Dear Governor DeSantis and Respected Members of the Florida Cabinet,
The orange is synonymous with the state of Florida, so relevant and storied, that the orange blossom has been dubbed our state flower. It is depicted on our welcome signs, our license plates, and made nationally representative of our state through the name given to our beloved and historic, “Orange Bowl” in Miami. The commercial orange industry, so crucial to Florida’s economy, has earned a lasting place in Florida’s history.
In August of 2018 when Friends of Fish Island, a grassroots citizens group set out to save Fish Island in St. Augustine, our motivation was largely environmental. St Johns County is the third fastest growing county in the state and, as such, we are losing our natural shorelines, water quality, and wildlife habitat at an alarming rate. St. Augustine residents have suffered greatly from repeated flooding during the glancing blows of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, and experience with increasing regularity, sunny day tidal flooding in many parts of our community.
Fish Island is situated in an area that is quickly being clear-cut and filled by developers and stands as one of the last remaining large, undeveloped waterfront parcels within our city limits. Our Matanzas River is still clean and healthy, and we want to keep it that way.
Fish Island’s well-established habitat provides safe haven for many species of fish and wildlife and is home to an active bald eagle nest; all seeking refuge from the habitat loss occurring around them. Fish Island’s natural shoreline and established upland protects Anastasia Island by serving as a natural buffer from hurricane wind and storm surge, and also serves as a buffer protecting the water quality of the Matanzas River from residential runoff. What we didn’t know then, but have since learned, is that the value of Fish Island also lies within its largely unknown, yet astonishing history.
Fish Island, a large and very beautiful swath of “Old Florida” landscape along the eastern bank of the Matanzas River dates back to the mid-1700s, and represents the very beginning of Florida’s commercial citrus industry. For over three centuries Fish Island has, somehow, managed to survive “pillages by pirates, and the domination by three separate nations,” yet in August, 2018 it came within just three votes of being clear-cut and filled for a housing development by the largest home developer in the country. If not for a group of committed citizens with limited funds and no legal representation, joined with the Matanzas Riverkeeper, we could have lost a significant part of Florida’s citrus history forever.
We became known as the Friends of Fish Island, and have worked diligently with our Matanzas Riverkeeper to wage a grassroots advocacy campaign to tell the story of Fish Island’s important historical past in hopes of saving it permanently from development.
Ordinary citizens in our community became environmental and historical advocates crossing the boundaries of age, gender, race, and politics to put their collective skill sets to work to preserve Fish Island, a place that is so loved by everyone in our community.
Citizens appeared in large numbers at City Planning and Zoning Board and City Commission meetings to advocate for Fish Island’s conservation and to oppose its development. We wrote letters and made calls to the local newspaper, to elected officials, and to State and Federal agencies; started a public petition, which now has over 4000 signatures; compiled and disseminated a historical narrative, “Fish Island’s Historical Past; A Citizen’s Perspective on What We Stand to Lose”; set up a website and social media page (SAVEFISHISLAND.ORG); made bumper stickers, banners, and pop-up signs for a table at the local Farmer’s Market; enlisted a reenactor to bring Jesse Fish to life; and engaged faculty and students at the UF Bob Graham Center – all to help tell Fish Island’s story to a wider audience at the local, state, and national level. Finally, with help from the Florida Conservation Coalition (FCC) we brought Fish Island out of the shadows and to the attention of a larger statewide coalition of conservation groups.
These persistent and ongoing efforts helped to forge an opportunity for the North Florida Land Trust to eventually negotiate a contract with the owner, who has generously worked with the land trust to try to acquire Fish Island for permanent conservation
Our job is not over until Fish Island is acquired for permanent conservation, and we are asking for your support to approve funding to purchase Fish Island when it comes before you at the Cabinet meeting in July. Below is a summary of Fish Island’s storied past. We hope that you will agree that this beautiful piece of “Old Florida” has earned a lasting place in Florida’s history and is worthy of joining the ranks of Florida’s conservation lands.
The History of Fish Island
Fish Island is named for Jesse Fish, who was of British descent, and came to St Augustine in 1736 from New York, working for the Walton shipping company, bringing supplies to the Spanish Garrison. Alone at a young age, Jesse was placed in a prominent Spanish family in St. Augustine to learn the Spanish language and customs. Eventually he became their shipping agent in Spanish Florida. Fish would remain in St. Augustine for the next 54 years until his death in 1790 on Fish Island.
