The “Town of Fernandina” was established by Spain in 1811, named after Spanish King Ferdinand VII. The town was situated on a high bluff above the Amelia River, pictured above. For those unfamiliar with this northern spot on Amelia Island, now called “Old Town,” it’s actually the original site of Fernandina, FL.
Middle Passage, African Slave Trade
While some know Old Town’s colonial Spanish history, fewer may be aware of Fernandina’s past as a port where the illegal African slave trade took place.
“Site of Memory”
Old Town Fernandina is a “Site of Memory” identified by the UNESCO SLAVE ROUTE PROJECT and part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. As noted on the sign pictured below, after the U.S. Constitution banned the importation of Africans in 1808, Fernandina, became a location where “traders registered, had inspected, unloaded, and sold their enslaved imports.”
Middle Passage Port Marker (pictured above and below, a 2-sided sign), was installed on the Old Town bluff last spring in 2020. The grassy field at Old Town, a block across and a block wide, is officially “Fernandina Historic Plaza,” a Florida State Park (managed by Fort Clinch).
The marker was “completed with the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Inc., (MPCPMP) and with funds from the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation,” according to the Amelia Island Museum of History. The UNESCO marker’s official unveiling ceremony had originally been scheduled last year on March 25, 2020. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was canceled. That time was intended to “coincide with the UNESCO designation of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”
Background of Old Town Fernandina
When David Levy Yulee was planning the first Florida cross-state railroad from the Atlantic coast in Fernandina to the Gulf coast in Cedar Key, he determined it was unfeasible to build the rail line from the existing Fernandina settlement. Yulee (one of Florida’s first two United States Senators when Florida became a state in 1845), was successful in persuading many of the town’s residents to move down river about a mile to where downtown Fernandina Beach is today.
Old Town Fernandina is an historic, residential neighborhood lacking a business/retail center. Fernandina’s downtown historic district, anchored by the Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina, is where most tourism activity is concentrated.
Old Town offers an wonderful panoramic waterfront view overlooking the Amelia River. The expansive vista is well worth seeing, as is learning about this site’s historic significance. Visit this historic area on Amelia Island’s north end by taking North 14th Street to reach Old Town Fernandina. The Fernandina Historic Plaza is a wide open, empty lawn area, except for a cannon, history marker signs and educational exhibit boards.
The Old Town site has the longest history of past civilization on Amelia Island, FL. Spanish colonists established a mission here dating back to 1696. Constructed of wood and earth, the Spanish Fort San Carlos was built on the riverfront here in 1816.
Earliest Residents, Timucuan Indians
However, long before Spanish explorers arrived, as early as 2000-1000 B.C., the Timucuan Indians recognized the allure of this bluff above the river and its bounty, establishing a camp here. Natives who lived off the land and water thousands of years ago, the Timucuan Indians, chose the Old Town site for settlement.