Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 7

Chapter 7: Naval Indian Hunters



During that time, her sailors helped the citizens clear the woods at the edge of town to hamper the Seminole's ability to launch a surprise attack.

The Key West Inquirer lamented, "We have no cannon, but must depend solely on the muskets without bayonets, rifles, pistols and a species of short broad swords or, more properly, cane-knives, for our defense."

Jacob Housman was not about to abandon his forty-thousand dollar empire to the savages. He formed a twenty four man militia comprising all the able-bodied white males and six negro slaves. He advanced them pay and subsistence at regular Army rates, assuming he would ultimately be repaid by the government. Not surprisingly, the militiamen elected Housman their captain. With the help of all the settlers, the militia constructed defensive embankments and mounted six cannon at strategic points around the island.

In the meantime, the islanders saw more and more signs of the presence of warriors in the upper Keys. [so cryptic... what signs?!]

When the fire reached the lantern room, it broke the glass and set Thompson's clothes on fire. Thompson decided to end his suffering by throwing a keg of gunpowder down into the inferno. But instead of killing him, the explosion blew out the fire.

To vary their dull routine and diet, the crew had planted a farm-garden on Key Largo. On October 5, 1836, a band of about seventy natives crossed Florida Bay to Key Largo and destroyed the garden and storage buildings.

The Seminoles looted the vessel and then burned her.

At the time he was trying to get Indian Key designated a port entry so he could bring wrecked ships and cargoes to his domain instead of to his rivals in Key West. In his typical scheming fashion, he offered each sailor and marine a glass of grog in return for a signature on his port-of-entry petition. Nearly all signed happily, some more than once.

On the morning of June 23, 1837, a band of natives ambushed and killed the captain of the Carysfort Reef lightship and one of his crewmen as they stepped ashore on Key Largo to gather wood for the ship's stove. [There it is again. Stove wood - the ultimate call to adventure]

Coste sent a boat with muffled oars (wrapped in canvas to reduce noise from rubbing in the rowlocks) to investigate.

Afraid the sickness would spread to the Poinsett's crew, Mayo sent the surgeon and his assistant, together with several nursing attendants, ashore to set up a hospital. Sailors erected a large tent made from sails. In a short while, the medical staff became ill, and one of the nursing attendants died.

On Tea Table [Key], sailors and marines underwent intensive training in handling the small boats and canoes and in firing small arms. They also set up a hospital for possible future casualties and for men who might come down with malaria.

...the crew's standard fare was beef, pork, bread, and cheese with a daily ration of whiskey. On rare occasion the monotony of the menu was relieved by the receipt of fresh turtle meat.

One disgruntled seaman deserted while the Wave was taking on supplies at Key West - a poor choice for a place to escape. Three weeks later he was back aboard, lashed to the gratings, with all hands mustered to witness punishment. The log entry simply read that he was "punished with the cats for desertion."

Over the next six months McLaughlin led his men on probes up rivers and streams along the southern coast and into the fringes of the Everglades. No Seminoles were found, but the sailors and marines learned how to paddle and pole their boats through dense sawgrass and muck, and how to live, eat and sleep onboard their tiny craft for days on end.

McLaughlin went to Fort Dallas to try to obtain John's services as a guide but was refused. He was allowed to talk to the prisoner, who was cooperative and even volunteered directions to Chakaika's island deep in the Everglades. Armed with this information, McLaughlin led an expedition to try and find Chakaika's hideout. But after just seven days of wandering in the sawgrass wilderness, his men were exhausted and he realized it was hopeless without a guide.

When they saw the Wave, crowded with men and canoes, sail away, they knew the moment had arrived to launch their attack. At 2:00 the next morning August 7th, 1840, the warriors beached seventeen dugout canoes on Indian Key and crept silently among the houses. Only the chance sleeplessness of a carpenter saved the inhabitants from annihilation. Looking out his door, he saw the canoes pulled up on the beach and awoke his neighbor. Together the headed toward Housman's house to spread the alarm. On the way, the accidentally stumbled across the warriors lying in wait to mak their attack. Shots were fired, which awoke the settlers. In the darkness and confusion, most of the inhabitants found hiding places or escaped in boats, but the attackers discovered and killed five of them.

