Fishermen’s friend

Mugil cephalus (striped mullet), a staple of trade between the Charlotte Harbor fisheries and Cuba.

AS the Evan T. Ellicott, beating the final agonizing mile of its course against a sharp northerly wind, headed for the harbor of Key West, William A. Whitehead would have been forgiven for thinking the reception more than a little discourteous. But the auspices on this voyage had never been good.

The Ellicott set out from Baltimore, already short on space and comfort, its skipper’s main attribute seeming to be his venality. Before it could drop down the Chesapeake, the vessel lingered several days across the Bay at Chestertown, painstakingly loading on the belongings of a family emigrating south. Its cabin of only eight berths had to accommodate thirty individuals. Off Cape Hatteras, “that never-failing parent of bad weather,” the Ellicott was overtaken by a violent storm that it rode out for fourteen hours. Throughout the voyage, seasickness among both passengers and crew was all but universal. The captain began to ration drinking water when he found “some of the ladies” washing clothes in it. Further delays awaited at the mouth of the St. Johns River and at Jacksonville, where the Chestertown party disembarked and where, with justifiable foreboding, an Irish tailor was taken on who had survived three successive shipwrecks (Whitehead called him “a perfect Jonah”). They battled headwinds for several days in the Florida Straits, only to find that on an unseen current they had drifted 120 miles past their destination. On the evening of Saturday 22 January 1831–an unthinkable 5 ½ weeks after leaving Baltimore–Whitehead could finally send to worried family and friends the news of his safe arrival on Key West.1

He would have been grateful indeed, not only to set foot on solid earth once again, but to find hearths in the town ablaze, for the island was besieged by winter temperatures rarely experienced in such latitudes. Icy north winds had damaged the island’s trees and shrubs, and a multitude of stranded fish lay about the beaches.2 Soon, however, the winds relented and the island reverted to its more agreeable norm: “a snug retreat from the attacks of rude Boreas,” Whitehead would call it.3

As he assumed his duties as collector of the customs of the United States, more lasting changes were afoot in the town of Key West. The founding population of pioneers and freebooters had somewhat adapted to their unique situation. They were more settled, more of a mind to build institutions. The coming of Whitehead didn’t simply coincide with this movement, but was partly a catalyst. At a public meeting convened at his suggestion, citizens agreed to seek a clergyman, one who would agree to settle on the island, conduct regular worship and organize a school. These hopeful steps, toward “a better system of religious, moral and scientific instruction than they now possess,” led ultimately to establishment of the first church on Key West, St. Paul’s.4

Still, in taking command of the custom house Whitehead had to adjust his expectations to the circumstances of the moment, and also to understand the island’s checkered past. While many on Key West were heartened by “late accessions of much worth to their permanent society” (introduction of a “better” class of people, in other words), it remained a freewheeling seaport town where everyone hailed from someplace else, and from which government, centered in the territorial capital of Tallahassee and the national capital of Washington (which Whitehead now represented), sat at a distance of many hundreds of miles.

The essence of Whitehead’s duties, to regulate and report on commerce under the authority of the national government, meant that among local merchants he was as likely to find enemies as friends. The previous collector’s abrupt removal had led to celebration in the streets, but not everyone was equally happy about the change. Custom houses were magnets for partisan politics, and Key West was as partisan a community as any.5 It didn’t necessarily help that Whitehead had just been made one of the youngest civil officers on the nation’s payroll.

Finding at his disposal only one inspector, the former newspaper publisher Thomas Eastin, and the armed 78-foot revenue cutter Marion, manned by a crew of four, Whitehead needed “to become acquainted with all the details of the business the best way I could.”6 This was probably as he preferred it, but the details were many. A collector’s job demanded accurate accounting of all that passed through a port–names of vessels and their captains; ports of origin and destinations; names, origins and descriptions of their crew members; goods imported, bonds given and duties owed–besides the day-to-day management of bills, licenses, payrolls, receipts and expenditures. Periodically, too, digests had to be submitted to the Treasury Department in Washington.

Whitehead’s jurisdiction, moreover, extended far beyond the port of Key West. He was responsible for an entire 180-mile string of islets, from Key Biscayne to the Tortugas, and hundreds more miles of ragged, exceptionally porous coastline on the Florida peninsula. Together with enforcement of customs regulations in this vast territory, maintenance of buoys, lighthouses and lightships also fell under his authority.

