Fernandina, An Island Frontier, 1562-1762

When Jean Ribault, French admiral, dropped anchor in the St. Mary’s River, May 3, 1562, the Indians fled from their villages but returned when they saw that no -depredations were committed, and brought gifts of meat, berries, and other food products. These were the Timuquans, who became the most civilized of the Florida tribes, and were known as the Mission Indians.

The names of the vicinity have undergone many changes, according to the nationality of the explorers who came here. The French explored the network of waterways around Amelia Island, claiming and naming them. Amelia Island was christened Isle de Mai, in honor of the season. The St. Mary’s River, flowing into Cumberland Sound north of the island, they named the River Seine, because it was “broad as the Seine from Havre de Grace unto Honfleur.” Later a Spanish mission, Santa Maria de Sena was located on the St. Mary’s River with a recollection of the French named incorporated in the mission name Sena, a corruption of Seine. Nassau Sound at the south end of Amelia was called Serranay, probably an Indian name adopted by the French.

The name Guale applied to Amelia Island by the Spaniards was probably of Indian origin and was first used by the Spaniards to designate a large area on the coast, with St. Helena’s Island as military headquarters. After a series of defeats by Carolina settlers, what is now Amelia Island was selected in 1686 by the Spanish for military headquarters, and the name Guale became associated with it. This name is thought to have been the Spanish version of Quale in the Indian tongue; later the English adaptation was “Wallic,” and still later, the Spaniards called the Island Santa Maria. Amelia was the English name which survived.

In 1567, came Pedro Menendez, Spanish governor of Florida, who built a fort on the island. The native Timuquans proved to be more adaptable to the ways of the white men than any of the Florida tribes. They soon were converted to Christianity. Santa Maria mission, established between 1597-1602, on the island was one of a chain of coast missions extending north as far as Port Royal, South Carolina, and for more than a hundred years the priests labored among the Indians. Grammars, catechisms, and other books were written in the native language as early as 1602, and the native children used them in learning to read and write under the priests’ direction. Governors and bishops made official tours. This golden era which lasted until the end of the 17th century, ended with the coming of the English.

The Spanish authorities at St. Augustine persuaded many Indian converts to move from Georgia to Amelia Island, so they would be close to St. Augustine. Spain’s desire to bring their Christian Indians nearer to St. Augustine grew stronger as English settlements sprang up on the coast and steadily progressed southward. (George M. Barbour says in his book “Florida” published by D. Appleton & Co., 1883: “Fernandina was founded by the Spaniards in 1632.”)

A Spanish fort, San Fernando, was built on the island and a community now known as Old Town grew up behind its walls. The fort was built in 1686, only a few years after the great stone fort at St. Augustine. The site, on a little peninsula, was well chosen. Guns of the fort guarded approach by water; marsh lay on the north and south; and the only land approach was from the east, where a gate and blockhouse were built to guard the settlement. The mission priests were not sorry to have the fort at the far end of the island—they believed the Indians were more tractable without white associations other than themselves.

The mission community was described by a Quaker, Jonathan Dickenson, who with several companions was shipwrecked on the Florida coast in 1696. They were given an escort to the borders of Carolina by the Governor of Florida. They spent one night on Santa Maria. Dickenson related:

“An hour before Sunset we got to the town call’d St. Mary’s: This was a Frontier, and a Garrison Town: the Inhabitants were Indians, with some Spanish Soldiers. We were conducted to the Ware-house, as the Custom is, for every Town hath a Warehouse; Or, as we understood, these Houses were either for their Times of Mirth and Dancing, or to lodge and entertain Strangers. The House was about 81 feet diameter, built round with 32 Squares, in each Square a Cabin about 8 feet long, of a good Height, being painted and well matted. The Centre of the Building was a Quadrangle of 20 feet, being open at Top, against which the House is built; thus this Quadrangle is the Place they dance, having a great Fire in the Middle; One of the Squares of this Building is the Gateway or Passage in. The Women Natives of these Towns, clothe themselves with the Moss of the Trees, making Gowns and Petticoats thereof, which, at a Distance, or in the Night looks very neat. The Indian Boys, we saw, were kept to School in the Church, the Friar being their School-Master. This was the largest town of all.”

Dickinson, Jonathan, God’s protecting providence, man’s surest help and defence, in times of the greatest difficulty, and most eminent danger. Evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of Robert Barrow, with divers other persons, from the devouring waves of the sea; amongst which they suffered shipwrack: and also, from the cruel, devouring jaws of the inhumane canibals of Florida; pages 76-77. Reprinted in London, and sold by T. Sowle, in White-Hart-Court in Gracious-street, 1700.

