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Amelia Island

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on June 29, 2012

America’s pirate stronghold

Amelia Island is the northern-most portion of Florida on the Atlantic coast.  Georgia lies just across the St. Marys River.  This political separation today is of little significance, but it was highly important in earlier times.  Some years after the Spanish claimed Florida and settled Saint Augustine, the English established its own colonies further north.  After various disagreements and a few battles, the St. Marys River was accepted by both sides as the boundary.  The problem was that, even though Amelia Island was nominally under the Spanish flag, the colonial administration in Saint Augustine lacked the resources to effectively enforce its laws on the island.  Pirates and privateers, always looking for a safe place to anchor and reprovision, wasted little time in establishing a stronghold on Amelia Island.  From there, they could sortie out into the Gulf Stream, intercepting English, Spanish, and other ships bound to or from the Caribbean and Central America.  The British acquired Florida at the end of the Seven Years’ War and retained it until the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War returned control to Spain.  With the independence of the United States and its abolition of the slave trade, smugglers operating out of Amelia Island would land captives from Africa and move them north into the slave-holding states, particularly Georgia and South Carolina.  During the War of 1812, the British used Amelia Island as an unofficial outpost from which to harass the Americans.  United States Revenue Service cutters raided Amelia Island several times during the war, capturing privateering vessels and taking them to Savannah or Charleston for adjudication in prize courts.  In June 1817, Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor (who had fought on the rebel side in some of South America’s wars of independence) moved to Amelia Island and proclaimed the Latin American Patriots’ Green Cross of Florida, naming himself the General-in-Chief of the armies for East and West Florida.  A brief show of force by Spanish authorities resulted in MacGregor’s quick departure.  He was almost immediately replaced by the privateer Louis-Michel Aury, who claimed the island in the name of newly-independent Mexico.  The United States rapidly lost patience with the inability of Spain to maintain law and order on the south side of the St. Marys River.  On December 23, 1817, President James Monroe sent a naval force to Amelia Island, where Aury was immediately ousted.  The official position of the United States was that it was merely holding the island “in trust” for Spain.  Four years later, the United States purchased Florida from Spain and the US flag was officially raised over Amelia Island, ending the island’s status as a pirate stronghold.     

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