Old Town Fernandina
Old Town Fernandina is the original site of the
City of Fernandina Beach. Bounded by Egan’s Creek to the North, Bosque Bello
cemetery and salt-marshes to the South, the Amelia River
to the West, and salt-marshes to the East, it was home to Timucua
Indians and later to Spanish missions.
But its claim to a place in history depends on what happened here between
1807 and 1821. At the end of the
American War of Independence (1783), an international treaty had returned the
province from Britain to Spain, who established a provincial governor in St. Augustine, and a Governor-General in Havana, Cuba.
Florida was not a part of the United States, yet Amelia
Island gave very easy access across St.
Mary’s River to Georgia.
In 1807-8 the United States
took two actions that energized this area: the Embargo Act was introduced prohibiting
trade with the English and the French; and the final abolition the trade of
importing slaves into US came into force. These acts put a stop to ‘legal’
trading through US
ports, but gave rise to illegal trading (smuggling) through ‘off-shore’ ports
such as Fernandina. A bustling township grew up here around this trade. Like
the ‘gold-rush’ towns that grew up in US later in the century it had sprawling
growth, a focus on
making and spending money, and its own brand of law. Such formal
civil law presence that existed was in St.
Spain had its own problems. The French Emperor
Napoleon had invaded Spain,
and the royal court moved into exile. Enrique White, the Spanish Governor of
East Florida in St. Augustine, sensed an opportunity: to try to have the
Spanish Royal Court in exile set up in East Florida. What better way than to
name the place for the King! White wrote to Justo Lopez, the Spanish Commandant
of Amelia Island on December 24, 1810 as follows:
I have determined that, beginning January 1 of the
coming year, 1811, the post and town that has grown up around it shall be
called Fernandina in honor of our Catholic monarch (Ferdinand VII), continuing
with the name Amelia for the rest of the island as has been done until now.
You will use the name (Fernandina) in all official
correspondence and public documents.
However, the town was probably no fit place for a king. It needed to be
ordered. On May 10, 1811, White's successor - José Estrada - instructed his Surveyor General Don Jorge
Clarke, to lay out the township in accordance with the 1542 Spanish Law of the Indies. A grid was established comprising blocks of eight
or ten ‘peónias’. A peónia was a lot of
land that would have been awarded to a Spanish foot-soldier (peon) as reward
for taking part in the conquest. A peónia is 46.5’ by 93’. At the corners of the blocks are
media-peónias (46.5’ by 46.5’). Current
building code requires one peónia (or two
media-peónias) as a buildable lot.
The Law of the Indies described how the
site for a Spanish settlement would be selected, and how the town would be laid
out. Places were set for the fort, the parade ground, the church, the cemetery,
the inn, and the baker’s. A plaza—originally Plaza de la Constitution — was
reserved at the river, and remains to this day as the Plaza San Carlos. The
Plaza is a Florida State Park, administered by nearby Fort Clinch
The names of the streets on Clarke’s 1811 plat map survive today. The
streets running West/East are Ladies, San Fernando,
White (for Enrique White, Provincial Governor 1796-1811), Someruelos (for the
Marquis de Someruelos, the Governor-General in Cuba) and Garden. The streets running North/South are Marine
(now gone), Estrada (after Jose, the Provincial Governor after White), Amelia
(after the princess—daughter of England’s
King George II), and Commandant.
A later map (see back cover) shows Fernandina in
1821. The town has
expanded; two more streets have been added to the east of Commandant—New and Towngate Streets. There are also new lots north of Ladies, east of
Commandant, and south of Garden.
As the United States’
influence grew, so did interest in controlling the bustling township just south
of its border. A series of incursions
In 1812, the “Patriots of Amelia Island” overthrew
the Spanish and hoisted their own flag. It was replaced with the US flag a day later, but Spain insisted
on the island’s return.
In 1817, Scottish mercenary Gregor
McGegor took over the island and hoisted the Green
Cross of Florida. McGregor was desperately short of troops and money, and as
Spanish troops approached to reclaim the island, he slipped away and left
command to Irwin and Hubbard.
Jared Irwin and Ruggles
Hubbard—two American adventurers—had joined McGregor, but brought no troops or
money. The Spanish were beaten back in the battle of McClure’s Hill.
Pirate Luis Aury arrived
shortly thereafter, with ships, men and money. With Irwin and Hubbard, he
claimed the island for the Mexican Rebels.
Two days before Christmas 1817 the US Navy
temporarily occupied the island, and drove Aury off.
In 1819 the US purchased
Florida from Spain. In 1821, Florida
became a US
territory attaining statehood in 1845.
So the 7 years from 1811-1817 saw Fernandina under five of its eight
flags! (Spain, Patriot,
Green Cross, Mexican Rebel,
US). The other
flags are those of France, England, and
In 1825 the Legislative Council of the Territory
of Florida passed an Act to
incorporate the City of Fernandina,
to elect a Mayor and five Aldermen, to raise taxes and to make laws.
In the late 1850’s, David Yulee established a rail-head to the south of
Fernandina across the salt-marshes. He said that the railroad could not cross
the marsh, and that the new location of Fernandina would be at the
rail-head. Many of Fernandina's wealthy
and prominent citizens took up residence in the new location. Today, little
remains to be seen of Fernandina’s colorful history except the grid itself and
some of its older homes. As a seafaring
town, Fernandina had its share of Captains, and many of their homes remain
today. Perhaps the most famous is the Pippi Longstocking House (212 Estrada) because the 1950 movie was
filmed there. The house was built by Samuel Swann and is also called The
Captain’s House. It was also owned by Pilots Captains Bell and Downes. Other
remaining Pilot’s houses are: 902Ladies (Capts Newton
& Swearingen); 715 (Capts Sharp & Kavanaugh),
818 (Capts Johnson & Lasserre),
and 910 (McNeil) San Fernando,
and 705 White Street
(Capt. J Davis).
Fernandina is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, primarily for
its historic grid and its being the last town in the Western Hemisphere to have
been platted according to the Law of the Indies.
Old Town is an
Historic District, and its architecture is controlled by guidelines
administered by the City of Fernandina Beach’s Historic District Council.
For more information on Old
Town, including Plat Maps
and Development Guidelines please visit:
The Amelia Island Museum of History, 233 S Third St.,
The City of Fernandina Beach:
State Park, Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina: www.floridastateparks.org/fortclinch/default.cfm
This leaflet is privately sponsored and funded without benefit of
government assistance. It is produced to inform visitors of the unique history
of Old Town Fernandina.
Send comments to email@example.com
Mike Harrison: Editor/Publisher.
April 6, 2010