Old Town Fernandina

visit: www.oldtownfernandina.org









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 US 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. Augustine.


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 State Park.


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 took place:

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 the Confederacy.


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).


Old Town 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 Old Town website: www.oldtownfernandina.org

The Amelia Island Museum of History, 233 S Third St., Fernandina www.ameliamuseum.org

The City of Fernandina Beach: www.fbfl.us

Fort Clinch 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 mike@oldtownfernandina.org

Mike Harrison: Editor/Publisher.          April 6, 2010