Exploring St. Augustine's Fish Island

Recently organized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, here is a digital walking tour and brief historical narrative of Florida's first orange grove plantation: St. Augustine's Fish Island

Organized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the St. Augustine Insider’s tour program was designed to offer visitors a chance to experience St. Augustine’s most unique historic sites evident today in Spanish Colonial architecture, the urban plan, landscape and archaeological sites led by those that have helped steward its preservation. Held on Thursday, October 15th through Saturday, October 17th, the itinerary included a walking tour of historic Fish Island.

Located on the Matanzas River just south of the State Road 312 bridge and a 2019 Florida Trust 11 to Save site, Fish Island is an approximately 73-acre cultural landscape comprised of undeveloped upland buffer, wetlands and wildlife habitat. It is named after “Florida’s first orange baron,” Jesse Fish, who came from New York to St. Augustine during Florida’s first Spanish period in 1736. In 1748, he established Florida’s first large commercial orange plantation, El Vergel, on the island.

According to information provided by the Friends of Fish Island, Fish was characterized and described by historians as a cunning crook, infamous, a land dealer, notorious slaver, savior of St. Augustine, Florida’s first exporter of oranges, and an insidious schemer. Developing a successful method of picking, drying and wrapping fruit, Fish imported enslaved 133 Africans between the 1752 and 1763 to work his island citrus plantation. At its height, enslaved labor was used to export more than 65,000 oranges and 1132 barrels of juice to northern states and Europe during the 1770s.

There is archaeological evidence of 4,000-year-old artifacts as well as historical evidence pointing to the likelihood of unmarked eighteenth century burial sites of enslaved West Africans and Protestants who could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery. The island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, due to its significant resources dating from the First Spanish, British, and Second Spanish period.

In 2018, a major housing developer proposed a project that would build housing on the island. Soon, the Friends of Fish Island was formed by a group of interested citizens to protect the island and its significant historic and cultural resources from development.

In November 2019, Fish Island was acquired by the state of Florida for $6.5 million to preserve in perpetuity. With continued support from the Friends group, the City of St. Augustine plans to manage the property as a passive park.

A deal is pending approval by the governor and cabinet for the sell of 57 acres of the property to the North Florida Land Trust to preserve in perpetuity. Here are a few photographs taken by the Jaxson during the Fish Island Archaeological Site walking tour, which was led by archaeologist Marsha Chance and biologist J.B. Miller.

A sketch of the Jesse Fish house at the El Vergel plantation.

The tabby ruins of the Jesse Fish house today.