As a child, I remember summer family trips when my father would attempt to “expand our small adolescent minds” by introducing Florida history. “Now kids…” we would hear, “….this is an opportunity to learn something about our state.” Our little eyes would roll. Looking back, I now wish one of those trips had been a visit to Amelia Island’s historical Fort Clinch.
I promise, you won’t be bored for one minute at Fort Clinch and you don’t even have to like history. Situated less than an hour from Jacksonville in Florida’s northeastern corner, within the Amelia Island resort community is Fort Clinch, considered one of the best-preserved 19th century forts in the country.
Built in 1847, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, Ft. Clinch protected coastal and interior shipping along the river and in the deep water Fernandina seaport. Although no battles were fought at the Fort, it was a military outpost during both the Civil War and Spanish American War. It became obsolete, was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Thankfully it was restored in the 1930s.
You’ll be delighted with the spectacular view of both the St. Mary’s River and Cumberland Sound while climbing over the massive “pentagon-shaped” fort, centered by a large courtyard with huge cannons above. Once you’ve walked through the neat draw-bridge entrance, you’ll explore the period-appointed bunk rooms, officer quarters, garrison, store, bakery, kitchen, laundry, blacksmith shop and prison. If you’re there during the first weekend of each month, volunteers will be dressed in costumes, reenacting their roles and assuming their individual “character” and “position” of that time period. However, we were there during a weekday and did not get the full show. Still, volunteers were dressed in costumes and provided plenty of information making the tour fun as well as educational.
While there, you may want to enjoy the rest of the 1,427-acre state park. Hiking trails, fishing and wildlife walks, picnic areas and camping are available.
If you want a bit more history, Fort George Island State Park is close by. Leaving Amelia Island and driving south on A1A, you’ll see the signs heading west towards Jacksonville, and discover another enchanting and historical slice of Florida. Fort George Island is nestled in the coastal marshes of the St. John’s Estuary. A dirt road takes you on a full loop around the island. Overhanging the road is a thick canopy of majestic oak trees that will give you an instant “feel” of Old Florida. The experience of being in the serene shade of this stunning and majestic tree cathedral is reason enough to go to Fort George. The oak hammock is considered one of the most spectacular in all of Florida.
Around 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 Fort 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.
There are many sights to see on the island but the 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 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.
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 made by combining oyster shells, water and sand, the slave homes (and other island buildings) are still standing. The plantation grounds and self-guided tour includes a barn, the garden, a kitchen house and a large home overlooking the St. George River.
Stepping back into Florida history helps us to not only discover our beautiful surroundings but also gives us an opportunity to appreciate those who came before us, whether the military personnel of Ft. Clinch or the indomitable slaves of the Kingsley Plantation. Enjoy some of Florida’s past. Their eyes won’t roll.
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