Just across Matanzas Bay and about five miles south of St. Augustine, the 59 acres within the preserve had quietly existed for countless millennia. Fortunately, the area that would become today’s preserve was largely ignored by land speculators and, due to ownership disputes and other legal squabbles, it survived. In 2019, a coalition of concerned citizens, the City of St. Augustine, conservation organizations and the State of Florida combined to secure the funding needed to purchase the property. Now, visitors can commune with nature and contemplate history in a rustic setting of Old Florida beauty and inspiration.
By looking at a map or hiking some of the trails, it doesn’t take visitors long to realize that Fish Island isn’t an island.
In the 1920’s, the salt marsh separating it from the land was filled with sand dredged from the adjacent Matanzas River and Fish Island became an “island” in name only (ok, technically it is now part of Anastasia Island – but geographers would find it impossible to define the original Fish Island). Island or not, the flora and fauna of the preserve thrive beneath the sun-dappled canopy of trees that cover much of the area.
Well-defined hiking trails branch off from a cathedral-like clearing – one trail heads to the salt marsh and its always an interesting menagerie of fiddler crabs, oysters and juvenile fish thriving in the twice daily surge and ebb of the tides. Another trail leads hikers far into the maritime hammock with its ancient beach dunes now overgrown with a forest of live oak, red bay, magnolia and cabbage palm.
It’s quiet in the heat of the day, but as night falls the critters that call the hammock home venture out. Raccoons, opossums, armadillos, and deer all have nighttime missions to complete. Day and night, bird calls echo through the forest. More than 80 species have been observed here – some residents, others just passing through. There are herons, ibis, wood storks, spoonbills and other coastal birds along with owls and American bald eagles. The eagles are among nine bird species residing in the preserve whose survival has been deemed “imperiled” by federal and state agencies.
Four thousand years ago, the local Native American community was living on Fish Island. Although no remnants of the settlements remain, they did leave a giant mound of discarded oyster shells known as a midden. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Jesse Fish, the island’s namesake, that permanent changes to the landscape began to appear.
Fish, one of the most colorful and controversial characters in St. Augustine’s long history, arrived in the city in 1736. Although only 12 years old, he was sent by the Walton Shipping Company of New York to learn the Spanish language and customs while serving as a representative of the company. He spent his early years living with a wealthy Spanish family and developing the company’s business in the city. By the mid-1750’s, he had become successful enough to obtain the island he named “Fish” and began developing what would be one of the most well-known orange plantations in the world.
In addition to building a substantial home, a first-class well, outbuildings and a wharf, he created roads, canals and ponds that are still visible today. His outstanding oranges, growing in the calcium-rich soils in the midden created by Native Americans thousands of years before his arrival, were well-known in Britain. He pioneered methods for packing and shipping oranges to ensure their freshness.
In 1763, Britain obtained Spanish Florida and the Spaniards who had lived there for nearly two centuries were required to leave. Unable to sell their homes and property, they left Fish in charge of them – after all, although English in origin, he had been a citizen of the town for nearly thirty years. Records show that by 1765, Jesse Fish owned more than half of the town of St. Augustine. Perhaps everything would have worked out well for him, but in 1784 Spain regained Florida and the former residents of St. Augustine wanted their property returned to them. Fish had apparently sold much of it in their absence and the proceeds may or may not have been available. The controversy plagued Fish until his death in 1790 and continues to influence his legacy today.
Jesse Fish Facts
Visitors to the Fish Island Preserve can see some of the foundation stones of his plantation home along with his well. A trail follows the former road he built from his house to a wharf. He was a well-known slave-owner and slave trader. He owned 133 slaves during a ten-year period in the mid-1700’s.
In his forties, he married a teen-aged girl. The marriage ended in divorce, but not before she bore him a son and a daughter (Jesse, Jr., and Fabiana Furman Fish).
His son and the horse he was riding were killed by a bolt of lightning.
He had a tomb for himself on his property, but it was repeatedly raided by grave robbers. His body was never found.
Visiting Fish Island Preserve
A small parking area for the Preserve and the trailhead are located at the west end of Plantation Island Drive South in St. Augustine near the east end of the SR-312 bridge leading to Anastasia Island. The Preserve is open daily from dawn to dusk. Bring insect repellant and drinking water.