MOMENTS IN HISTORY: Gregor MacGregor Captures Amelia Island, Florida

193 years ago, Gregor MacGregor captured Amelia Island from Spain. Soon after, pirate Luis Aury took control. Then the US purged the island.

Old Town Fernandina's Captain's House Near Plaza San Carlos
Plaza San Carlos, Old Town Fernandina

In 1817, Scotsman Gregor MacGregor had a summer fling with Amelia Island. MacGregor has been described as a Scottish mercenary, or “soldier of fortune.” But also as a freedom fighter, a pirate, and a fraudster. Remarkably, he was able to claim Amelia Island with just a small group of 55 men, liberating this barrier island from Spanish rule. It’s just one of the interesting facets of the Isle of Eight Flags’ intriguing past.

Eight flags have been hoisted above Amelia’s shoreline throughout history, more than any other location in the United States. The six month period from June to December 1817 was a tumultuous time in the island’s history. It was Gregor MacGregor who raised the “Green Cross of Florida” flag over Amelia Island in 1817. According to Florida’s Division of Historical Resources, “Commissioned by representatives of revolting South American countries to liberate Florida from Spanish control,” Sir Gregor MacGregor seized a fort on Amelia Island in June 1817.

Plaza San Carlos Old Town Fernandina Photo Amelia Island Living magazine.
Plaza San Carlos, Old Town Fernandina

FORT SAN CARLOS

On the northwesterly area of Amelia Island is the location of “Old Town,” and Estrada Street. It is here, adjacent to the Amelia River, where the Spanish Fort San Carlos once stood (built in 1816). Gregor MacGregor took this fort on June 29, 1817. Panoramic waterfront views of the Amelia River can be enjoyed by all who visit this historic site, a Florida State Park (on the National Register of Historic Places).

Amelia River View Old Town Fernandina
Amelia River View From Old Town Fernandina

At the time of MacGregor’s conquest, James Monroe was President of the United States. Remember that Florida was not yet a state in the union at the time. Spain later formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, and then Florida was a territory of the U.S. until 1845 when it became the 27th state.

Not long ago, an old periodical from 1817 was being auctioned online that included a report of “the capture of Amelia Island, Florida by Gregor MacGregor.” In the age of eBay, it’s remarkable what one can buy online, including glimpses of history. Rare, early newspapers and periodicals offer a unique perspective of our past, in the words of people alive at the time. Thinking it would be neat to acquire this account of local history, we purchased this old newspaper. (See a verbatim account of the aftermath of Gregor MacGregor’s Amelia Island conquest from the August 9, 1817 Niles’ Weekly Register further below…).

AMELIA ISLAND’S EIGHT FLAGS

The eight different flags that have flown above Amelia’s shores are: French from 1562-1565; Spanish 1565-1763; British 1763-1783; Spanish (again) 1783-1821 with 3 interruptions — Patriots 1812, Green Cross of Florida 1817, Mexican Rebel Flag 1817; United States of America 1821 to present with one interruption — the Confederate Flag, 1862.

 “Old Town” is a second historic district on Amelia Island, where Spanish explorers settled. The Park Service website describes the period as follows: “Fort San Carlos was constructed in 1816 to protect Spanish interests in Northern Florida. In the following years Fernandina was captured and recaptured by a succession of renegades and privateers.” Called Old Town now, this site in 1817 had the only settlement on the island, the village of Fernandina. (The village was later re-located a bit further south on the river to its present day location known as the Fernandina Beach historic district with the main corridor of Centre Street leading to the Fernandina Harbor Marina.)

TOP HISTORIC SITE

Plaza San Carlos (Fernandina Plaza) in Old Town is the most historic site on Amelia Island, having the longest history of past civilization on this northeast Florida barrier island. Spanish colonists established a mission here dating back to 1696. But long before Spanish explorers arrived, as early as 2000-1000 B.C., here was the location of an Indian campsite, overlooking the Amelia River.

Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park Amelia IslandArchaeologists today estimate that two-thirds of the Old Town area has disappeared through time due to erosion.

