The measure of the island

Plan of the island of Key West, based on William Whitehead’s 1829 survey and map. The double line bisecting the island’s west end is the modern Whitehead Street.

“FULLER of open and lurking perils, than a voyage to Europe,” the Florida Straits, as every experienced mariner knew, were the playground of fickle winds and currents, the hideaway of treacherous sandbars and reefs, prompting from poet Henry Cogswell Knight a sobering reflection:

It is an august, yet a fearful thing, to be riding on the convex of the world; tossing over ships long sunken, and soulless bodies floating beneath us; afar from those we hold most dear; and separated from eternity, only by a few frail barriers.1

As a consequence the worldly enterprise of mapping the Florida Keys, whose waters could turn a mishap or a moment’s inattention into an encounter with the hereafter, inclined far less to scientific inquiry than to charting a safe passage through those “open and lurking perils” for ships, crews and cargoes. But well after sovereignty over the Keys had passed to the United States such hazards remained, and old maps by Spanish and British cartographers still served as the most reliable guides. The U.S. Navy came to Key West in 1822 with orders to examine “the Island, its harbours, its extent, and the dangers of navigation,” but it was thought unnecessary in the beginning “to take actual Surveys.”2 The government’s preoccupation with rooting out piracy, its disagreements with private landowners and concerns about the healthfulness of the island meant that, five years after the U.S. standard was planted, there was still no exact reckoning of Key West’s shape, size or character.3

The more vigorous impulse for a survey came from a quartet of merchants, some heavily invested in trade in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, who were co-proprietors of the island. Eager to quell any lingering challenges to their long-contested holdings, they recognized that to have a precise record of Key West’s dimensions and resources meant also knowing the value of their real estate. Thus, at the end of 1828, the youngest son of one of them was hired to survey it, and to translate the courses and distances of his perambulations into lines on a page. “I meandered the whole coast of the Island during the month of February 1829,” William A. Whitehead would write, “running the chain at ordinary high water mark.”4 Allowing for its “extremely irregular” shape he fixed the length of Key West at 4 1/4 miles at its longest, the breadth roughly one mile at its widest; he calculated its average width to be 3/4 mile and its total area 1,975 acres.5

The title of Whitehead’s map. Detail from a manuscript copy in the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library.

As much as they can be teased from maps and other sources, the means and methods, pleasures and pitfalls of Whitehead’s expedition will form the basis of one or more future posts. But it bears noting that a year and a half after the completion of the work Elijah Hayward, newly appointed head of the General Land Office, ordered just such a survey of Key West as Whitehead had done.6 The Surveyor General of Florida sent him Whitehead’s plat with a recommendation that, in view of the difficulty and expense of a resurvey, it be accepted as accurate.7

Hayward’s response to his subordinate, though not recorded, was probably to honor the 1829 measurements and allow the map to be certified, for it answered more than just the proprietors’ needs. Because the exquisite precision of the Coast Survey, the great national project of antebellum American science, did not reach Key West for another twenty years, it was on Whitehead’s charting of the island that almost two centuries of surveying and mapmaking practice would depend.

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Arthur Singleton” [Henry Cogswell Knight], Letters from the South and West (Boston 1824) 149, 158.

[2] Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy, to Lieut. Matthew C. Perry, 7 February 1822, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXII. The territory of Florida 1821-1824 (Washington 1956) 362-363.

[3] George Graham, Commissioner of the General Land Office, attributed the lack of public surveys in 1827 to the persistence of rival land claims. Graham to Thomas Disney, 1 October 1827, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIII. The territory of Florida 1824-1828 (Washington 1958) 923.

[4] W. A. Whitehead to Robert Butler, Surveyor General of Florida, 24 January 1831, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 497.

[5] William A. Whitehead, Notices of Key West for John Rodman Esq. St. Augustine, written December 1835, 3b, manuscript copy in Florida Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. The text was printed in Rember W. Patrick, ed. “William Adee Whitehead’s description of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:12 (1952) (61-73) 65.

[6] “The Island is merely to be meandered along its Coast with the view to ascertain its true contents.” Elijah Hayward, Commissioner of the General Land Office, to Robert Butler, 26 October 1830, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 449-450. For the minute detail of Hayward’s instructions to Butler and his deputy surveyors see ibid. 448-449.

[7] Robert Butler to Elijah Hayward, 10 February 1831, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 496-497.

Images: Plan of Key West printed in American State Papers: Documents, legislative and executive, of the Congress of the United States… December 2, 1828, [through] March 8, 1832, Vol. IV. Military Affairs (Washington 1860) facing 208; Map of the town of Key West together with the island, surveyed & delineated 1829 by Wm. A. Whitehead, Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library. 

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