired by the Government, the land on which old San Carlos fort stood was released.

In December 1824, the legislative Council of the Territory of Florida had passed “an act to incorporate the city of Fernandina” (site of the present town) for a term of eight years. No development resulted, but in 1853, when news spread that the Florida Railroad Company planned to make Fernandina the eastern terminus of the first cross-state railroad, values rose; the road was built; heirs of Don Fernandez sold the tract where the new city of Fernandina now stands for $10 an acre. City streets were laid out, many houses were built, and steamers arrived daily from Charleston and Savannah. Within seven years, Fernandina’s population grew from a few hundred to 1,390 people. The place was not without its old-style characters, however. Pirates still slipped in and out of town unostentatiously selling or claiming what they would. The ornate Swancy Jack, a boat belonging to George Latham, Fernandina resident, attracted the eye of a fastidious pirate who offered gold for it. When George hesitated, the pirate remarked that he might as well take the money, since he (the pirate) would get the boat anyway. The yacht Wanderer landed contraband slaves here in 1860. Nor was the advent of the railroad considered an unmitigated boon. Backwoodsmen claimed turpentine operations that developed as a result of the railroad ruined their hog ranges, and the railroad killed their cattle; farmers wives claimed that market eggs were broken when carts crossed the tracks. The new railroad ran to Cedar Keys. Coastal ports extended the service to Havana and the West Indies.

In order to avoid the marsh which surrounded Old Town, the city plan, originally drawn in 1824, was finally carried out, whereby the railroad reached deep water in front of the present town of Fernandina. Trade in cotton, timber, and naval stores became heavy. Consuls from many countries had their offices here. A wooden * footbridge across the marsh joined Old Town and the new city.

Just as the railroad was completed, steamers built, and mail contracts granted, the War Between the States broke out, thereby delaying for many years the growth that had seemed just ahead.


The above material was written and compiled by “Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Florida, Sponsored by the Florida State Planning Board, and copyrighted by the City Commission of Fernandina in 1940.” There were no subsequent copyrights on this material and the material entered the public domain in 1968, or 28 years after the publication of material. This material uses phraseology and words which may be considered offensive to readers today.

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