A rising tide

Tourists pose atop “The Indian Shell Mound, St. Petersburg, Fla.”

SOMETIME in 1833 or thereabouts, citizens of Key West witnessed the opening of a large mound near the island’s western shore. At least ten feet in height “and of considerable circumference,” it stood midway between the custom house and the slight rise of Whitehead’s Point. The collector of customs, William A. Whitehead, who appears to have overseen the work, is silent about who performed the labor, but the use of enslaved men not then occupied at the island’s salt ponds is a credible hypothesis.

Whitehead also omits to mention how many hours the excavation lasted, although the diggers did remove enough material to allow them to probe below ground level. The fate of what was dislodged is another mystery: it was evidently not replaced, and, since projects for paving Key West’s handful of streets lay many years in the future, the loose spoil was perhaps appropriated to fill small lagoons or other low-lying spots on the island. Whitehead does however reveal that hopes raised by an earlier excavation were disappointed. No human bones, no cooking utensils, no gold or silver peeked out from the carbonate dust: “nothing was found save stones and shells….”1

The collector could retire to his lodgings, however, satisfied that this striking anomaly in the generally low, flat terrain was susceptible of explanation. Less than a year into his tenure, while on a visit to one of the islands at Charlotte Harbor near the northern limits of his collection district, he’d stumbled upon just such a mound “composed entirely of oyster shells.” Whitehead’s host José María Caldez, a resident of the place for most of his 70 years, relayed the tradition that a tribe of island dwellers, who sustained themselves by fishing, hunting and “an occasional war with the natives of the main land,” had deposited here and in other mounds the shells of oysters that once flourished along the shore.

In the course of his explanation, Caldez also narrated the catastrophe believed to have given Key West its name. Young Whitehead, who had heard the legend before, “but never in so connected a form as related by our old entertainer,” committed it to his journal as follows:

These Indians in the habit of frequenting the main land on their hunting expeditions were driven off by the people residing there, and a system of reprisals being adapted, a general warfare ensued. A descent was made upon the Islands and their inhabitants being less numerous were driven from Key to Key until at last they reached Key West, where a terrible engagement took place, the pursued seeing no choice left for them but to conquer or die–the broad ocean in their rear affording no means of escape from their enemies. The Island in the Spanish language is named Bone Key (Cayo Hueso) from the great quantity of bones that were discovered on it by the Spaniards, originating as is supposed in the exterminating character of the Battle just referred to.2

While the investigation (and destruction) that Whitehead personally witnessed of the Key West mound had failed to yield burial goods or treasure, it served, together with information from other sources, to corroborate the account handed down to Caldez. The island once contained, he had learned, “a number of mounds, supposed to have been burial places,” and furnished evidence of the “occasional presence” of Keys Natives “in the marks of ancient fortifications or mounds of stones found in various situations.”3 If the excavation of these mounds yielded no evidence of the slaughter alleged to have occurred, digging of foundations on the island, Whitehead noted, “very often” turned up human bones, including a near complete skeleton “of gigantic size.”4

Although Whitehead appears to have relied on others for the veracity of these reports, the legend of a pitched battle that he first committed to writing has never been a subject of serious criticism. It figures in most attempts to lend Key West something of a pedigree more ancient than the arrival of Europeans.5

Modern anthropologists would likely associate the Key West mound with a branch of the Calusa, a seagoing people that harvested fish and shellfish, and left a quantity of shell middens in the southwestern reaches of the Florida peninsula where they lived. The era and duration of their sojourn on Key West are unknown, but the “traces of mounds and embankments” that Whitehead noted along the seaward sides of the island, even the one large accumulation of stones and shells of which we have his eyewitness testimony, would seem to represent more than just a fleeting occupation by itinerant Natives.

For Whitehead, these remains sufficed to prove the existence of an earlier peopling of the island, but his antiquarian bent didn’t lead him to inquire much further into it. Almost all traces of these prior inhabitants had vanished with the people themselves. Whether migration, starvation, war or other calamity had led to their disappearance, theirs was a closed chapter.

Yet, coinciding with Whitehead’s years in the Keys, a succession of dramatic scenes was unfolding in the states nearest Florida and in the territory of Florida itself. Clashes of native and non-native peoples and the machinations of the latter’s governments laid bare a darkness in the national character that Whitehead and his contemporaries could scarcely perceive.

On the day he took his first oath as president in March 1829, Andrew Jackson had promised a “humane and considerate attention” to the needs and interests of “the Indian tribes within our limits,” one “which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.” What followed made plain that “the feelings of our people” allowed for no continued Native sovereignty within the boundaries of the United States. Having secured passage in May 1830 of the Indian Removal Act, Jackson laid out its rhetorical justification in a message to Congress that December. “The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward,” he proclaimed; this was a natural progression that “has never for a moment been arrested,” in which “the tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites.”6

Theodore Frelinghuysen argued eloquently but unsuccessfully against the Jacksonian policy of Indigenous deportation.