Key West custom house hours in 1831.

Immediately Whitehead set about finding a deputy, receiving eight applications in the first twenty-four hours. His choice, David C. Pinkham, could list no experience when it came to keeping accounts. But working amicably together they were able to establish regular office hours, and attain a degree of efficiency that allowed Whitehead, at least, sufficient leisure to pursue “a course of solid reading.”7

The first weeks of his collectorship saw a noticeable increase in the number of vessels in port.8 On 19 February, Whitehead’s 21st birthday, two infantry companies settled on the island; while the soldiers bivouacked at the north end of town, their major and his wife billeted with Whitehead until the barracks were finished in June.9 Not all the excitement was positive: Whitehead became embroiled with some leading merchants for confiscating a schooner deemed to have been sold fraudulently. In the resulting case of Wm. H. Wall vs. Wm. A. Whitehead, the judge ruled that the purchaser, an alien and therefore barred from owning a vessel, had made an honest error in claiming U.S. citizenship under oath. The buyer was refunded his money minus costs, but Whitehead emerged the winner, at least in principle.10

Far greater questions of national identity and destiny would absorb Whitehead’s energies toward the end of his first year, due to developments elsewhere in Florida Territory and beyond. Not long after the acquisition of East and West Florida from Spain, American officials began to turn their attention to Spanish fishing camps clustered in Charlotte Harbor on the lower Gulf Coast. Three such fisheries operated in 1825, later joined by a fourth, their inhabitants reported “to be industrious and attend to their Fishery alone.”11 But a “Constant intercourse … between the Indians of this Territory and the Island of Cuba” focused “early attention” on the fishing ranchos. Despite treaty limits intended to keep the Florida Seminoles at least twenty miles from the sea, the Spanish fisheries were believed to provide them access to rum and other spirits, and, more critically, to serve as outlets by which fugitive slaves could reach freedom, or be brought to Cuba for sale.12

That the national policy of “Indian removal” would soon engulf the Seminoles of Florida was, in 1831, becoming more and more clear. Under pressure from land-hungry white Floridians and anxious slaveholders in the territory and neighboring states, officials began to eye the Spanish fisheries with ever greater concern. Realizing that their interest in the ranchos was far from benign, Whitehead embarked in November on one of the more interesting exploits recorded in his journals, an exploratory mission that became also a mission of mercy.

Boarding the Marion on 22 November, Whitehead entered on the 25th the broad estuary of Charlotte Harbor. Its placid waters, pristine islands and sand bars seemed to him to wear “an aspect of repose, as if nature’s domain had never before been invaded in that quarter.” He tried to summon the first sensations of a Columbus or a Ponce de León, but soon renounced the effort, having “no thirst for gold, nor desire to taste of a rejuvenating spring.” Besides, he could be confident, unlike those bold adventurers, that friends and countrymen were near at hand “to cheer me under any casual inconveniences I might meet with.”13

Leaving the cutter at anchor, he and his captain took a rowboat about seven miles to the nearest of the fisheries. He preserved his impressions in his journal:

We landed and were received with a grand chorus from five dogs which we interpreted as a welcome, for they immediately left us to enjoy the comforts of the place by ourselves. The houses were 12 in number exclusive of 2 spacious storehouses and all deserted. Not a living soul (save the dogs – and it is doubted that they have souls) was to be seen, but the absence of canoes and nets accounted for the disappearance of the inhabitants. Their dwellings were all of Palmetto and most of them of tolerable size (not a very definite expression by the by–but my saying they were about fifteen feet square will render it more so). They reminded me of Ichabod Crane’s School House, to enter which every facility was afforded, but which it was impossible to leave. Such being the nature of the fastenings of their doors I took the liberty of “prying” into one of them. A few stakes driven into the ground, with cross pieces for their beds–a small loft for corn–a hanging shelf with one or two pieces of crockery and two or three small stools, composed all the furniture and no residence that I saw at any other of the Fisheries contained more, while many of them had less.14

Whitehead would find the palmetto houses and their simple furnishings to be consistent from one rancho to the next, but the following morning, when he and five of his company reached the home of the venerable José María Caldez, the reception couldn’t have been more different from that of the day before. The personable Caldez was “patriarch of the whole,” a former citizen of Spanish Florida who claimed he’d first visited this island before the American colonies declared their independence, and settled here permanently just after independence was won.

