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Captivating History of Amelia Island Florida 1500-2024

Florida Road Trip Through History

how big is Amelia Island - Florida Road trip - what is the best month to visit Amelia Island
Fort Clinch is a big tourist destination on Amelia Island. It is fun to see how our soldiers lived almost two centuries ago.

Amelia Island is a special island in Florida known for its exceptional activities for tourists, island location, proximity to famous sites, waterfront hotels, luxury resorts and exotic history.

Florida Travel Blog has returned to Amelia Island many times for fun road trips and great restaurants.

History of Amelia Island Florida

It’s hard to believe that any other small island in the world has experienced more historical significance than Amelia Island. For centuries Amelia Island was the most fought-over island in history.

From the settlement of Timucuan Indians around the year 1000 until today, history tells us there have been eight different flags flying on the island from governments around the world. 

Even a pirate controlled the island at one point. This island makes a great Florida road trip for history buffs and naturally curious tourists. 

 

History of Amelia Island Florida 1500 -1800

The history of Amelia Island spans centuries, marked by the presence of indigenous peoples, European exploration, colonization, and conflicts over territory. From the 1500s to the 1800s, the island witnessed significant events that shaped its cultural and political landscape.
 
In the early 16th century, European explorers, including Spanish and French adventurers, began to explore the coast of present-day Florida, including Amelia Island. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León is believed to have made landfall on the island during his search for the legendary Fountain of Youth in 1513. However, significant colonization efforts did not occur until later in the century.
history of Amelia island Florida lighthouse in 1921
Lighthouse at Amelia Island in 1921.
 
In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault established a short-lived settlement called Charlesfort on the nearby coast of present-day South Carolina. Subsequent French expeditions under René Goulaine de Laudonnière and Dominique de Gourgues ventured further south, possibly reaching Amelia Island. These early French incursions laid the groundwork for future European claims to the region.
 
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Spanish authorities sought to solidify their control over Florida by establishing missions and settlements. In 1565, Spanish forces under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United States. St. Augustine served as the capital of Spanish Florida and exerted influence over the surrounding territory, including Amelia Island.
 
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Amelia Island remained on the periphery of Spanish colonial activity. It served primarily as a strategic outpost for the Spanish military, providing a base for patrols along the coast and guarding against incursions by rival European powers and indigenous peoples. The island’s natural resources, including timber, fish, and game, attracted occasional settlers and traders, but permanent settlement was limited.
amelia island history postcard from the 1950s
Postcard from the 1950s advertising Fernandina Beach and the history of the island.
 
In the late 18th century, the geopolitical landscape of the Americas underwent significant changes with the onset of the American Revolutionary War and subsequent conflicts. In 1763, as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America), Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for control of Havana, Cuba. During this period of British rule, Amelia Island was included within the territory of British East Florida.
 
However, Spain regained control of Florida following the American Revolutionary War, as outlined in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. In 1784, the British evacuated East Florida, and Spanish authorities resumed governance of the region. Amelia Island once again became a Spanish possession, marking the beginning of a new era in its history as part of Spanish Florida.
 
Overall, the period from the 1500s to the 1800s saw Amelia Island transition from a relatively unknown landmass visited by European explorers to a strategic outpost within the broader context of colonial rivalry and territorial expansion in the Americas. Its history during this time reflects the complex interactions between indigenous peoples, European powers, and settlers seeking to establish control and influence over the region.

Pirate Controls Amelia Island

The beauty and security of the area is why the privateer, Louis-Michel Aury took control for a period of time. Supposedly Aury was working for the Mexican government but was actually a pirate who ruled Amelia island for a period in the early 1800s until turning Amelia Island over to Americans in 1817.

The newly formed country of the United States

The "Election" of a Pirate, Amelia Island Florida road trip, how big is amelia island
The “Election” of a Pirate, Amelia Island Florida road trip.

was interested in controlling all of Florida, but the Spanish laid claim to the land between the Atlantic Ocean westward to near New Orleans. At that time, the land all the way to New Orleans was part of Spanish-controlled Florida.

Later, after some bargaining, arm-twisting, and a few million dollars, the United States took control of Amelia Island.

With the exception of a brief period when Confederate troops seized Fort Clinch during the Civil War, the Amelia Island has remained the property of the United States. The fort, named Clinch in 1847, was previously the site the Spanish held to fortify the area. 

Of course, the Spanish got control from the French who routed the Timucuans from the area!

Throughout all of the fighting for control of Amelia Island, this little strip of land about 13 miles long was key to controlling the St. John’s River basin from this northern fortification. The river basin ran far into the heart of Florida.

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Amelia Island has beautiful beaches, natural fresh water, and access to food from both freshwater rivers to the bounty in the Atlantic Ocean. Food sources, natural protection, and control over the river basin made this island valuable. This led to a much-fought-over island.