To Jackson and his followers, the future course of events would seem as natural as an incoming tide. But it was manifest to Indigenous leaders that expulsion from Native lands would be an apocalyptic event for their people. To the foremost politician opposing Jackson’s plan, Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, who represented Whitehead’s native state of New Jersey, it was “clear as the sunbeam … that a removal will aggravate their woes.”

If the tide is nearly irresistible at this time; when a few more years shall fill the regions beyond the Arkansas with many more millions of enterprising white men, will not an increased impulse be given, that shall sweep the red men away into the barren prairies, or the Pacific of the West? Such, I fear, will be their doom.7

By the summer of 1831, Whitehead’s first year as collector, the machinery of deportation was at work, successively targeting the Choctaws, Creeks and Chickasaws in Mississippi and Alabama, and the Cherokees in the foothills and valleys of the southern Appalachians. The expulsions drew their authority from a pretense of humanitarian concern: Native peoples would avoid worse treatment from state governments, and from white settlers coveting their lands, by surrendering them and moving west. These sentiments were enforced by treaties of “exchange” between the national government and the more pliant of the Native leaders, agreements that were then imposed on Indigenous nations as a whole.

The same tactics were directed in 1832 at the Seminoles of Florida. “Common humanity,” avowed the territorial legislature in an appeal to Congress that February, “unites with the general policy of the Government, in calling loudly for the removal of the Indians….”8 Three months later, the Treaty of Payne’s Landing set the wheels in motion.

While Indian Removal opened the rich Black Belt lands of Alabama and Mississippi to speculators and planters, and their cultivation by thousands of unfree laborers, the expulsion of the Seminoles possessed an urgency even greater than the desire to expand plantation agriculture further south. Before and after its acquisition from Spain, Florida had been a magnet for fugitive Blacks from the slave states. Some, the Seminoles bound to themselves; others remained free. A haven for fugitive Blacks virtually on their doorstep was too much for white planters to bear: the Seminoles had to go.9

No inducements or treaty provisions, however, could overcome a rising tide of resistance among the Seminole chiefs and their bands. By the fall of 1834, when Whitehead was settling into life on Key West as a newly married man, the government’s Indian agent could find few Florida Natives willing to leave. Noting the Seminoles’ recent purchase of “an unusually large quantity of Powder & Lead,” he urged “a strong reinforcement of this Post, and the location of a strong force at Tampa Bay….”10 There was increasing alarm all over Florida: the Key West Enquirer announced, “The Indians have, one and all, refused to go. What steps government will take upon this extraordinary course, remains yet to be seen.”11

In a year’s time, the insistence of Brigadier General Duncan Clinch that the Seminoles “remove to their new homes, without being forced at the point of the bayonet,”12 would descend into a war of extermination. But expulsion had, in its tragic consequences for thousands of the dispossessed, already proven to be a genocidal policy.

No one could have predicted the price that Americans, in the end, would pay for Seminole removal. According to one recent assessment, “For every four people that it deported, the United States killed one person, lost three soldiers, and spent $32,000. In today’s dollars, that is equivalent to $8.5 million for every single Seminole person shipped west.”13 Not even a “Christian statesman” of Theodore Frelinghuysen’s caliber would venture to calculate the moral cost.

That a figure of more modest stature like William A. Whitehead acquiesced in the policies of his employer is grounds, perhaps, for criticism, but certainly not for surprise. In his seven and a half years at the Key West custom house, Whitehead collected less money for the U.S. government than it spent, on average, to deport one Seminole.14 But he was destined to play a larger role in the coming crisis than anyone could have anticipated. The outbreak of war saw him take charge of South Florida’s defenses until military reinforcements arrived.

The interest with which Whitehead had considered the supposed destruction of Key West’s earliest inhabitants did not apply, at least in the beginning, to the plight of the contemporary Native. As editor of the island’s newspaper, he could summon no clearer arguments for “the red man” to depart than those advanced years earlier by President Jackson.15 It must be admitted that, long before the consequences of Jackson’s policy made themselves felt in the Florida Keys, Whitehead and most of his countrymen had been its participants and beneficiaries.

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] A thousand miles to the north, and more than four decades after the event, Whitehead incorporated details of this excavation “en passant” into the twelfth installment of his Reminiscences of Key West. Numbers 11 and 12 of the Reminiscences were entitled “Charlotte Harbor forty-seven years ago,” and published in Key of the Gulf (Key West, Fla.) on 16 and 30 June 1877. The author received these columns, pasting them into a copy of Walter C. Maloney’s A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876; hereafter “Maloney, A sketch”) now held by the University of Miami; they became 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, where the narrative of the Charlotte Harbor visit and the excavation on Key West are found at 33-38. A letterbook copy in Whitehead’s hand at the New Jersey Historical Society, part of Manuscript Group 734, supplies some variant readings. The journal from which Whitehead drew most of the content of Reminiscences 11 and 12 presumably antedates the ca. 1833 “dig” for it makes no mention of it, but it does contain references to earlier excavations. See note 4 below.

