White gold

A course of solid reading was pursued to advantage, and whatever works of a lighter character were indulged in, they were always read critically, their errors noticed, and their beauties and moral teachings marked. My library was not yet of much account, but … the works of reference I possessed were constantly referred to, so that, whatever might be the subject under review, I endeavored to throw upon it all the light I could obtain…1

The custom house and collector’s residence, seen in the foreground of this print based on a sketch by Whitehead, was his Key West home from 1831 to 1838.

TURNING over the pages of the newly issued Encyclopædia Americana’s seventh volume, William A. Whitehead read with care the 39 lines it devoted to the near-tropical island that he now called home.

Some parts of the entry satisfied, even pleased him. Unlike much journalistic writing to date, the article gave a fairly positive picture. It acknowledged the location’s commercial and strategic significance, its fine deep-water harbor and other amenities. It touted a vibrant trade with Cuba, and a climate that “has in general proved extremely healthy” despite some “desolating fevers, which have been attributed to accidental causes.”2

Other information about the place, purporting to be factual, required greater scrutiny. “Sometimes called ‘Thompson’s Island’,” the article declared, it was “ten miles long” and now had about “300 inhabitants.” It was first settled “about the year 1820,” and acquired its present name, “said to be derived from cayo hueso, (bone islet), … on account of its shape.” These statements called for correction or expansion, which Whitehead dutifully supplied in a reprinting of the text, with his commentary, gracing the columns of the Key West Gazette.3

Detail of Whitehead’s 1829 Key West map, showing the salt pond as it was parceled out among the proprietors.

As the author of the definitive survey and map of the island, Whitehead knew that Key West was but 4½ miles long, that in January 1832 its population approached 500, and that the title “Thompson’s Island” had never gained real acceptance.4 Its Spanish name Cayo Hueso derived, not from the island’s shape, but from a vast quantity of human bones found there, relics (it was thought) of a battle between indigenous inhabitants and tribes from the mainland. These, together with burial mounds containing “human skeletons, gold and silver ornaments, cooking utensils, &c.,” seemed to prove a settled human presence well before 1822, the year John W. Simonton arrived to see the United States flag hoisted over the island for which he’d recently paid $2000 to an official in Havana.5

One error of omission in the Encyclopædia could not be allowed to stand. Nothing was said of the ponds in the eastern and southeastern reaches of the island, where trapped sea water, evaporating under the south Florida sun, was seen to fringe the shores and fill the concavities of rocks with an encrustation of salt.

A staple of food preparation and preservation for millennia, salt is a mineral essential for human life, and these ponds would be a motive force in Key West’s early development. Their naturally occurring bounty captured the imagination of Simonton and others, who saw in it the island’s richest and potentially most enriching resource. If solar evaporation could be harnessed and the crystalline residue harvested and sold, the yield could be nearly enough to satisfy the country’s needs.6 But salt manufacture on Key West was destined to have a troubled, and troubling, history.

John W. Simonton, by an unknown artist.

On hand at the 1822 flag-raising were associates of Simonton to whom he’d sold shares in the island. Two of them may have met Simonton in one of the port cities on the Gulf coast: New Orleans perhaps, or Mobile. The younger of these was John Whitehead, half-brother of William, who bought a quarter of the island in the name of their father residing in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The older one and the best-traveled, also the owner of a quarter share, was John W. C. Fleeming. (Maps of the town of Key West years later still showed the double e on what is now Fleming Street.) Born in London, worldly and well-educated, Fleeming didn’t remain on the island, but he brought to the enterprise unique perspective and experience, and his companionship would later also enrich the life of young William Whitehead.7

Alluding to the absence in the Encyclopædia of any information about the salt ponds, Whitehead described their working as having, “under favorable auspices,” only recently begun. We may forgive the optimism of his comment, but it otherwise resists analysis, coming a full ten years from Simonton’s purchase, and punctuating more than a decade of inaction, detours, thwarted attempts and false starts in the development of the salt industry.

For generations, salt produced by solar evaporation had been harvested not far away in the Bahama islands, still an outpost of British rule in the nineteenth century. Laborers there subdivided the salt ponds into pans lined with low walls of irregular stone, then raked the precipitated mineral into dazzling piles of white crystals. Bahamian “practical salt-makers,” who reportedly visited Key West on several occasions, judged that its ponds were just as good and, under a similar system, would be as productive of the lucrative “white gold” as their own.8

When at age 18 William Whitehead began surveying Key West, he found that the salt ponds covered 340 acres, or almost 1/5 of the total surface of the island. As long as the ponds were held in common, little salt was produced. Whitehead’s partitioning of the ponds into tracts that could be sold or leased served, at the end of 1828, to escalate interest in its manufacture.