History of Amelia Island Since American Purchase in 1821

amelia island history plat book from 1882
Plat Book cover from 1882 for Fernandina Beach.

Following the United States’ acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1821, Amelia Island became part of the newly established American territory.

The island’s strategic location near the Atlantic coast and its natural resources continued to attract settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on its potential for commerce and development.

During the early 19th century, Amelia Island experienced a period of rapid growth and economic prosperity, fueled in part by its status as a major port of entry for goods entering and leaving the United States.

The town of Fernandina Beach, situated on the northern end of the island, emerged as a bustling hub of maritime activity, with warehouses, shipyards, and wharves lining its waterfront.

history of Amelia island WPA road work crew 1930s
WPA government 1930s work crew on a road to Amelia Island.

However, this period of growth was not without challenges. The presence of pirates and privateers in the waters surrounding Amelia Island posed a threat to maritime commerce, prompting the United States government to take action to suppress piracy in the region.

In 1822, U.S. Navy forces, led by Commodore James Biddle, launched an expedition to capture the notorious pirate base at Amelia Island, resulting in the island’s brief occupation by American forces.

Throughout the 19th century, Amelia Island continued to play a significant role in regional trade and transportation networks.

The construction of railroads connecting Fernandina Beach to other parts of Florida further enhanced the island’s importance as a center of commerce, facilitating the movement of goods and people between the interior of the state and the coast.

In the decades that followed, the economy of Amelia Island diversified, with tourism emerging as an important industry.

The island’s untouched beaches, historic charm, and natural beauty attracted visitors seeking relaxation and recreation, leading to the development of resorts, hotels, and recreational amenities to accommodate the growing number of tourists.

Today, Amelia Island remains a popular destination for travelers seeking a blend of history, culture, and outdoor adventure. Its rich heritage, picturesque landscapes, and vibrant community continue to make it a cherished and celebrated part of Florida’s coastal landscape.

Amelia Island Makes a Great Florida Road Trip

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Amelia Island Florida Beach. Excellent Florida road trip.

Today, the natural beauty brings a continuing stream of Florida road trip travelers, plus visitors from Georgia and Alabama. The hotels and attractions stay busy year-round. 

Floridians from southern Florida come for relief from heat and humidity, Georgia sees Amelia Island as a playground in winter months and folks from further west love the beaches along the Atlantic. The lush foliage a few hundred yards off the beach offer a quick transition from the sand and sun to the cool breezy shade in the shadows of resorts hugging the Atlantic Ocean.

While there are a couple of towns on the Island, Fernandina Beach is where the shops, restaurants, quirky stores, marine activities, and even the oldest bar in Florida reside.

Oldest Bar in Florida on Amelia Island?

The Palace Saloon claims to be the oldest continually operating bar in the state, but we may suggest that the Green Parrot in Key West and a couple others may dispute that! While not included as a best, The Palace Saloon is ornate and many of the old decorations, gas lights and woodwork are displayed. 

It may be worth a Florida road trip to Fernandina Beach, just to say you were in the oldest bar in Florida.

The bar and restaurant scene is fun in Fernandina Beach with an almost equal number of visitors from Florida and Georgia, which is just a stone’s throw across the bay. A friendly discussion seems to arise between patrons about the Gators and Bulldogs college football prospects, plus everything

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The Palace Saloon, Amelia Island, Florida’s oldest bar.

from the best-boiled peanuts to the best of “anything” between the states. Friendly people having friendly discussions is refreshing in a world of conflicts today.

Places like Peppers Cocina Mexican Grill and Tequilla Bar are worth the visit. You won’t find many more tequila brands anywhere! The food is above average, and you can sit inside or out.

The Salty Pelican on the river side of the island offers typical bar food, but the tacos are exceptional (even though we like Peppers for other Mexican delights!).

We have to give a shout-out to one of our honorable-mention dive bars. Just off the main street (Center St.) on 3rd Street, is the Green Turtle. This local’s bar has all the elements of a great Florida dive bar, plus some good entertainment.

The newest addition to the restaurant scene is the Boat House in Fernandina Beach. During our latest visit in April 2023, we enjoyed the Boat House food.

After touring the island you can see why Amelia Island was the most fought-over island in history. It is also a great Florida road trip.

Fernandina Beach is about 30 minutes north of Jacksonville, four hours from Tampa, three hours from Orlando and six hours from Miami straight north on I-95. Since getting there is half the fun, check out the Mayport Ferry service on your way to Amelia Island on a Florida road trip from the south of the island.

More about Amelia Island is on our recent – Road Trip to Savannah


Looking for more road trips in Florida? Read more here

Always check The Florida Travel Blog for traveling the sunshine state.

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