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Unearthing a piece of history near Jacksonville's coast

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Updated: 11/14/2013 6:28 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.  A piece of history has been missing for nearly 300 years.  Now, only Action News can take you to the find two local archaeologists think is the lost Fort George.

Even though it's never been found, Fort George, or Fort St. George, is partly how Fort George Island in Jacksonville got its name.  It was built by General James Oglethorpe around 1736 to protect what was then Georgia's southernmost border.

"Seeing this, it's just something that you know," said archaeologist Dean Sais.

Sais is a founding member of the Cowford Archaeological Research Society (CARS), a nonprofit group dedicated to digging up local history and preserving it for the entire community.  Sais and George Burns took Action News reporter Lynnsey Gardner into the Timucuan State Park to show their discovery.  It's not on Ft. George Island, but rather on nearby Fanning Island.

"They've been looking but they've been looking in the wrong spots." said Sais. "I have a really gut feeling this could be Fort St. George."

"It would be huge," said Burns. "It would be of national significance."

The earthwork deep in the Timucuan State Park is nearly perfectly preserved.  It's about 6 feet tall, 15 feet across and spans a space one-third the length of a football field.

To date, little is known about Fort George.  But according to the Encyclopedia of Historic Forts, it was a key part of General Oglethorpe's assault plan on the Spanish at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.  The post was abandoned in 1740 after the effort failed.

"This is here.  This is here, this is real.  Something is going on here.  This belongs to all of us.  This is our national heritage," Sais said.

There are few traces of modern activity.  Crabs still cover the ground and the only real trash is discarded oyster shells from the Timucuan Indians scattered about, known as mitten.

Looking out from the walls, built with a mix of dirt and oyster shells, you can see where the Saint John's River once flowed.

"The river, the marsh is right out there and this may have been a possible lookout spot, " Burns said.

Burns and Sais said this possible historic discovery got on their map thanks in part to a tip from a hiker years ago. They compared historical data and realized maybe the placement of Fort George on Fort George Island was slightly off; nearby Fanning Island could fit the description, too.

"It's intact. You just don't find things like this out here anymore. A lot of them have been mowed down for building subdivisions." said Burns.

Digging to see what answers and artifacts remain will take even more time. That's because the Timucuan State Park is owned by the state and officials would have to green light the dig.

"I'd like to see it tested. We don't know how old it is. It could be anywhere from 100-300 years old. We just don't know." said Burns.

"This is a big find for the state and we're proud to turn this paperwork into them," said Sais.

Both men say other possibilities the find could be a lost Spanish Fort or an area used to muster during the Civil War.

The Cowford Archaeological Research Society, or CARS, has applied with the state and the park service to dig. They expect to hear from the state within in a week. If approved, they hope to begin digging in January.
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