Salt raking on Turks Island ca. 1900.

In February 1829, the island’s weekly newspaper notified readers that “a gentleman interested in the soil of Key West” had gone to the Bahamas to study their salt industry: “The gentleman of whom we speak … is daily expected … and as he is of the first respectability and intelligence, we believe any information from him will be valuable and interesting.” Those already invested in the enterprise could look forward to a substantial return, the paper proclaimed, and because of the extent of the ponds and the large number of laborers–“at least five thousand”–required to work them, “many of our countrymen who have large gangs of slaves, would find it greatly to their interest to engage in this business.”9

The looked-for “gentleman” soon returned from the Bahamas, and his much-anticipated report appeared, simply signed “Investigator.” Versions of it would circulate even beyond Florida’s borders.10 After describing the salt industry on several islands of the Bahamas, “Investigator” turned to the pond on Key West, which

has not been worked; but from the quantity of salt heretofore raked, which formed naturally without any preparation, the fact of its productiveness is fairly demonstrated. … The stone for the formation of walls is here abundant, and more convenient than is the case at any other known place.

“Investigator” proceeded to discuss the seasonal needs of a Key West works:

The extent of the pond will afford employment to a very large number of labourers in the formation of the pans; after the completion of which, except during the raking season, they might be otherwise employed. This fact should engage the attention of those who have embarked in sugar planting in Middle Florida, whose hands, during the growth of their cane, might be advantageously employed here.

The island’s proprietors, while they retained title to the salt ponds, lacked a ready supply of labor with which to work them on a large scale, and in early 1829 offered their allotments for sale or rent.11 In the course of that year, John Whitehead negotiated a 25-year lease of his father’s portion of the ponds and adjoining land to Richard Fitzpatrick, who, as the scion of a family of South Carolina planters, could draw on large reserves of unfree labor.12

The terms of the agreement, however, demonstrate the Whiteheads’ abiding interest in the prospects for exploitation of the salt ponds. Fitzpatrick’s rent in the first year was ten bushels for every hundred bushels of salt produced; in the second year, this rose to fifteen; in the third and each successive year, his rent was 25% of the total yield. The Whiteheads reserved the right to become joint partners in the operation after three years, and in order to maintain the salt works’ profitability required Fitzpatrick to employ at all times “a sufficient number of hands.”13

In May 1831, the Gazette announced that Fitzpatrick, having taken up the Whitehead lots at the start of the year, had hired as overseer “a skilful and experienced Salt-maker from the Bahamas,” a free black man named Hart, who already had “a force of 30 hands” busy laying out the salt pans. But Fitzpatrick wished it known that, while Hart believed the experiment would be as successful as anything in the Bahamas, it would need fewer workers and less capital than originally thought, and wouldn’t reach full capacity until the following season.14

This notice was a warning sign that Fitzpatrick’s interests lay predominantly elsewhere, and indeed conflict had begun to swirl over the salt ponds and who was best suited to develop them. To fend off competition, Fitzpatrick used his power as a member of Florida’s Legislative Council, where an act to incorporate a rival company, favored by William Whitehead and two dozen other leading citizens, was defeated. Activity at the ponds, however, seemed to advance slowly, if at all.15

New Bedford salt works, from a panoramic view ca. 1848.

Whitehead left the island in May 1832 to spend his summer in the north. Among the most pleasurable interludes was that spent with John Fleeming at his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Whaling was the lifeblood of that city’s economy, and Fleeming had married into the family that controlled much of its trade.

Whitehead came to discuss salt manufacturing,16 a vital question for fisheries and one to which New England ingenuity had developed some answers of its own. All along the Massachusetts coast and the crooked arm of Cape Cod were salt pans, their peaked, retractable roofs able both to repel wet weather and to admit the rays of the sun. Windmills perched above them drew in salt water from the sea. One such facility lay not far from Fleeming’s New Bedford home. He and Whitehead talked excitedly and at length about a grand, common project for exploitation of the salt ponds on Key West. “We were to be partners,” Whitehead would recall, “for many years to come.”17

Tombstone of John W. C. Fleeming, set into a wall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Key West.