[2] W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, Key West Art & Historical Society (hereafter Memorandums vol. 2nd), 97-99. Whitehead appears to have written “adapted” for “adopted.” He adopted and often expressed the belief that the English pronunciation of Cayo Hueso was responsible for the name Key West. For more about his 1831 visit to the Charlotte Harbor fisheries, see my earlier post Fishermen’s friend.

[3] Notices of Key West for John Rodman Esq. St. Augustine, written December 1835, manuscript copy in Florida Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, 1a. The text is found 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) 62.

[4] Whitehead dated the discovery of this skeleton to the period before his first visit to the island: “in 1826-7” according to a note in Memorandums vol. 2nd 98, but “about the year 1823” according to an article in the Key West (Fla.) gazette 11 January 1832 2:2. The note in Memorandums also recorded a mound whose excavation “in 1824-5” produced “many bones, pieces of gold &c.” In the twelfth of the Reminiscences Whitehead added, “at least that was the story told subsequently….” Whitehead’s willingness to accept the legend of a Native “last stand” seems to have varied. In an 1835 editorial he wrote: “Traces of mounds and embankments along the western and southern shores of the island seem to bear evidence to the truth of the statement relative to this battle–the result of which, was a great number of bones left to bleach and moulder away upon the surface of the earth, causing the Spaniards to designate the Island as Bone Key.” “The ‘Keys’ in the West Indies, and ‘Key West,’” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 7 February 1835 3:1.

[5] Walter C. Maloney incorporated a lengthy quotation or paraphrase of Whitehead’s account from Caldez in Maloney, A sketch 5. Jefferson B. Browne, Key West the old and the new (St. Augustine, Fla. 1912) 8-9, followed suit, as did Enrique Sosa Rodríguez et al., Cuba y Cayo Hueso. Una historia compartida (Havana 2006) 5-6.

[6] “First inaugural address” (4 March 1829) and “Second annual message” (6 December 1830), in James D. Richardson, comp. A compilation of the messages and papers of the presidents 1789-1897 (Washington 1896) 2:436-438, 500-529, esp. 438, 521.

[7] Speech of Mr. Frelinghuysen, of New Jersey, delivered in the Senate of the United States, April 6, 1830, on the Bill for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the Mississippi (Washington 1830) 26.

[8] “Memorial to Congress by the Legislative Council,” in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 667.

[9] A $100 reward advertised in the Key West Enquirer suggests that, even at the southernmost limits of Florida, the chance of sanctuary among the Seminoles could tempt Blacks to flight: “ESCAPED from prison two negroes committed as runaways … they say they are free and will endeavor to pass as such–it is supposed they will try to get to the Indian nation….” The enquirer 24 January 1835 3:4.

[10] Wiley Thompson, Seminole Agency, to Elbert Herring, 28 October 1834, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXV. The territory of Florida 1835-1839 (Washington 1960; hereafter Territorial papers XXV) 58-63, esp. 61.

[11] Key West (Fla.) enquirer 8 November 1834 3:1.

[12] Duncan L. Clinch, Fort King, to the Adjutant General, 24 April 1835, in Territorial papers XXV 129.

[13] Claudio Saunt, Unworthy republic. The dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian Territory (New York and London 2020) 301.

[14] I have made this calculation using the yearly receipts from Whitehead as reported in the annual publication Account of the receipts and expenditures of the United States. Revenues from duties on merchandise and tonnage during Whitehead’s years as collector ranged from a high of $13,777.19 in 1833 to a low of $303.43 the following year. The total from January 1831 when he assumed the collectorship to the end of June 1838 when he resigned it was $30,445.30.

[15] With the prefatory observation that “Nothing can more clearly point out the advantages they would derive from a removal, than the following extract from President Jackson’s Message to Congress in December 1830,” Whitehead revived Jackson’s false equivalence between Indigenous deportation and the free westward migration of whites: “These remove hundreds, and almost thousands of miles, at their own expense, purchase the lands they occupy, and support themselves at their new home from the moment of their arrival. Can it be cruel in this Government, when, by events which it cannot control, the Indian is made discontented in his home, to purchase his lands, to give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the west on such conditions? If the offers made to the Indians were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 19 December 1835 2:3-4.

Images: 1) “The Indian Shell Mound, St. Petersburg, Fla.” 20th century. State Library and Archives of Florida.       2) Theodore Frelinghuysen: Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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