In the mid-1700s, Fish developed what would become a world-renowned commercial orange plantation called, “El Vergel” which translates to “the Garden.” It has been written that he had upwards of some 3000 orange trees on Fish Island. By 1770, tens of thousands of “Jesse Fish” oranges were being shipped as far as London, where they were sought after for their extraordinary sweetness and thin skins for the making of a popular British libation, called, “Shrub” – reportedly the forerunner of the “Whiskey Sour.” When Andre Michaux, the Botanist to the King of France visited Fish Island in 1788, he described in his notes that the seeds of this species had been brought from India some fifty years before, and that there now existed on Fish Island an orchard from those seeds “of 40 years.” If accurate, this places the inception of the orange groves on Fish Island at or about 1748. Michaux reportedly described “El Vergel” as “a paradise,” and Fish, as the “most industrious man in all of Florida.” He described his oranges as follows: “They are sweet, very large, have a thin skin, and are more esteemed than those brought from the West Indies.”
In 1789, the Governor of Florida wrote that by the beginning of the British period in 1763, Fish “was already established in his residence, that he himself, had prepared and planted on Anastasia Island.” Referring to Fish, he wrote, “His principal and nearly only product was oranges and its juice with exportation of which during the time of the British Government he did important trade.”
In February, 1975, a resolution signed by the Directors of the St Augustine Historic Society, states in part, “ …Whereas Fish Island has been identified by historians as the location of Florida’s first orange grove. NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Directors of St. Augustine Historical Society that Fish Island is worthy of preservation…”
Historians have called Jesse Fish, “Florida’s First Orange Baron” and we believe that the El Vergel orange plantation on Fish Island represents the very origins of the commercial citrus industry in Florida and in the Nation. California did not ship oranges until the 1800s.
The “El Vergel” plantation was worked during the 18thcentury by enslaved African people. Jesse Fish introduced the majority of enslaved African people registered into Spanish Florida in the ten-year period before the British Occupation (1752-1763). During this period, Jesse Fish owned 133 enslaved African people who are listed in the Cuban Book of Indultos (Landers, Jane, African Society in Spanish Florida, 1999), and three separate Spanish census records also confirm his ownership of “Slaves” on the El Vergel Plantation (1783-sixteen slaves; 1786- fourteen slaves – “None Baptized”; and 1787 – seventeen slaves).
Many archeological remnants have been found on Fish Island, some dating back 4000 years. Previous archeological surveys describe two vandalized tombs (one believed to be that of Jesse Fish and the other, unknown) and discoveries of the limited remains of the plantation house foundation, a coquina well, a system of submerged channels (believed to be used to transport goods and people), canals leading into the wetlands from the waterway, and a wharf. Remnants of a blockhouse also remain on Fish Island, and the Dorr Map of 1859 seems to show 8 tiny structures north of the Plantation house. Archeologists speculate that these may have been “slave or workers” quarters (Cultural Resource Assessment of Fish Island: The 18thCentury Plantation Home of Jesse Fish (8SJ62) commissioned by City of St Augustine, 2001).
We speculate that still undiscovered cultural and historic resources may remain on Fish Island and within its submerged lands. Historical evidence supports the likelihood of unmarked burials on Fish Island, of both enslaved African people who lived and worked on the plantation, and of Protestants, who could not receive Christian burials in the Catholic St. Augustine cemetery, and were therefore taken to Fish Island for burial. Phil Eschbach, a descendent of Jesse Fish, has evidence that at least two of his Protestant ancestors were buried somewhere on Fish Island.
The expanse of Jesse Fish’s land holdings, if accurate, might also qualify him as an 18thcentury land baron. In addition to claiming ownership of the land we know today as, Fish Island, Jesse Fish also claimed ownership of some 10,000 acres of Santa Anastasia Island; all of the land we know today as Anastasia Island. Some reports claimed that he owned lands extending into Spanish Florida far beyond the limits of St Augustine, and that Fish’s land holdings were second in size only to the King of Spain.
Following the forced exodus of long-time Spanish residents of Florida when the British occupied the region in 1763, many of Spanish property deeds were transferred to Jesse Fish, who was to act on their behalf in selling their assets. This resulted in most of the property deeds in Colonial St. Augustine passing through Fish’s hands. Fish was also the one-time owner of the González–Alvarez House, also known as
“oldest house,” believed to be the oldest surviving house in St. Augustine, which is now home to the St. Augustine Historical Society.
Fish Island has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972 due to its significance across three distinct Florida historical periods (First Spanish, British, and Second Spanish). The document, signed by Governor Reuben Askew, reads in part, “…in Recognition of Its Significance and to Encourage Its Preservation.”
On May 21, 2019 Fish Island was selected as one of the most threatened historic properties in the entire State, earning a listing as one of Florida’s 2019 “11 To Save” by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the most well-respected preservation organizations in our State. This important validation of Fish Island’s historical past and its threatened status further prioritizes the need to protect Fish Island’s history from erasure and preserve Fish Island for future generations.
We hope that you will agree that the environmentally sensitive, historically relevant, and hallowed grounds of Fish Island are, indeed, worthy of becoming Florida conservation lands, and that you will vote to approve funding for its acquisition and preservation.
On Behalf of the Friends of Fish Island,