Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park - Fernandina Beach, Florida
Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park - Fernandina Beach, Florida
|Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park
The site of Fort San Carlos, the plaza is the
centerpiece of the Spanish town of Old Fernandina,
now part of Fernandina Beach, Florida.
The plaza is now a grassy
park on the banks of the
Amelia River. It is located in
Fernandina Beach, Florida.
Site of Fort San Carlos
Built to guard Old Fernandina
from pirates and the U.S., Fort
San Carlos overlooked the
Fernandina Plaza H.S.P. - Fernandina Beach, Florida
Fort San Carlos & Old Fernandina
|Copyright 2013 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: July 16, 2013
American Revolution in the South
Fernandina Plaza in 1862
This war-time sketch from
Frank Leslie's Illustrated
Newspaper shows the plaza
and ruins of Fort San Carlos.
Fort Clinch State Park
The old Spanish fort at
Fernandina Plaza was later
replaced by Fort Clinch, a
nearby Third System fort.
Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park protects
the site of Fort San Carlos and the plaza of
Old Fernandina in Fernandina Beach, Florida.
The park offers no facilities and consists
entirely of a grassy area along the Amelia
River in Old Town. It is maintained by the staff
of nearby Fort Clinch State Park.
Fernandina Plaza (sometimes called San
Carlos Plaza) is actually the old Plaza de la
Constitucion of Spanish Fernandina. Known
today as "Old Town," this settlement fronted
the Amelia River on the northern edge of
today's city of Fernandina Beach.
The plaza area has been occupied since
prehistoric times. Archaeologists uncovered
evidence of intermittent settlements there by
American Indians dating back about 4,000
There is some evidence that a Yamassee
village stood on the site during the 1600s but
was destroyed in James Moore's invasions
of Spanish Florida in 1702-1704.The people
who lived there were killed, driven off or
carried away as slaves by the English.
Another English governor, Gen. James
Oglethorpe, left sentries on the northern end
of Amelia Island during his attacks on St.
Augustine in 1745-1746, but it is unclear if
they occupied the actual plaza site. The
island was reported to be unoccupied at the
The British seem to have been the first to
propose a large scale settlement on the site.
They gained control of Amelia Island - along
with the rest of Florida - in 1763 under the
terms of the treaty that ended the Seven
Years War, which was known in America as
the French & Indian War.
A map prepared in 1769 included a plan for a
community on the future site of Old Town, but
the American Revolution intervened and the
hoped for city never developed. As late as
1777, the site of today's Fernandina Plaza
Historic State Park remained unoccupied.
English refugees did establish a settlement
called Hillsborough on Amelia Island during
the final years of the American Revolution,
but it was temporary and was dismantled
when the loyalists sailed away in 1784.
Spain regained possession of Florida in
1783 due to its alliance with the United
States in the American Revolution. Maria
Mattair gained a legal grant to the site one
year later and held it until 1788 when she
turned it over to the government in exchange
for other lands.
Exactly when settlers began to drift to what
would become Fernandina is not clear, but
by 1801 a force of Spanish troops were
reported to be encamped on the plaza lot.
They built a small fort there and armed it with
three cannon. Little is known of this original
fort except that it was weak and relied in part
on a gunboat for its defense.
The first fort on the plaza was occupied by a
small garrison and was a remote and quiet
outpost until 1811 when Spain began the
development of the town of Fernandina on
the Old Town site. Named in honor of King
Ferdinand VII of Spain, the settlement was
carefully platted and included streets, lots, a
plaza and fort.
One year after Fernandina was established,
however, a group of revolutionaries called the
Florida Patriots rose up against the Spanish
Government in East Florida. They had secret
support from President James Madison and
not so secret support from the U.S. military.
U.S. gunboats sailed across the St. Mary's
River and took up positions off the town and
an American colonel demanded that Don
Justo Lopez, the commandant of Fernandina,
surrender. He recognized that he could not
hope to defend his post and capitulated on
March 17, 1812.