Caldez was well known to merchants at Key West from the extensive commerce in fish and other products he had built up with Cuba, and Whitehead, even though a relative newcomer, was also well known to Caldez. A breakfast of cold fish, potatoes, onions, bread and coffee was laid for the collector and his second lieutenant. Caldez himself stood by, inspecting their plates, cups and saucers,

removing with his fingers any spot indicating a less degree of cleanliness than presented by the rest of the article. The knife drawn from his belt, which very probably had but a few moments previous been employed in slaying some noble fish was carefully wiped against his hunting shirt before it was presented for my acceptance, but as for forks there were none to be had. Our appetites however were keen, and we found no difficulty, in making an excellent meal of the viands set before us.15

The guests were as kindly received at the third island fishery, where the forks wanting from Caldez’s table were to be had, but no knives. They chatted late into the night with the head fisherman there–who vacated his bed for the collector–slept serenely and awoke to a delight that ranks as high as any mentioned in Whitehead’s writings, the Spanish art of brewing coffee: “I repeatedly observed that with no attention at all the finest flavoured coffee would be made in very few minutes superior in every thing but clearness to any to be met with in half the Coffee Houses in the United States.”16

After all four fisheries had been visited, the party returned to the home of Caldez, enjoying a final meal–“a second edition of our breakfast the day before”–while their boat was loaded with limes, fish and clams. Whitehead reached the Marion on the evening of 27 November, “somewhat fatigued, but (as to myself) gratified with our jaunt.” Weighing anchor, the Marion sailed back to Key West on the 29th.17

Charlotte Harbor on an 1825 map.

Whitehead felt he had come away well informed about the personnel and operation of the fisheries, and their importance to the economy of the region. He found the camps housed altogether about 130 men (of whom he guessed half were Seminoles), with some 30 Seminole women and 50-100 children, “the colour of their skin betraying the mixed blood of the Spaniard and Indian.” Their trade consisted largely in the capture and salting of fish for the Havana market, each fishery having a small schooner that passed through Key West and paid duties on what it exported or brought back from Cuba.18

Nonetheless, Whitehead knew there would be efforts to dispossess the Spanish fishermen, and he wrote to the Treasury Department in their defense:

I conceive it important that the fisheries of the United States should be preserved for its own citizens; but, in this instance, there is no intrusion upon the established fishing ground of any American. There is no settlement nearer than the cantonment at Tampa bay, which is 70 miles distant, and the inhabitants have uniformly acknowledged themselves as amenable to the laws of the Territory. That they have among them many Florida Indians, and that their settlements may draw others beyond the Indian boundary, is the only thing at present materially against them.19

In the Florida legislature’s subsequent levy of a tax on the fisheries, Whitehead saw nothing less than an effort “to drive them from our shores” with no compensating benefit. Their trade, as he and dozens of fellow citizens protested to Congress, generated significant revenue for the United States, and its loss would be “a great detriment” to the collection district and people of Key West.20

Mindful both of the hospitality he enjoyed at Charlotte Harbor and of his office, Whitehead undertood how the Spanish fishermen might hope he would advocate for them. He thought of his friend Caldez, who wished only to carry on the business he always had. He considered the simple lives of the “Spanish Indians” Caldez had gathered around him. He saw little chance that these law-abiding non-citizens could be lured into illicit commerce. And so, as his journal records, “I did not hesitate in recommending that they should be undisturbed.”21

Perhaps erroneously, this 1834 map shows the Seminole reservation in southwest Florida extending all the way to the Gulf Coast and Charlotte Harbor.

What became of the Charlotte Harbor fisheries is little known, but it’s suspected they fell victim to broader policies of Indian confinement and removal, rather than to any tactics aimed at the Spanish trade directly. Already in the first year of the U.S.-Seminole war of 1835-42, the ranchos were found “abandoned, and for the most part, destroyed.”22 The Indians who peopled them either joined other Seminoles in forced concentration and eventual deportation to the west, or melted into the dense south Florida swamps. The Keys, although they stood on the periphery of that war, would very much feel the effects, and for William Whitehead, the memory of José María Caldez and his fisheries would always be bittersweet.