...two turtling boats from Key Vaca foolishly ventured into Florida Bay. When they were near Sandy Key, just south of Cape Sable, a band of Indians in dugouts and boats began chasing them.

The razorsharp sawgrass cut their uniforms to shreds and inflicted festering wounds. ... Heat, mosquitoes, exhaustion, and fever were the real enemies. One officer's report read, "Private Kingsbury fell in his trail and died from sheer exhaustion". Passed Midshipman Preble returned from a fifty-eight day scout with his legs so badly infected from sawgrass cuts and mud that the navy surgeon at Indian Key prepared to amputate them. Fortunately for the midshipman... the surgeon reconsidered, but it was two years before his legs healed.

A Congressional committee... made a number of allegations against McLaughlin, including unnecessary and extravagant purchases, collusion with a merchant on Indian Key, double issue of rations for sick men, misuse of government property, profitable speculation in currency exchanges, and improperly receiving pay as a captain instead of as a lieutenant in command.

Notes on the Florida Keys - 5&6

Chapter 5: Mexican Interlopers

As one officer wrote, "We march into the country and play them all sorts of pranks." In one of these pranks, a Mexican landing force went ashore a few miles from Havana and captured a mule train carrying coffee. [a whole mule train aboard a shipwreck. or other animal train. camels! rhinos! a circus! mythical beasts!]

While the captain held the men at bay with cocked pistols, David and Simms fastened irons on their wrists and removed the bayonets they found hidden in their shirts. But now there were only six men to handle the schooner and still keep guard on twenty-three prisoners. The captain solved this problem in a unique manner: He had twenty-three pairs of holes cut in the cabin roof, put the prisoner's feet into the holes and chained them together.

Hopner... was deliberately wrecking his prizes on remote Florida Keys. He would sell their cargo to Joshua Appleby, proprietor of a small wrecker's settlement on Key Vaca. This was a violation of international law and an evasion of customs duties.


Chapter 6: Revenue Cutter Men

The cutter's boat crews also boarded and captured a nearby schooner that proved to be a Spanish vessel the Bravo had captured. Passengers who had been on the Spanish schooner told the cutter's officers that the pirates had robbed them of all their possessions, including the clothes they were wearing. When the female passengers had begged the pirates to let them have something to cover themselves, the cutthroats had simply drawn their swords and cursed them.

The Marion, built on the lines of a Baltimore clipper, was sixty-five feet long and displaced seventy-eight tons. ...captain and two lieutenants... manned by a crew of twenty, including a boatswain, gunner, carpenter, sailmaker, cook and steward.

The following year, with Doane still in command, the Marion was asked to provide assistance in an entirely different situation involving slaves. A Spanish slave ship had wrecked on the reef off Key Largo while being chased by a British warship. The Spanish crew seized an American wrecking schooner and an American fishing smack and forced them to carry 398 of the captive Africans to Cuba. A wrecking sloop, which had taken 121 slaves off the wreck, escaped seizure and carried them to Key West. ... Some local residents made attempts to bribe or force the marshal to turn the slaves over to them. The marshal sent an urgent plea for help to the captain of the Marion. ... When it became apparent that the Africans would not be safe in Key West, they were taken to St. Augustine with the Marion serving as escort.

He said the Marion would be ready to begin operations as soon as the crew finished gathering stove wood and filling water tanks. Pickney advised Jackson to be on the lookout for certain wreckers from Indian Key whom he suspected were smuggling cargoes they salvaged from wrecks by hiding them on remote Keys.

... search along the north coast of Cuba for a pirate schooner that had taken four American merchant vessels and killed their crews.

The sloop's captain told the boarding officer that he was bound for New London from Key West in ballast.... This aroused the officer's suspicions because the Dry Tortugas are not on the route between Key West and New London. Upon opening the cargo hatches, he saw a number of cotton bales.

