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Amelia Island has a rich history

An English Rose in Georgia

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POSTED: June 13, 2012 7:00 p.m.

I have a love of islands, maybe because I am from the British Isles, or maybe because I enjoy the feeling of escape that going to an island offers.

Having lived in Coastal Georgia for three years, I can’t believe that, until last week, we had not visited Amelia Island, the most southern of the barrier islands just over the Florida border — especially as it is only about two hours from Richmond Hill.

This great, little 18-square-mile island was charming even in the wake of Tropical Storm Beryl. In my opinion, its history symbolizes what makes America such a great country: the ability to overcome problems and setbacks through hard work to ensure survival and prosperity.

After Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. in 1821, Amelia Island’s Sen. David Yulee moved the main town (now called Old Town) a mile south to Fernandina so he could build Florida’s first cross-state railroad on more suitable ground. In spite of the Civil War starting just after its completion and his own imprisonment, the admirable Yulee got the railroad running again after the war, and Amelia Island enjoyed prosperity driven by tourism and shipping (as well as smuggling and pirates, of course).

When these industries went downhill at the beginning of the 20th century, the modern shrimping industry was born on Amelia Island (now sadly depleted due to imported farmed shrimp from Asia). During the Great Depression of the 1930s, two large pulp-and-paper mills were built and are still running today. More recently, enterprising corporations and individuals from the Ritz-Carlton and Omni groups to restaurateurs and carriage tour guides are contributing to the resurgence of Amelia Island as a resort. This seems to me to reflect the indomitable American spirit.

Amelia Island is very proud to be the only U.S. location to have been under eight different flags. The French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named and the Americans tamed this unique place. In addition to the four flags of these nations, Amelia Island has also, if briefly, seen the rise of the “Patriots of Amelia Island” flag, as well as the Green Cross of Florida and Confederate flags. Most bizarrely, for a very short time, the Mexican rebel flag flew as pirate Luis Aury held the island “in trust for Spain” in 1817.

Of course I am particularly interested in the two decades the English ruled Amelia Island from 1763-83. Earlier in the 18th century, Savannah’s own English founder James Oglethorpe visited and renamed the island after British royalty. Spanish settlers called it Santa Maria but Oglethorpe, having named the colonial state of Georgia after King George II, decided this time to honor his monarch’s daughter — Princess Amelia.

The legacy of the British, other than the island’s name, is indigo farming. Indigo was an expensive blue dye from the indigo plant, which was much prized in Europe but not suited to the less-than-glorious British climate. Many people grew this valuable crop in the colonies, including the West Indies and for a time Amelia Island.

I was actually a little insulted when the tour guide suggested that the Spanish, who had inhabited the island for nearly 200 years before the British arrived, were interested in saving souls and set up missions and churches, but the English just wanted to make money and focused on planting indigo. Personally, I think it was just a healthy interest in commerce, which was one of Britain’s better legacies to Amelia Island and indeed all of America.

To quote the wonderful Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: “Money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations.”
God bless America!

Francis can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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