Florida pirate haven now a laid-back paradise

Pirates are a big part of Amelia Island's rambunctious past. MITCHELL SMYTH/Special to QMI Agency

Pirates are a big part of Amelia Island's rambunctious past. MITCHELL SMYTH/Special to QMI Agency

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:47 AM ET

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. -- Steve Sansbury points to a flag -- a green cross on a white ground -- on the wall of the Amelia Island historical museum.

"That's Gregor McGregor's flag," he says. "He was quite a character, a cross between Donald Trump and P. T. Barnum."

But McGregor was more ambitious than either the real estate tycoon or the circus entrepreneur. McGregor wanted to rule his own country. And he did, for a while.

It was a small country, admittedly, just 20 km long by 3 km wide. Today it's called Amelia Island; the Scottish adventurer and veteran of South American wars called it the Republic of the Floridas after he captured it from the Spanish in 1817.

Sansbury, Amelia Island historian and our guide, says: "McGregor arrived one June morning with 60 men. But the Spanish had been told he had a thousand soldiers; they gave up without firing a shot."

But the self-styled "Cazique of Poyais" (whatever that is) soon got bored of his "country" -- and he couldn't control the pirates who roamed at will -- so he took down his flag and, with his little army of mercenaries, returned to South America and to more adventures.

His flag was the fifth to fly over Amelia Island. Eight flags in all have flown here, making it perhaps the most-disputed piece of land on the continent.

Sansbury walks visitors through the museum -- the island's old jail -- and through the history of Amelia Island since 1562, when the French raised the fleur-de-lys.

Three years later the Spanish ousted them and held the island, on and off, until 1821, although they were driven out several times, for days, months or years: In order, by England, by mercenaries called the Florida Patriots, McGregor, and a rag-tag army of adventurers who raised the Mexican flag.

In 1821 the United States bought the whole of Florida for $5 million from Spain, and the Stars and Stripes became the seventh flag. But it was replaced in 1861 by the flag of the Confederacy on the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War.

During much the 17th and 18th centuries, Amelia Island was the stomping ground of a stellar cast of pirates, smugglers, rum-runners, slave-traders and bordello keepers, for no matter whose flag was flying, there was very little rule of law. President James Munro called it "a festering fleshpot" when Spain ceded it to the U.S.

The main town, Fernandina -- the word Beach was added in 1951 as a tourist lure -- developed as an important port in the last half of the 19th century. That era is recalled in the 50-block historic district of well-preserved Victorian homes and businesses. The chandleries, naval stores, customs houses and the homes of the sea captains and lumber barons have been reborn as gift shops, antique stores, tea rooms and the like.

Most of the 21 downtown gin mills have disappeared but there's one exciting reminder. A manikin of a pirate guards the entrance to the Palace Saloon, which dates from 1903 and claims to be the oldest continually operating barroom in Florida ("continual" if you ignore Prohibition, 1920-33).

Pirates, it appears, are a symbol of Fernandina; you can hardly walk a block without running into an effigy with pegleg or eyepatch or hook hand. But surprisingly, the town boosters don't include the skull and crossbones to make their flag count nine.

NEED TO KNOW

For tourist information, visit ameliaisland.com and visitflorida.com. Guided walks, including ghost tours, take place regularly, and a self-guided tour brochure and map is available at the visitor centre in the old railway station.


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