Sometimes, authentic Florida adventures lead you to places you never knew existed. On this particular day, I followed my “nose” and allowed “real” Florida to guide me. I landed just where I was meant to be and by doing so, discovered an enchanting historical area of Florida.
The state’s northeast corner between Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach where the St. John’s River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is an area filled with marshes, bluffs, sand dunes, beaches and waterways. I got there by taking Hwy. I-95 to Heckscher Drive (Hwy. A1A) and continuing north along the Atlantic coast.
Ft. George Island oak canopy
As a Florida gal, I naturally gravitate towards islands. So, when I saw the sign for Ft. George Island State Park, I made the turn. Nestled in the coastal marshes of the St. John’s estuary, a dirt road takes you on a full loop around the island. An overhanging thick canopy of majestic oak trees will give you an instant “feel” of old Florida. The experience of being in this stunning tree cathedral is reason enough to go to Ft. George Island, considered one of the most spectacular oak hammocks in all of Florida.
Ft. George Island coastal marshes
Ft. George Island’s History
The short history of the Ft. George Island begins with the pre-Columbian Timucua Indians who settled along the Atlantic Ocean (including Central, North Florida and Georgia). Using the intricate network of waterways and marshes for transportation and their livelihood they hunted, fished, gathered shellfish, oysters and clams. The discarded shells created massive mounds, or middens, that are found throughout the island. The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve of over 46,000 acres includes Ft. George Island, Talbot State Parks, and other associated public and private lands. The Timucuan Visitor Center will give you an overview of the preserve and more reasons to explore the fascinating lives of the indigenous tribe.
In the late 1500s, Spanish friars founded the San Juan del Puerto Mission on the island to convert the natives to Christianity. Hundreds of years later, in 1736, James Oglethorpe built Fort St. George to defend the southern flank of Georgia when it was a colony. Even though the fort was later abandoned, the name stuck and the entire island became known as Ft. George.
While still under British rule colonists developed plantations and another era of the island’s rich history unfolded. The plantation era continued even as Spain regained control of the island after the American Revolution. And in 1821 Ft. George Island, along with the rest of Florida, officially became a U.S. Territory.
1884 St. George Episcopal Church
St. George Episcopal Church
An interesting stop along the way is the St. George Episcopal Church dating back to 1884. Originally designed to serve as a chapel for Ft. George, the architecture is “Carpenter Gothic,” common for small churches at the time, including impressive stained glass windows.
The Ribault Club, Ft. George Visitor Center
The Ribault Club
Not far from the church is the restored Ribault Club (named after French explorer Jean Ribault), that serves as the Island’s Visitor Center, built in 1928 as a playground for America’s wealthiest families. Care-free vacationing guests enjoyed the post-war era recreating in an exclusive country club atmosphere. Later, however, the Great Depression put a damper on the party and in 1989, the State of Florida took it over. Interactive displays depicting the island history highlight the many interesting stops on the island.
The Kingsley Plantation
But the island’s real prize is the Kingsley Plantation. In 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Ft. George and established a plantation. Sea Island cotton, indigo, sugar cane, corn, beans and potatoes were grown and harvested by more than 60 slaves. Married to a slave, Anna Majigeen Nijaay, and father to their four children, Kingsley straddled a tumultuous time – socially and politically. When Spain lost control of Florida in 1821, the new U.S. Territory limited the civil liberties of blacks, and of course, the rights of his very own family. Kingsley eventually moved his family to Haiti – a free black republic – after crusading and battling southern law makers regarding their increasing intolerance of Florida’s black population while Kingsley himself championed slavery.
Main home, Kingsley Plantation
The Kingsley Plantation’s slave quarters are uniquely laid out in a semi-circle much like an African Village. Constructed of “tabby”, a cement-like mixture that combines oyster shells, water and sand, the slave homes (and other island buildings) are still standing.
Slave quarters, Kingsley Plantation
Slave home constructed of tabby
The plantation grounds and self-guided tour includes a barn, the garden, a kitchen house and a large home overlooking the St. George River.
Boardwalk, Little Talbot State Park
Leaving Ft. George Island, I continued up A1A to Little and Big Talbot State Parks both of which are on the Atlantic Ocean. Little Talbot State Park possesses a rich coastal habitat for birding (especially known for Painted Buntings) and wildlife. I walked the boardwalk over sandy dunes leading out to the Atlantic for a refreshing swim while enjoying five miles of wide-open beach.
Little Talbot State Park beach
After some delightful beach time I enjoyed a packed lunch at one of the many shady pavilions. Hiking and biking trails are available and there are plenty of river and tidal marsh areas for kayaking through the Timucuan Preserve. Nearby Kayak Amelia is the main kayak outfitter for the area.
Big Talbot State Park towering oak trees
Big Talbot State Park can be reached further north on A1A. Again, towering oak hammocks dominate with awe-inspiring scenery so have your camera ready. The park’s bluff overlooking the Atlantic holds a lovely view of Amelia Island and a southerly view of Bird Island. But the famous “bone yard beach” below is the worth the visit displaying an almost surreal collection of large dead trees, that once grew near the shoreline but due to erosion are now driftwood. A path will take you to the beach below.
Boneyard beach, Big Talbot State Park
Stepping back into Florida history adds so much more depth to this Florida experience, not only discovering the beautiful surroundings but also appreciating all those who came before us, whether the Timucuans thousands of years ago, the hardy Spanish and English colonists, or the indomitable slaves of the Kingsley Plantation.
To receive Authentic Florida’s free ENEWs, featuring travel and living updates, delivered weekly, sign up on the home page Authentic Florida, voted 2015 Blog of the Year and 2015 Best Travel Blog at the Orlando Sunshine Awards.