Top Scoundrel of Amelia Island’s Past?

Gregor MacGregor, who claimed Amelia Island in 1817 and raised the Green Cross flag, is now viewed as one of history’s top con artists. His later claim to fame is the “Poyais” scam.

Gregor MacGregor & The Green Cross Flag

Scotsman Gregor MacGregor managed to “conquer” Amelia Island, taking it from the Spanish in 1817. It’s been over two hundred years since he raised the Green Cross Flag of Florida here. Yet, this scoundrel of Amelia Island’s past has been experiencing a resurgence.

While quite a cast of characters have stepped foot on Amelia Island throughout history, standing in the forefront is MacGregor.

Green Cross of Florida Flag Gregor MacGregor
Green Cross of Florida Flag (Image: Wikimedia)

In contemporary times, MacGregor appears in the company of some of history’s most famous con artists and has grabbed the attention of a new generation. MacGregor is the topic of a few animated videos produced in recent times (receiving over a million views online).

One of these videos is on CollegeHumor, a popular YouTube channel, and another presented by Cheddar News. Plus, Gregor MacGregor has reached GOOGLE page one search results for “historical con artists” (see image below).

The Poyais Scam

After his brief capture of Amelia Island in 1817, Gregor MacGregor began the “Poyais” scam in the early 1820s. “Poyais,” a fictional country, has captured imaginations, resurrecting MacGregor on new media. Known in his day as “Sir” Gregor MacGregor, he had also invented this title that uplifted his image in London society.

The Green Cross flown here by MacGregor on Amelia Island, was also put to use on the flag representing this fake nation said to be located in Central America. Apparently a masterful marketer, he presented Poyais to immigrants as an existing country, described as a tropical paradise.

GOOGLE Page One

According to search engine results (November 2019), Gregor MacGregor’s image is shown alongside notorious con artists Bernie Madoff and Frank Abagnale. (Remember the movie, “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio?)

Gregor MacGregor Page 1 Google Search Results Keywords Swindlers of History And Con Artist
Page 1 Results Historic “Swindlers” & “Con Artists” (Nov. 2019)

While the animated videos about MacGregor have attracted eyeballs online from around the globe, here locally on Amelia Island, golf balls are rolling in downtown Fernandina Beach. There’s a new mini golf course bearing his name, Gregor MacGregor’s Mini Links & Drinks (more about this new entertainment venue further below).

Some locals know, and some visitors learn, about MacGregor’s association with Amelia Island’s capture back in 1817. However, his prevalent claim to fame is “Poyais.” Soon after he departed Amelia Island, MacGregor hatched quite a scheme.

MacGregor Duped Settlers

MacGregor orchestrated a plan to enrich himself by inventing a nation with Utopian image, “Poyais.” He duped unsuspecting English and Scottish immigrants into buying worthless land (and later attempted the same in France).

Greatest “Confidence Trick” In History?

Much has been written about MacGregor in the past two decades. An analytical article about MacGregor published by The Economist, suggests “he pulled off the greatest confidence trick of all time.”

MacGregor sold Poyais land rights and bonds. For perspective of the monetary value of the financial fraud committed by Gregor MacGregor during his lifetime, here’s a quote from The Economist:

“MacGregor’s biggest swindle raised £200,000. Over his lifetime, his bond-market frauds ran to £1.3m (as a share of Britain’s economy, around £3.6 billion today). It is true that more recent scams have raised more. Bernie Madoff, a New York-based fraudster caught out in 2008 ran a scheme 20 times bigger, at $65 billion. In cash terms alone Mr Madoff trumps MacGregor.”

Source: The Economist print edition, “Christmas Specials,” Dec. 22, 2012

MacGregor targeted London’s top financiers. For example, he wrote a letter in 1821 about Poyais to Nathan Mayer Rothschild, said to be the richest man in the world during this time in the 19th Century. He was a German of Jewish decent, a prominent London banker of the Rothschild financial dynasty. MacGregor cunningly tried to lure N.M. Rothschild, proposing the formation of a “Hebrew Colony” in Poyais. According to The Rothschild Archives, the shrewd N.M. Rothschild was not taken in by MacGregor.

Isle of Eight Flags

For those unfamiliar, Amelia Island is known as“The Isle of Eight Flags.” No other place in the USA has been “claimed” as many times, as Amelia Island, Florida. 

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, claiming Amelia Island with a small group of men.

MacGregor’s time on this island was short lived. A few months later he departed Amelia, reportedly due to lack of funds and reinforcements to hold the island. A few years later, it was on to creating Poyais.

According to various historic accounts, the Poyais settlers found jungle that was uninhabitable and eventually suffered from malnutrition and tropical diseases.  Reportedly, of the 240 original immigrants who set sail to Poyais, only 60 survived the ordeal. And MacGregor got away with this scam, no justice was ever served.

“Cross of MacGregor” Medal
Green Cross of Florida MacGregor Medal Amelia Island Florida Conquest 1817
Green Cross of Florida “Amalia Veni Vidi Vici” Medal

After MacGregor had left Amelia Island, to commemorate his former victory, he had a small number of medallions struck. One side of the medal or coin says “AMALIA… VENI VIDI VICI” (translation: “Amelia, I came, I saw, I conquered” (dated June 29, 1817). The other side says “DUCE MAC GREGORIO LIBERTAS FLORIDARUM” (translation: “Liberty for the Floridas under the leadership of MacGregor”).

Apparently, however, he may have had a devious reason in mind for these medals. An auction catalogue of the Lucien La Riviere collection (Bowers & Merena, 2001, lot 2142), suggests “the medal was struck to be given to investors in a scheme to establish a colony at Poyais.”

Dix Noonan Webb, a London-based auctioneer of coins, tokens and medals sold one of these MacGregor medallions in January 2019 for $4,986. Then in August 2019, Stack’s Bowers Galleries auctioned one of the medals that sold for $2,280.  (The medal’s condition and the marketplace determine their value.) The Amelia Island Museum of History archives includes one of these medals in their collection. 

Gregor MacGregor’s Mini Links & Drinks

This Scotsman retains his place in Amelia Island’s history as a “conqueror,” at a time before he invented Poyais. His name has emerged again locally, borrowed for a new business. Making its debut downtown last month, Gregor MacGregor’s Mini Links & Drinks. The 18-hole mini golf course is the newest entertainment venue within Fernandina’s downtown dining and tourism hub.

Mini Golf Fernandina Beach Gregor MacGregor Mini Links Drinks Amelia Island
Gregor MacGregor’s Mini Links & Drinks

Fernandina’s new miniature golf course offers a full bar, beer and wine, plus non-alcoholic beverages.  A light menu features hot dogs, corn dogs, jumbo pretzels, popcorn, chips and ice cream. Covered outdoor tables are available within a two-story porch area that overlooks the golf course. It’s a new place for an outdoor activity downtown, while competing with friends and family to see who “conquers” the course.

The Land That Never Was, Book By David Sinclair
“The Land That Never Was,” By David Sinclair
Moments in History

A time, a place, an event or a person—moments in history are revived through the ages. History is presented in various formats – from books, documentaries, videos, and films — to plays on Broadway, such as “Hamilton.” As time goes by, the past is re-analyzed and/or interpreted by another crop of historians, authors, producers, entertainers, and animators. As in the case of MacGregor, propelling his notoriety as a legendary scoundrel and financial scam artist.

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Amelia Island Living's "PERSPECTIVE" column features observations of island life, news & opinion.