The cutter's crew subsisted principally on pickled or salted beef and pork, beans, and bread, but occasionally dined on fresh turtle or fish they caught. A daily ration of whiskey helped to break the monotony of the diet.

She furnished food and water to the starving crew of a brig, sent medicine to the sick captain and mate of a schooner, helped free a vessel that was aground, and arrested the leaders of a potential mutiny on an American merchant ship at Havana.

[aground but not wrecked. sounds relatively common]

[prisoners as cargo]

Two seamen caught hold of a small canoe that floated free and, after two days and two nights clinging to it with the waves washing over them, were picked up by a passing vessel.

Great Hurricane of 1846.... water in the streets rose to five feet.

Fearful of parting the anchor chains, the captain ordered the mainmast cut away. The mast fell but failed to go over the side because the triatic stay... had failed to part. [ordering damage to ships to prevent them from wrecking and to recover stuff from wrecks is something that I don't think about enough]

Later examination revealed that the Morris had stranded in water normally two feet dep and had bilged (her underwater hull was torn open). She was a total loss, but mercifully, all her crew had survived the terrible ordeal.

Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 4

Chapter 4: Pirates and Pirate Hunters

The first outbreak [of piracy] began around 1695 and lasted until about 1725.

Golden Age of Piracy

Calico Jack
Black Bart

After the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, a large number of unemployed English privateers turned pirate and made the Bahama Islands their home base. [See... ex-soldiers after the US Civil War led to the Wild West. Ex-soldiers after Spanish Succession lead to Pirates! Ex-soldiers + untamed wilderness = romanticized adventure world]

Most of the approximately one thousand pirates decided to accept a king's pardon in exchange for giving up a life of piracy, but a few, determined to carry on, were either captured and hanged or driven from the islands.

The second major outbreak of piracy began in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. [mmmhmm]

"It is a misfortune to the patriots of South America that their flag is abused by a set of desperadoes who aim at nothing but plunder."

In their efforts to escape him, the ships ran aground on one of the Keys and were lost. [run around is a big deal. Chased and run around.]

The captain said he was unable to determine the pirate crew's nationality as he heard them speaking English, French, Spanish and Dutch.

square-rigged merchant ship

...the pirates directed the Sophia to cruise back and forth outside the reef while the schooner sailed in the survey and anchorage.

"as snug a hole as buccaneers could wish"

[first the cargo... then the personal loot]

Fearing for his life, Savage appealed to the pirate's captain for protection. The captain, a Spaniard who did not look the part of a pirate, took Savage to his schooner, where he told him that he had no control over his crew; they would do whatever they pleased. He advised Savage to tell the pirate crewmen where his money and valuables were concealed and, if he did so, his life would be spared.

The next morning, two more pirate craft arrived, and a boat crew from the first schooner again boarded the Sophia. They said they had come back to find the gold and other valuables and, if they were not told where they were hidden, they would hang everyone and set the ship on fire.

But the Navy ships were too few in number and too large in size to be effective against pirates who operated in small craft hidden in shallow inlets, coves and rivers.

Five heavily armed Spanish pirates boarded the Dover shortly after she left port, beat the crewmen severely, and stole everything of value they could find. The captain later reported, "They then ordered us to stand north [away from the Cuban coast], or they would overhaul us, murder the crew and burn the vessel. We made sail, and shortly after were brought to [stopped] by another boat of the same character, which fired into us, but left us upon being informed that we had already been robbed."

After taking off the ship's [the Aurilla] cargo, the pirates used a clever ruse to find out where the ship's and crew's money was concealed. They sent the crew below with a guard, then killed a chicken and dripped its blood over the anchor windlass and come of the cutlasses. They brought a crewman on deck and then concealed him under guard in another part of the vessel. Bringing up another sailor, they surrounded him with drawn cutlasses and demanded he tell where the money was hidden. When the man refused to talk, they told him that the first man had lied and had been killed an tossed overboard. Seeing the blood on the windlass and cutlasses, the sailor confessed all he knew about hidden money. ...each crewman was interrogated until the pirates knew where every bit of money onboard was hidden.