They talked business and much more. A founding member of the New Bedford Lyceum, Fleeming entertained and enlightened his 22-year-old guest in conversations about literature, the arts and sciences. Yet Whitehead found him always “unpretending in his manners, mild and amiable to an extent seldom met with in men of his age and standing.” The two shared identical passions for drawing, music, and “in fact every employment that could tend to while away agreeably the hours not required for our daily duties.” Fleeming, like Whitehead, was also fond of a jest, on one occasion devising for him a rhyming epitaph:

Here lies W. A. W.
Who never more will trouble you.18

They agreed that Fleeming would pay a visit to Key West that winter, as a guest of Whitehead, the collector of customs since the previous year. On 24 November, Whitehead welcomed him to his residence which, as it happened, was the first house to be built on the island.19 Fleeming’s return was in that sense a homecoming, but it would also be his last: he never again saw Massachusetts, dying the following month under Whitehead’s very roof.20

Fleeming’s death affected Whitehead deeply: “Everything I do reminds me of him, for his habits and pursuits were so similar to my own, notwithstanding the difference in our ages, that he seemed to be connected with me in all my desultory pursuits.” But the loss appeared even more devastating for Key West, its future prosperity contingent on the development of the natural salt ponds. Without Fleeming’s character, intelligence and keen interest in salt manufacture, it seemed the fortunes to be gained from the island’s most valuable natural resource were destined to languish.21 At least in the way Whitehead envisioned them, those riches were indeed to go largely unclaimed.

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

A 1999 bird’s eye view of the salt pond. Housing and a high school in the foreground, and the runway of Key West International Airport in the distance, have encroached upon its nineteenth-century outline.

[1] “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, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 31 of the transcription contains the reference.

[2] “Key West,” in Francis Lieber, ed. Encyclopædia Americana. A popular dictionary of arts, sciences, literature, history, politics and biography, brought down to the present time; including a copious collection of original articles in American biography; on the basis of the seventh edition of the German Conversations-Lexicon, vol. VII (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1831) 322.

[3] Key West Gazette 11 January 1832 2:2-3. The unsigned piece is assuredly Whitehead’s. In the surviving copy at the Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, an unknown hand has identified “W. A. Whitehead” as the author.

[4] Whitehead later explained that the name Thompson’s Island was “a title it has long ceased to bear, and which it is probable will never be revived, as it was conferred merely out of compliment to the then Secretary of the Navy.” Notices of Key West for John Rodman Esq. St. Augustine, written December 1835, 2b, 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) 64.

[5] It fell to Whitehead still, three years later, to correct the erroneous derivation of the name Cayo Hueso and reiterate the story of its origins (The enquirer [Key West, Fla.] 7 February 1835 3:1), citing “traces of mounds and embankments along the western and southern shores of the Island.” I’m unaware of any account earlier than Whitehead’s of these mounds or the opening of one of them ca. 1823. The Encyclopædia was reprinted several times by different publishers, but whether Whitehead’s criticisms came to their attention is unknown. The sole change to the Encyclopædia article, made in the 1836 impression, was a correction to the island’s length. On the history of this popular work see Drake De Kay, “Encyclopedia Americana, first edition,” Journal of library history 3:3 (July 1968) 201-220.

[6] “… the Salt ponds of this Island are numerous and extensive and it is supposed by competent Judges that Salt enough may be made for a large portion of the supply required by the United States.” Memorial to Congress by John W. Simonton and associates, 31 January 1822, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXII. The territory of Florida 1821-1824 (Washington 1956) 352-353.

[7] Matthew C. Perry to Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy, Port Rodgers, Thompsons Island, 28 March 1822, ibid. 385-388. Fleeming’s naturalization papers give his date of birth as 8 August 1787, and place his arrival in the U.S. at the port of New Orleans in 1816. Bristol County (Mass.) Jud. Court, Taunton, Year 1830, Vol. 5, Nov. Term, Petition 4, No. 2.

[8] Deposition of Griffith W. Roberts, 3 November 1842, in “John W. Simonton, and others,” House of Representatives, Thirtieth Congress, First Session, Report No. 189. Congressional serial set 524 (Washington 1848) 24.

[9] Key West Register, and Commercial Advertiser 12 February 1829 2:4.