MacGregor’s occupation of Amelia Island did not last long. He reportedly had money troubles, lacking funding for his men and munitions. Like the ending of a summer romance, MacGregor bid farewell to Amelia Island in the fall of 1817, with another suitor on hand, a French corsaire (i.e. pirate). Luis Aury, who had accepted a commission from the Republic of Mexico, next took control of this barrier island. By October 1817, Amelia Island was “annexed” to the Mexican Republic. Yet another of the island’s historic 8 flags was raised.

Aury’s occupation of Amelia Island was short-lived, too. “A band of South American adventurers occupied Spanish-owned Amelia Island, and had been using this base as a smuggler’s gateway into Georgia and the southern states. In December 1817 the United States Navy purged the island, apparently trying to get rid of this group of troublesome ruffians and smugglers,” is the account of the period, according to The Florida Historical Quarterly, “American Seizure of Amelia Island,” July 1966,Vol. 45, No. 1.

Below is an original 1817 news report following Gregor MacGregor’s capture of Amelia Island, Florida. The account was reported in the August 9, 1817 Baltimore newspaper, “Niles’ Weekly Register.” (This publication reportedly was a prime source for American national political news during the early 19th century. )

NILES' WEEKLY REGISTER -- SATURDAY, AUGUST 9, 1817
NILES’ WEEKLY REGISTER — SATURDAY, AUGUST 9, 1817

H. Niles, publisher, wrote in the August 9, 1817 Weekly Register:

“Accounts from Amelia Island to the 20th ult. inform us that MacGregor then remained there organizing and augmenting his forces, and in settling the executive and judicial departments of his conquest. He is said to have conducted himself with great mildness and propriety, and his great object seems at present to be to secure the possession of the island as a rendezvous for the many vessels sailing under the Patriot flag.”

The following is MacGregor’s proclamations:

“Gregor MacGregor, general of brigade of the armies of the united provinces of New Grenada and Venezuela. And general and chief of the army destined against the Floridas, duly commissioned by the supreme governments of Mexico and South America.

“Inhabitants of the north and western districts of East Florida:

“The evacuation of Fort San Nicholas [early Spanish fortification located in present-day Jacksonville, abandoned July 4, 1817] by the Spanish forces on the fourth of this month, has placed the adjacent territory under the control and protection of the independent government. I lose no time in assuring you of the enjoyment of your civil liberty, the preservation of your rights, and the protection of your property. I would extend to all those peaceful citizens living in or adjoining the waters of the St. Mary’s and St. John’s rivers, and the islands and country intervening, all the advantages to be derived from the third and fourth articles of the capitulation of the 29th June, on the surrender of this place — a full protection of their lives and property.

“Let not a fear of rapine and spoil drive into opposition or disturb the well disposed inhabitants of Florida. Other and more glorious motives impel those who fight in the cause of liberty. Continue to evince your friendly disposition by remaining quietly at your homes, in the exercise of your domestic employments, and such conduct will insure its rewards — Join not the ranks of our enemies, nor aid them against us, or you will be met in the spirit of hostility, and your persons and property must share their fate. Rely on the assurances of candor and truth — do not compel us to oppose as foes, whom we would embrace as brothers.” Headquarters, Fernandina, July 12, 1817, 7 and 1. Gregor MacGregor

The Land That Never Was, Book By David Sinclair
The Land That Never Was, Book By David Sinclair

MACGREGOR’s DEADLY DECEPTION

A few years after his adventure on Amelia Island, Gregor MacGregor orchestrated a terrible fraud in the early 1820s.  More about what happened is the topic of a book written by David Sinclair, “The Land That Never Was, Sir Gregor MacGregor And The Most Audacious Fraud in History,”  (available on Amazon).

MacGregor scammed Scottish and English immigrants who thought they were buying land in a tropical paradise, dubbed the nation of “Poyais,” in Central America. Sadly, immigrants set sail for this fanciful place.

According to the Amazon book blurb, “The land they had been sold was non-existent; the banknotes and guidebooks they carried with them were forgeries; their documents were worthless. The man responsible was General Sir Gregor MacGregor.”

Another book review states: “The settlers, fully convinced of the paradise that awaited them, found nothing but a swampy lagoon on landing. Of the roughly 250 emigrants, fewer than 50 returned. Some committed suicide; some died of yellow fever, malaria or exhaustion; and others migrated to Belize” according to  Publishers’ Weekly.

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