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Whitehead’s narrative of his 1830-31 voyage to assume the collector’s post at Key West occupies pages 70-87 of the unpublished Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water, Volume 2, hereafter Memorandums, held by the Key West Art & Historical Society. John Viele transcribed portions for The Florida Keys sea heritage journal 3:1 (Fall 1992) 3, 6. The trip receives only a cursory mention in the memoir “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 27-28 contain the reference.

[2] “W[ind] variable from N. to NW and the thermometer in an exposed situation in the house of Dr Strobel was as low as 46∘ and a great number of fish of quite a good size were picked up on the shore completely torpid. … The leaves on the Northern side of all shrubs and even trees which were exposed to the full influence of the North winds we have had lately are completely killed and present the appearance of having been destroyed by frost.” William R. Hackley, Diary, entries of 18 and 24 January 1831, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee.

[3] “Climate of Key West.” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 14 February 1835 3:(2-3) 3.

[4] Key West gazette 21-28 March 1831 2:3-4; Edgar Legare Pennington, “The Episcopal Church in South Florida 1764-1892,” Tequesta 1 (1941) (47-88) 52-56.

[5] See Hackley, Diary, entries of 11 and 12 December 1830.

[6] “Childhood and youth” 29.

[7] Key West gazette 4 May 1831 3:3. “Childhood and youth” 29, 31.

[8] See Hackley, Diary, entries of 31 January and 12 March 1831.

[9] “Childhood and youth” 32; Hackley, Diary, entry of 19 February 1831; Key West gazette 21-28 March 1831 2:3.

[10] See Hackley, Diary, entries of 8 April through 29 May 1831 passim; Key West gazette 20 April 1831 3:3-4, 4:2; 27 April 1831 3:4, 4:1-2; 8 June 1831 3:1. Judge James Webb concluded his decision with the following statement: “Although I am of opinion that no forfeiture has accrued in the case, still under the circumstances, I consider it right to give a certificate of probable cause to the Collector.” Key West gazette 13 (for 12?) October 1831 1:4.

[11] Capt. Isaac Clark, Cantonment Brooke, Hillsborough Bay 20 February 1825, to Brig. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIII. The territory of Florida 1824-1828 (Washington 1958) 181-183.

[12] Gad Humphreys, Camp near Big Swamp 2 March 1825, to Sec. of War John C. Calhoun, ibid. 202-203. Cf. ibid. 282-283, 314. 365-366.

[13] Memorandums 92. In 1877 Whitehead produced an edited version of the journal entries from his visit to Charlotte Harbor, to be printed in the Key West newspaper Key of the Gulf as part of a series Reminiscences of Key West. Whitehead pasted the printed columns into his personal copy of Walter C. Maloney’s A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876), a volume now at the University of Miami. Those columns were the basis for the edition by Thelma Peters, “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) 3-42. Some passages from the journal, such as this one, were omitted in Reminiscences no. 11 and no. 12, which cover the trip to Charlotte Harbor. The passages I quote here are taken from the entries in Memorandums.

[14] Memorandums 90-91.

[15] Memorandums 93-94.

[16] Memorandums 95bis. Passage omitted from Reminiscences.

[17] Memorandums 96, 99-100.

[18] Memorandums 93.

[19] W. A. Whitehead, Key West 17 November (for December) 1831, to Sec. of the Treasury Lewis McLane, printed in Key West gazette 30 May 1832 2:2.

[20] W. A. Whitehead, Key West 22 March 1832, to Joseph M. White, House of Representatives, printed in Key West gazette 30 May 1832 2:1-2; “Petition to Congress by citizens of the Southern District,” 26 March 1832, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 680-682 and n.58. See also Reminiscences no. 11, Key of the gulf 16 June 1877, ed. Peters 33.

[21] Memorandums 99.

[22] L. M. Powell, Harbor of Key West 8 December 1836, to Thomas Crabb, printed in “Seminole War,” Army and Navy chronicle 4:19 (11 May 1837) (298-299) 299.

Images: 1) Striped mullet: Charles d’Orbigny, Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle. Atlas. (Paris 1841-1849) vol. 2, pl. 13/1, from Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, The University of Washington Libraries. 2) Custom house hours: Key West gazette 4 May 1831 3:3. 3) Charlotte Harbor: detail from H. S. Tanner, Map of Florida. Improved to 1825. American atlas (Philadelphia 18231, 18252), from David Rumsey Map Collection. 4) Seminole territory: detail from H. S. Tanner, North America. XIV, Florida (London 1834), from Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida, Maps ETC.

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