[10] Key West Register 5 March 1829 2:1-2. The report, under the title “The salt-pond on Key West,” appeared in the United States’ telegraph (Washington, D.C.) 4 April 1829 3:4-5, and a modified version was incorporated into a lengthy pamphlet styled Proposals for establishing a salt company at Key West: accompanied with certificates and documents from persons of great respectability, elucidating the great advantages to be derived by manufacturing salt by solar evaporation at that island, &c. &c. (Washington 1830).

[11] The earliest surviving Key West newspaper shows that, from early January, Philip Hoffman, acting as Simonton’s attorney, and proprietor Pardon C. Greene each advertised one quarter of the ponds for sale or lease, while John Whitehead, as attorney for both his father and Fleeming, offered the remaining two quarters. Key West Register 12 February 1829 3:4-5.

[12] See the anaysis of his career by Hugo L. Black III, “Richard Fitzpatrick’s South Florida, 1822-1840. Part I. Key West phase. Part II. Fitzpatrick’s Miami River plantation,” Tequesta 40 (1980) 47-77; 41 (1981) 33-68.

[13] Monroe County Deed Records, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Book A:202-206.

[14] “Key West salt ponds.” Key West gazette 25 May 1831 2:4-3:1. Key West attorney William R. Hackley recorded that, on the night of Friday 6 May, “Mr. Fitzpatrick arrived from Charleston with some negroes–28 or 30–in the Schooner Venus.” A month later, Hackley “rode out to the Salt pond and saw the pans which are preparing by Richard Fitzpatrick under the direction of a Man from the Bahamas.” William R. Hackley, Diary, entries of 8 May and 12 June 1831, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Fla.

[15] Whitehead’s is the twenty-second of twenty-five signatures on a petition of “Citizens of Key West for a Salt Company,” 9 January 1832, Series 876, Box 3, Folder 4, Territorial Legislative Council unicameral period records, 1822-1838, State Archives of Florida. See also Key West gazette 13 (for 12?) October 1831 2:1-2 and 18 January 1832 2:2. Although the ponds were said to be “in operation” by March 1832, it appears little work had been done: cf. Key West gazette 14 March 1832 2:1.

[16] “Childhood and youth” 34.

[17] Extract of a letter from Whitehead, otherwise unknown, published in Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876) 70-71, and in Jefferson B. Browne, Key West, the old and the new (St. Augustine, Fla. 1912) 200.

[18] “Childhood and youth” 34.

[19] The oldest house, built by Simonton (perhaps with Fleeming’s assistance), was “still a very comfortable tenement, as we can testify, it being at present occupied by ourselves.” Key West Gazette 11 January 1832 2:3. For some account of the custom house before Whitehead’s occupancy, see William Pinkney to Richard Rush, Secretary of the Treasury, Key West, 24 December 1828, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828–1834 (Washington 1959) 124-125.

[20] “Childhood and youth” 34-35. Four days before his passing, Fleeming named John and William Whitehead the agents for his holdings on the island. He also bequeathed to them his personal effects and a waterfront lot adjacent to the custom house. Monroe County Deed Records, Book A:423.

[21] “My private loss is great, but never has Key West experienced before a calamity to be compared with his death. Many years will pass away, before our island will have on it a man so able to bring to light the capabilities of the natural salt ponds, to which we look for the ultimate prosperity of the place, as he had for many years made the manufacture of salt his study; and probably there is not a man in the United States who understood it as thoroughly as he did.” Extract of a letter from Whitehead, in Maloney 71 and Browne 100. Even three years after Fleeming’s death, Whitehead was writing of the development of the ponds, now “with covered works, on the plan pursued by the Salt Makers of Massachusetts,” as an idea more than a reality. Notices of Key West, 7b (Patrick 68).

Images: 1) Custom house: detail from Key West, looking south-east, June 1838, courtesy of P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. 2) Detail from Map of the Town of Key West, together with the island: Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library. 3) John W. Simonton: oil on canvas, Key West Art & Historical Society. 4) Salt raking: Smithsonian Magazine, 14 December 2012. 5) New Bedford salt works: detail from Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, The grand panorama of a whaling voyage ’round the world, Digital Grand Panorama courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum. 6) Fleeming gravestone: photograph by the author. 7) Aerial view by Ty Symroski and Wendy Tucker, courtesy of Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West (CC BY 2.0).

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