Even as early as 1699 the English King had granted territory to Carolina which included the northern half of the peninsula of Florida. Withdrawal from the disputed territory had availed the Spanish nothing, for Queen Anne’s War gave the Carolinians a desired excuse to attack Florida. In September, 1702, a bitter fight took place on Santa Maria Island between the Spanish and an army of 50 white men and 300 Indians led by Governor Moore of South Carolina. Fourteen vessels carried Moore’s men, the smaller craft going by way of the inland passage. The fort was captured, the mission was destroyed, and it is claimed that the priests as well as many Indians were carried into captivity.

There was little security after this date for the Indians and Spaniards on the island. Following Moore came Barnwell, Hughes, Palmer, Nairn, and Oglethorpe with large bands of Indian allies, and the Santa Maria inhabitants were forced to flee. On Oconee Island in Okefenokee swamp, a number of the Indian refugees built a town, living for generations thereafter in complete isolation.

Oglethorpe, scouting furtively in Spanish fields in 1735, found peach and orange trees flourishing on deserted Santa Maria Island. Because the island was so beautiful, he renamed it in honor of the princess Amelia, young sister of George II of England.

Claiming the St. Johns River as the southern boundary of Georgia, Oglethorpe built a small fort on Amelia Island in 1736, Later in the same year the Spanish governor made a treaty with the Georgia governor which designated territory north of the St. Johns as neutral ground, where neither English nor Spanish were to settle. Accordingly, Oglethorpe evacuated his Amelia Island position. Madrid disowned this agreement, however, and insisted that by the treaty of 1670, Spain owned all territory south of St. Helena’s Sound. About 1,500 Spanish soldiers were dispatched from Cuba to expel the English settlers in Georgia, and hearing of this, Oglethorpe restored the Amelia Island garrison. He was just in time: in April 1737, thirty Spaniards arrived by boat, but retreated when they found the Georgia men entrenched.

In 1737, danger of gunboats entering Cumberland Sound caused the Georgians to ask that one man-of-war be stationed at Amelia and one at Jekyl Island. “At Amelia is a harbor that has 24 feet at low water,” ran their report. The fifty soldiers stationed at Amelia fort distinguished themselves, according to the same authority, because they had “applied themselves to cultivate and formed a village at Amelia.”

The War of Jenkins Ear between England and Spain broke out in 1739. The Spaniards opened hostilities with Georgia by killing two men at Amelia. In retaliation, Oglethorpe sailed up the St. Johns River and seized forts Picolata and San Francisco de Pupa, built to guard the Spanish Trail, which ran to west Florida missions. Frontier posts were dangerous places. Soldiers did not venture beyond the stockade of Amelia. Robert Miller, the Georgia trustees’ botanist, who had been collecting plants and roots in this region, informed the officials that he would not search further because of the Spaniards. Even in Savannah, people became so [158] frightened that magistrates published an order forbidding anyone to depart from the town. Oglethorpe reported to the Lords of Trade and Plantations that Georgia settlements could not exist unless St. Augusine were captured.

In 1740, St. Augustine was besieged for two months, by Oglethorpe’s army of Georgia and South Carolina colonials; but the attempt to capture the great fort failed, because, it was claimed, the South Carolina ships did not carry, out their part of the campaign. English coast defenses were strengthened thereafter for the settlements had news that Spain would retaliate. Since Fort William, on the south end of Cumberland Island (overlooking the entrance to Cumberland Sound) was one of the strong posts, it is probable that the Amelia Island fort, just opposite, was abandoned and its garrison added to that of Fort William.

Spanish privateers swarmed along the coast endangering English shipping. Reports of the massing of Spanish armies kept coming to Savannah. In 1742, came the expected Spanish attack. Finding Fort William prepared to resist, the Spanish fleet of 32 ships abandoned the attempt, and sailed instead to St. Simon’s Island and landed an army. The two forces met at the battle of Bloody Marsh. Two hundred Spaniards were killed, and as many more were captured. This decisive defeat left the coast as far as the mouth of the St. Johns River in control of the English.

In 1748, a treaty was concluded between England and Spain, and for 14 years thereafter Amelia Island, although a Spanish possession, remained a sort of no-man’s-land, comparatively safe for Englishmen. Some of the soldiers probably remained in the little settlement they had built there. Then the French and Indian War drew Spain into the struggle long enough to lose the whole of Florida to England.


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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