[Some other schooner] After he had revealed the location, they tied him to the deck on a bed of oakum, soaked it with turpentine, stuffed oakum in his mouth and set him on fire. They hanged another seaman from the yardarm and crucified the boatswain by spiking his feet to the deck and his torso to the tiller. They dispatched the final crew member by blowing his head off with the swivel gun. Even the ship's dog was not spared: They shot him twice then cut out his tongue.

In order to catch the small pirate craft that generally operated in shallow coastal waters, Porter purchased eight shoal draft, fast sailing Chesapeak Bay schooners. Appropriately named Fox, Greyhound, Jackall, Beagle, Terrier, Weasel, Wild Cat and Ferret....

Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 3

Chapter 3: Privateers

James Wimble
  • Born 1697
  • Built his own vessel with the help of friends and sailed from England to the West Indies. Lost his ship upon arrival.
  • Became a trader between American colonies and West Indies
  • Did this for 15 years. Got married, bought a distillery, had 5 kids, bought land in the Bahamas and North Carolina.
  • 1730 - Names 128 ton brigantine after his wife Rebecca
  • December 1731 - Rebecca (the ship) severely damaged in a storm
    • Stops in Bahamas to make repairs
    • Governor of the Bahamas refuses to let him leave. Orders Wimble and Rebecca into government service for the Bahamas to protect workers on the salt ponds against Spanish raids.
    • New Providence customs also fines him 200 pounds.
  • August 1732 - Hurricane hurled Rebecca ashore on Rum Cay and broke her to pieces
  • Attempts to get compensation from Bahamanian gov't for loss of ship. Fails repeatedly.
  • 1733 - Heavily in debt but partners with 3 other men to buy land near the mouth of Cape Fear River in North Carolina for a settlement. Uses funds from this to go back to sea as a trader.
  • 1735 - Says the Spanish have "taken" him 7 times. Unclear if this means just his cargo or his ship too.
  • 1739 - His wife is now dead. England has declared war against Spain and denied reimbursing him for Rebecca three times. Still heavily in debt. Decides to become a privateer.
  • 1741 - Takes command of an 18 gunner. Names it Revenge.
  • 1742 - Runs Revenge onto a reef in the Bahamas. Loses ship. Returns to New Providence. Acquires another ship. Names it Revenge again. Gets into a fight with the Spanish. A piece of chain shot (two cannon balls linked by chain) severed Wimble's left arm five inches below the shoulder. Wimble manages to conceal the loss of his arm until he passes out from blood loss. Recovers in 2 months and is back out to sea but only has a crew of 18.
  • July 14th, 1742 - Sees a Spanish privateer. Outnumbered 4 to 1. Engages. "For an hour and a half, the two exchanged cannon and musket fire at point blank range, variously reported as twenty feet to thirty yards. The Spaniards attempted to board the Revenge several times but were beaten back." "Taking a crowbar in his one hand, he [Wimble] leveled each of the guns as they were loaded. His well aimed shots killed the Spanish captain and thirty of his crewmen." Has 10 Spanish prisoners onboard. Prisoners break free during the fight. Prisoners recaptured. In the end, the Revenge was struck 120 times by cannon/musket. No crew killed or wounded. After two hours of fighting though, neither side was victorious. Stalemate.
  • 1743 - Joins forces with another privateer named Revenge. Capture a frigate loaded with sugar, mahogany, cotton, ivory, ginger and ammo.
  • November 1743 - Runs aground on rocks off the coast of Hispaniola. Dies.

In 1778, two American privateers chased the British ship Mary onto the reef off Cape Florida, where she was lost.

A prize master was a mariner qualified to serve as master and navigator of captured vessels for the purpose of bringing them back to an American port.