The Florida Patriots surrendered Fernandina
to the United States just 24 hours later and
U.S. troops came across the river and took
possession of the Spanish works. It soon
became apparent, however, that the U.S. had
overstepped its bounds and it was not long
before the President ordered that Amelia
Island be returned to the Spanish. The U.S.
flag went back down on May 6, 1813, and
Fernandina again became a Spanish city.
Determined to better protect the growing
town, now home to 600 residents, Spain
began construction of a new and stronger
fort. Called Fort San Carlos, it was roughly
semi-circular in shape and mounted 10
Completed in 1816, Fort San Carlos was
captured just one year later by the adventurer
Gregor MacGregor. Backed by American
financiers, he raised the Green Cross of
Florida flag over Amelia Island and declared
it part of his new Republic of the Floridas.
MacGregor didn't get the reinforcements and
supplies he expected, however, so he left a
few men at Fort San Carlos and sailed away.
His ally, Jared Irwin, took command and
raised a force of 94 men to defend the fort.
The Spanish returned on September 13,
1817, and counter-attacked the adventurers
in what became known as the Battle of
Planting a battery of four guns atop McClure's
Hill overlooking Old Town and moving up two
gunboats to shell the riverfront, Spanish
soldiers opened fire on Irwin's forces. He
responded with the cannon of Fort San
Carlos and was joined in his defense by the
privateer vessels Morgiana, St. Joseph and
The fighting continued from 3:30 p.m. until
dark, but the Spanish were unable to make
headway against Irwin and his defenders.
Having lost two men killed and others
wounded, they withdrew.
Four days later, however, the "privateer" Luis
Aury sailed into the harbor at Fernandina.
Carrying a cargo of slaves and supported by
a force of 300 men that included a large
number of Haitians, free blacks and other
volunteers of color, he forced concessions
from Irwin and other leaders. They named
Aury their commander in chief and he raised
the flag of the Republic of Mexico over Fort
It is a little known fact that on September 21,
1817, Amelia Island in Florida became part
of Mexico -or at least the Mexico of Luis Aury.
The United States watched these activities
on its Southern border with growing concern
and on October 31, 1817, President James
Monroe ordered U.S. military forces to take
Amelia once and for all. On December 23rd,
Major James Bankhead and Commodore
J.D. Henley arrived with troops and ships to
Aury knew he could not hope to hold them off
and he surrendered to them. The U.S. took
possession of Fernandina, claiming to hold it
for Spain. A garrison was stationed at Fort
San Carlos and remained there until Florida
became part of the United States in 1821.
Fernandina, now an American town,
remained centered around the plaza for the
next three decades. Fort San Carlos was
allowed to slowly deteriorate and in 1847
work began on nearby Fort Clinch.
The entire town picked up and moved
one-mile south in 1853 when Sen. David
Levy Yulee announced plans to build the
eastern terminus of a railroad linking the
Atlantic with the Gulf of Mexico on Amelia
Island. The new town, built where the railroad
would end, became today's Fernandina
Beach. The former settlement became a
community still known today as Old Town.
When Union troops occupied Amelia Island
in 1862 during the War Between the States,
they passed the old Spanish earthworks of
Fort San Carlos. A sketch drawn at that time
shows the fortifications still standing on the
bluff. They have since faded away.
The plaza and Fort Carlos site in Old Town
Fernandina was acquired by the State of
Florida in 1941 and today is known as
Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park.
The park is accessed via White Street in Old
Town Fernandina. To reach it from Highway
A1A (State Road 200), take 14th Street North
from Fernandina Beach. It is free to visit.
Fort San Carlos
The design of the fort is
shown on a 19th century plat
of Fernandina. It is the semi-
A marker points out the site
from which Spanish cannon
bombarded Fort San Carlos
Old Town Fernandina
The plaza is located on the
riverfront of Old Town, the site
of the original Spanish town