Imprints

The 24-star flag flew at the time of Andrew Jackson’s first presidential inauguration.

KEY West’s harbor resounded at dawn with the boom of cannon, as Old Glory waved from the porches of hotels, billowing even from the schooners and brigs in port. At noon a military salute was fired, and a crowd of citizens raised three loud hurrahs. It was Wednesday 4 March 1829, the day William A. Whitehead finished surveying and mapping the island and town, the southernmost place in the United States.

These rites and revels were not for Whitehead or his survey, of course. The Fourth of March was Inauguration Day then. As the demonstrations at Key West make plain, Americans anywhere might turn the swearing-in of a president into a jubilee: the transfer of power in 1829 inspired exuberant celebrations, not just in the nation’s capital or the twenty-four states of the union, but even among pioneer settlers of states-to-be.

Florida, then a U.S. territory for only seven years and still 16 years from statehood, had no direct role in the preceding election but was nonetheless caught up in the divisive campaign and its outcome. Both presidential candidates had left their stamps on its recent history: Incumbent John Quincy Adams’s diplomacy as Secretary of State had resolved a crisis precipitated by the foray of his challenger Andrew Jackson into Spanish Florida in 1818. Subsequently Adams had acquired the territory by treaty from Spain (with a vast western wilderness besides) and Jackson ruled it for ten months as military governor.

The 1828 election swept the cautious, contemplative Adams from office after a single term, elevating in his place a backcountry “man of the people.” Until Lincoln, none who succeeded him would escape Andrew Jackson’s long shadow. His win, for the editor and publisher of the Key West Register, represented a triumph over “intrigue, corruption and governmental patronage,” and expressions were nowhere seen of “greater joy at the change which has taken place, than at the town of Key West.”1

Thomas Eastin, by an unidentified artist.

The Register, the first Key West newspaper of which we have any knowledge, was the creature of Thomas Eastin, who had already founded papers in four other states and territories. Eastin was Alabama’s first official printer before he crossed into West Florida and, in June 1828, set up an independent paper, a rival to the Pensacola Gazette. The latter was no doubt pleased to report that Eastin had departed after a five-month run for Key West, two days before Christmas, “with his Press, Type, & Materials on the brig Enterprise.”2

Beginning the following January, Eastin offered the Key West Register for the princely sum of “six dollars per annum, payable in advance,” as both a weekly conduit of information for the island’s inhabitants and a corrective to its detractors: “There is no place in the United States which has been less understood or more misrepresented than Key West,” he wrote.3 Eastin was also candid about his politics. A sometime member of Jackson’s army staff, a fellow adoptive Tennesseean and a relative by marriage to the late Mrs. Jackson, he “cheerfully” placed his paper at the service of the incoming administration.4

Thomas Eastin’s years as a publisher were mostly behind him, as the Register seems not to have lasted much past Jackson’s first year in the White House.5 But he stayed on at Key West to be “rewarded,” as the anti-Jackson press would term it, with presidential appointments, first as an inspector of customs and then as U.S. marshal.6

William Whitehead’s involvement in the national politics of the day is far harder to pin down. The historical record, partial at best, says little about how he navigated the political waters during the tumultuous Age of Jackson. His youth, basic probity and avoidance of partisan commentary make it difficult today to categorize his political views. These very qualities probably helped insulate him from retribution and intrigue.

This notice in the Key West Register may be the first appearance of William A. Whitehead’s name in print.

But the role that the “public prints” had in his life is clear. Newspapers were Whitehead’s companions from an early age, as the clippings in numerous scrapbooks attest. While surviving issues of the Key West Register contain barely a mention of him, he becomes a recurring and authoritative presence in the papers that came after, the Key West Gazette and the Key West Enquirer. Although his writings are invariably unsigned or signed with a pseudonym, and like his reading predilections tend to be “literary and scholarly,” nonetheless he is regarded as a pillar of early Florida journalism.7 His service to newspaper history, and so to history in general, proved even more profound: thirty years after all trace of the Gazette and Enquirer had vanished from Florida, Whitehead shipped bound copies of them back to Key West. These are the only specimens known to exist today.8

In March 1829 Whitehead’s residency and further “usefulness” on Key West, not to mention his achievements as a preservationist, archivist and historian, lay in the unseen future. He had just finished what might be considered his first adult job, the survey of a thinly settled island many miles from the New Jersey home to which he would eagerly soon return. Whitehead’s memoir notes the coincidence of date between the completion of his survey and the inauguration of a new president a thousand miles to the north, but doesn’t reveal whether he joined in the public entertainments or marked the day in a quieter fashion. “To the boy of 19,” he writes, the two events were “of almost equal importance.”9

Copyright © 2018-2019 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Key West register, and commercial advertiser 5 March 1829 2:4.

[2] Douglas C. McMurtrie, “The beginnings of printing in Florida.” Florida historical quarterly 23:2 (October 1944) (63-96) 81.

[3] Prospectus of the Key West register, and commercial advertiser, appearing in all surviving issues of the paper through 26 March 1829.

[4] “On the subject of the administration of the General Government, the proprietor will only observe, that, having been raised in the State which has the honor of claiming the President elect as a citizen, he has, from the earliest period of his announcement, been his decided and ardent supporter for that high station. He knew him to be a man, pure, patriotic, and devoted, with Roman firmness, to the prosperity of his country. Such aid, therefore, as can be rendered, will be cheerfully afforded to support the administration of ANDREW JACKSON.” Ibid.

[5] James Owen Knauss, Territorial Florida journalism (Deland, Fla. 1926) 37.

[6] Eastin’s appointment as inspector dates from no later than the first week of 1830, as shown by “List of Editors, &c. of Newspapers, ‘REWARDED’ by General Jackson,” National journal (Washington, D.C.) 9 January 1830 3:1-2, where he is number 47. His commission as federal marshal for Florida’s Southern Judicial District is dated 22 September 1832: Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828–1834 (Washington 1959) 736.

[7] Knauss 38-39, 62-63.

[8] See Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876) 44-45; Jefferson B. Browne, Key West, the old and the new (St. Augustine, Fla. 1912) 141.

[9] “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 25 of the transcription contains the reference.

Images: Rare Flags. Alabama Department of Archives and HistoryKey West register, and commercial advertiser 12 February 1829 3:4.
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