The thirty ton vessel was loaded with twenty thousand staves and headings (used to make barrels) and manned by a crew of five.

Thomas Boyle - captain of Comet

Armed with 16 12 pounder long guns, she was 116 feet and manned by a crew of 150 officers and men.

He also modified his masts and spars so that he could change his rig from schooner to brig, or brigantine, to deceive the enemy.

Suddenly, not three but ten gun ports in the schooner's side opened and erupted fire. A full broadside of grape and round shot struck the Chasseur with such force that she heeled over. A large number of men who had been concealed behind the schooner's bulwarks rose and began firing with muskets.

Just as the first man leaped aboard the British schooner her flag came down. In an unprecedented action lasting only 15 minutes, an American privateer had defeated a British man-of-war, His Britannic Majesty's Schooner St. Lawrence. Ironically, St. Lawrence was a former American privateer which had been captured by the British and refitted as a warship.

The St. Lawrence lost six men killed and 17 wounded, three of them mortally, and all her officers were among the dead and wounded.

Part 1 Seagoing Natives and Intro
Part 2 Castaways

Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 2

Notes from "True Stories of the Perilous Straits" Chapter 2: Castaways (Chapter 1 is here)



A band of natives met the soldiers, told them that they were friends of Governor Menendez, and invited them into their huts. They gave the soldiers fish to eat and water to drink, but when the soldiers were relaxed, they attacked them with clubs and spears. 1577, when two Spanish vessels from Havana wrecked at the head of the Keys, the natives killed all the survivors except two they held for ransom.

..."build a colony of friends in a place of great importance where, even while remaining savages, they have contributed many times to the saving of shipwrecked Spaniards and as a scourge for the enemy (the English)."

cargo of logwood

arms, ammunition, provisions, and sails to make tents

Their spirits soared when they saw the English colors displayed in one of the canoes, but then sank a short while later when they realized the paddlers were Native Americans, not Englishmen.

The natives in one of the canoes paddled after Hammon, hauled him aboard, beat him mercilessly with a cutlass, and then tied him up. Having plundered the sloop of everything they wanted, the natives set it on fire, howling and yelling as the flames leapt into the rigging.

One day as he was walking in the city, a Spanish navy press gang seized him.

The war was known as the War of Jenkin's Ear because of an incident that took place in 1731. A guarda-costa vessel stopped and boarded a British merchant ship whose captain's name was Robert Jenkins. The guarda-costa crew tortured Jenkins to find out where he had hidden his money by alternately hanging him and then cutting him down before he died. In the end, they spared his life but cut off his ear. Supposedly, when Jenkins told his story and displayed his withered ear before Parliament, the ministry was forced by popular outrage to declare war against Spain.

...fourty-four gun frigate... with a crew of 200 men and a captured Spanish ship in tow....

But before the frigate gained headway on the opposite tack, the stern struck, and in rapid succession, the tiller snapped, the rudder broke and water started flooding into the hold.

...a series of large swells threw the frigate violently against the coral heads and stove in the bottom planks. the bread and the...gunpowder.

the reef of the Martyrs

As the sloop disappeared over the horizon, with the ships' boats in pursuit, crewmen set to work cutting holes in the frigate's decks to gain access to her stores of water and provisions.

Each year from August to March, fleets of Cuban fishermen came to the Keys and the southwest coats of Florida to fish and to salt and dry their catches on shore.

...catch turtles, cut hardwood timber, and salvage wrecks.

When two Spanish mail ships wrecked off Key Largo in 1794, Bahamian wreckers plundered the ships while the crews were still onboard and demanded an exorbitant fee to carry the crews back to Havana.

...with a sailor holding up a blanket as a sail, the raft drifted slowly away from the wreck.

One of the seamen attached his red neckcloth to an oar and waved it overhead, but the sloops, having sighted the wreck, changed course to investigate it.

Not long before, he said, the crew of a Spanish fishing vessel wrecked in the Keys had overpowered their Bahamian rescuers, seized their vessel, and taken it to Cuba.