In 1817, Spain’s hold on its American colonies, including Florida, was weakening, so much so that an adventurer named Gregor MacGregor was able to take possession of Florida’s Amelia Island with an amateur army of 100 men. But within a few months of yellow fever and not much to eat, MacGregor abandoned his possession, which fell to Ruggles Hubbard of New York and Jared Irwin of Milton, Pennsylvania, two more would-be rulers. They resisted a feeble Spanish attempt to reclaim the island, but were forced to share power upon the arrival of Luis Aury, a Frenchman with lots of guns who said he was “a chief of the Mexican Republic.”
Aury had, in fact, been the first governor of Texas under the Mexican Republic, and now claimed Amelia Island for Mexico, although he was really only claiming it as a base for piracy. And for Spanish slave traders smuggling slaves into Georgia. And as a refuge for runaway slaves from Georgia. And as a refuge for Seminoles who raided settlers in Georgia then crossed the border back into Spanish Florida. It was an all-purpose haven.
This state of affairs was not pleasing to the United States of America. President James Monroe noted in his Second Annual Message, on November 16, 1818:
“Adventurers from every country, fugitives from justice, and absconding slaves have found an asylum there. Several tribes of Indians, strong in the number of their warriors, remarkable for their ferocity, and whose settlements extend to our limits, inhabit those Provinces. These different hordes of people, connected together, disregarding on the one side the authority of Spain, and protected on the other by an imaginary line which separates Florida from the United States, have violated our laws prohibiting the introduction of slaves, have practiced various frauds on our revenue, and committed every kind of outrage on our peaceable citizens which their proximity to us enabled them to perpetrate. This country had, in fact, become the theater of every species of lawless adventure.”
What he did not say, however, was that Amelia Island was a “festering fleshpot.” And that’s really the point of this piece. In the past 50 years, James Monroe has been credited with that phrase in scores of travel magazines, newspapers, on refrigerator magnets and t-shirts, and twice daily on boat tours that leave from Fernandina Beach. But the phrase appears nowhere in his extant writings, speeches or letters.
I do, however, believe I know where it came from. On July 7, 1963, an article entitled “Island of Destiny” by Teresa Holloway appeared in the Palm Beach Post, with this paragraph:
“Aury, a former officer under Napoleon, knew how to get treasure and where to hide it. Hubbard and Irwin certainly profited, too. When President Monroe sent an expedition to get rid of this festering fleshpot that was the triumvirate, Aury had hidden the proceeds of two prizes then in the harbor.”
The italics are mine, highlighting the fact that the writer refers to the nefarious trio as “this festering fleshpot.” Eleven years later (November 10, 1974) in a travel piece called “Amelia Island Plantation,” Rosellen Callahan of the Chicago Tribune repeated Halloway’s phrase without attribution:
“It was a repository for booty, a transshipment point for illegal African slave traffic, and a great trial to President Monroe who finally sent an expedition to clean up the ‘festering fleshpot.’”
Four years after that, newspaper writers began attributing the quote to Monroe himself:
“Pirates and freebooters made it a lusty port, which U.S. President Monroe called a ‘festering fleshpot.’” –“Fernandina Is the Real Old Florida” by Horace Sutton, The (Montreal) Gazette, December 9, 1978
“Pirates and freebooters made it a lusty port, which President Monroe called a ‘festering fleshpot.’” –“Fernandina, Florida Landmark” in the Asbury Park Press, December 17, 1978
And so it goes, to the present day.