“The remnants of Jesse Fish’s plantation home of El Vergel are but a mere shadow of their former glory, but what lies buried comprises a significant and sensitive archaeological resource.” Carl Halbirt, City of St. Augustine Archaeologist (retired).
Writing from a 2001 preliminary archaeological investigation, Halbirt and White discuss the archaeological and archival evidence of the diverse cultural heritage of the island. Fish Island is sensitive because of the fragile nature of physical artifacts and vulnerable features evident in the soil. The property is significant for the story yet to be told of Native Americans, enslaved Africans and the eventual demise of Jesse Fish’s plantation.
What is a cultural resource and why is its protection mandated?
Cultural resources include non-renewable resources with intrinsic value because of their affiliation with people, place, patterns and lifeways. In the park, this includes archaeological sites, historic buildings and structures, cultural landscapes and any resulting collections. The state mandates that such inventories of resources be identified within the park so that they can be preserved and protected.
Jesse Fish, referred to as ‘Florida’s first orange baron’ established a commercial orange plantation on the property by 1748 but also raised cattle and a variety of crops. Remains of scattered coquina stone and tabby from his home, a block house, a well, wharf and boat basin, and tomb related to this plantation era as well as potential slave quarters exist in a state of ruin or have disappeared from the physical record. Portions of the cultural landscape that exist today include a channel, but there have not been any discoveries or additional research to document the presence of historic landscape features. Archaeological sites of human activity are documented throughout the park from the prehistoric St. Johns Period to the period of time after Fish’s death.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, this park has been designated as a site of significance by the federal government related to the 18th and 19th centuries and has the potential to yield more information about prehistoric Native American sites. The designation is honorary and implies no federal regulatory oversight unless federal funds or permits are required within a project area that could impact the site. With the significant efforts of the St. Augustine community and help from the State of Florida, Fish Island now faces a future of long term cultural stewardship. Visitors to the park shall abide by state regulations that prohibit the excavation, disturbance or collection of historic or archaeological sites and artifacts.
* Photo courtesy of the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library.