UNITED STATES

Amelia Island, FL

The Short, Strange Tale of the Republic of the Floridas

Pirate manikin stands outside Amelia Island gift shop

Pirates are everywhere on Florida’s Amelia Island—a legacy of its 19th-century buccaneering days. One of the island’s most notorious citizens, Gregor McGregor (who briefly made Amelia Island its own country), turned to piracy when government administration didn’t work out for him.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

GREGOR McGregor helped Simón Bolívar wrest Venezuela from the Spanish. This gave him big ideas. After Bolívar was proclaimed president of Venezuela in 1813, the ambitious Scot decided he wanted to rule his own country, too. So he sailed for Florida. “And he did have his own country. For a while,” says Steve Sansbury, Amelia Island historian and guide in the local historical museum.

It was a small country, admittedly: 20 kilometres long by three kilometres wide. McGregor called it the Republic of the Floridas; today it’s known as Amelia Island, on the northeast coast of Florida, just south of the Georgia state line.

Sansbury points to a flag—a green cross on a white ground—on the wall of the museum. “That’s Gregor McGregor’s flag,” he says. “Or should I say Sir General Gregor McGregor? He was fond of titles, some of them self-bestowed.” He had been a general, at 25, in Bolivar’s army, but the knighthood was entirely fictitious.

His Amelia Island adventure began in 1817. “McGregor arrived one June morning with 50 men” says Sansbury. “But the Spanish, who had a garrison here, had been told that he had a thousand soldiers; they gave up without firing a shot.”

Just like that, McGregor had his own country. But it seems he soon got bored with it—and he ran out of money, so his men couldn’t be paid. And he couldn’t control the pirates, who roamed Amelia Island at will. So after a few months he took down his flag and left, “to become a corsair, which was a nice word for pirate,” Sansbury says.

(To this day Amelia Island thrives on its piracy legacy. The gift shops are full of buccaneering tourist junk, and manikins of pirates are all over the place.)

At least when he was ruler of the Republic of the Floridas McGregor had a genuine piece of real estate. His next venture featured a fictitious land. He sailed for London, where he appeared in an extravagant uniform, calling himself the Cazique of Poyais and selling dreams of a non-existent country in Central America.

For those buying in, “Poyais” “was to be their Utopia, a place where they could make plenty of money without having to work,” says Sansbury. In Poyais, McGregor promised, he had established a capital city. All he needed now was people.

He sold bonds, commissions in the Poyaisian army, trade contracts and land lots to English and Scottish would-be emigrants, raising what would today be millions of dollars.

And so, in 1822, two ships departed from England, crowded with eager settlers. “But there was no Utopia. McGregor dumped them in the jungle,” says Sansbury. Some made it back to England to blow the whistle, but the Cazique had skipped the country.

Not only was McGregor never brought to justice for either his Poyais fraud or his piracy but, after more buccaneering adventures, he asked for and, thanks to his previous service to Bolívar, was granted a pension in Venezuela, where he died, peacefully, in 1845, aged 59.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Amelia Island Museum of History, visit its website at www.ameliamuseum.org.

For information on Amelia Island visit www.ameliaisland.com.