Most painful intelligence

This image of the “savage dance” was used to sensationalize Seminole violence against whites, but did not originate in Florida.

MAJOR Francis L. Dade accepted an urgent salute, and was handed his orders. The six weeks they had needed to travel from St. Augustine to Key West, and Dade’s own month-long leave of absence, meant the orders were no longer new. Poor communications between the mainland and the Keys plagued the military as much as the civilian population: Dade himself had complained about them.1

South Florida held little appeal for the tall, well-made Virginian. Unsuccessfully he had pleaded not to be stationed there, citing the recent death of his second child and his own impaired constitution. For the four winter months of 1833-34, he failed to report. He then obtained leave by special order for an additional seven months, and only assumed his command three weeks after the leave expired.2

In 1835 Dade’s assignment was greatly expanded. With a single infantry company based at Key West, he was charged with protecting an area larger than half a dozen states. Coordinating with the post at Tampa Bay, he was to compel any Seminoles found along the west coast to withdraw, and “order within their limits” the Indians in the east, to guard against attacks on the white settlements near Cape Florida.3

The orders now handed him by his new adjutant, 23-year-old Benjamin F. Alvord, signaled that, at least for a time, south Florida’s inhabitants would have to live without Dade’s protection. He would remain at Key West just long enough to assemble supplies and equipment, then bring the Fourth Infantry Regiment’s 39 men on active duty to Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay. Dade, Alvord, Acting Assistant Surgeon Benjamin F. Nourse and the soldiers of B Company sailed on 16 December 1835 aboard the transport schooner Motto. This was the very government-owned vessel on which Dade, perhaps with a foreboding of trouble, had shipped his young wife and daughter a month ago to stay with family in Pensacola.4

If William A. Whitehead is any guide, the content of Dade’s orders came as no surprise to many at Key West. For a year, Whitehead had sharpened his journalistic talents at the head of the weekly Key West Inquirer. (At the start of its second year, the paper’s nameplate introduced a spelling change, having read Key West Enquirer for its first three months of life, and simply The Enquirer afterwards.) It was “understood,” Whitehead wrote, “for a week or two past, that the Company of Infantry stationed here had been ordered to Tampa to aid in effecting the removal of the Seminole Indians….” Between the day Whitehead penned those words and the day they were published, Major Dade and his company were underway for Fort Brooke.5

The sails of the Motto were seen billowing again in Key West’s harbor two days after Christmas. This time the schooner took aboard two cannons and ammunition for Tampa Bay, and left behind an ailing patient, together with the surgeon Dr. Nourse, and word of a perilous new mission.6 George W. Gardiner, captain of an artillery company dispatched to reinforce Fort Brooke, had been named to lead a detachment one hundred miles inland to relieve the beleaguered Fort King. The order was to be carried out as soon as “practicable.”

The condition of his wife Frances inhibited Gardiner’s “earnest desire to go with his company”: she lay at Fort Brooke “exceedingly ill” by the testimony of Alvord, “and it was supposed that if her husband left, she would not live.” But on learning of the Motto’s imminent return to Key West, where the Gardiners’ children were staying with grandparents and Mrs. Gardiner would likely receive better care than in an army infirmary, her husband placed her on the departing transport, and rushed to rejoin his company already on its way to Fort King.7

As had been agreed at the beginning of the march, another man now led the detachment; he had offered to take Gardiner’s place “under circumstances which reflect upon him the highest honor,” and Gardiner accepted. Out of gratitude to that officer, and unbeknownst to the passengers of the Motto, Gardiner did not resume the command. He and the troops were now under the orders of Major Francis Dade.8

The threat of attack was on the mind of every man who followed Dade into Florida’s Indian country. But until 28 December 1835, the thought of an ambush by a force superior in numbers and weaponry, an ambush so intelligently planned and skillfully executed that it left a hundred United States soldiers to bleed out their lives in the sandy soil–this was beyond all imagining. Riding near the front of the column, Dade was killed that morning in the first hail of bullets. So too were the members of his advance guard, probably including the eleven infantrymen who had accompanied him all the way here from Key West.9

The site of the Dade battle, along the road from Fort Brooke to Fort King.

George Gardiner, who bellowed commands to his artillerymen as they loaded and fired the detachment’s only field piece, fell in the final assault, silenced along with his cannon. The six other officers were also cut down: the last of these, William E. Basinger, instructed with his dying breaths a badly wounded private, 23-year-old Ransom Clark, “to lay down and feign myself dead.” Clark would thus be one of the three to survive the slaughter, to crawl the sixty miles back to Fort Brooke and reveal the magnitude of the loss. He was the only living witness to leave a written account.10

The first published narrative of the battle took the form of a letter from Fort Brooke; it appeared in a New Orleans newspaper on the 11th of January. William Whitehead learned the grim details far sooner than if he’d relied on the press of a distant city, for the captain of the Motto had conveyed them by another schooner bound for the port of Key West.11

On the 14th, the Inquirer office issued an “extra,” a single sheet bringing “intelligence … of the most painful character,–such as is seldom the province of the Press in our day to record.”12 The reporting of such catastrophes must always be tempered by compassion: as Whitehead divulged the horrible news, he also tried to give words to the grief and shock felt in a community that had known the dead personally. Major Dade, he wrote,

was thought, from his acquaintance with Indian warfare, to be well calculated for the service upon which he was ordered. He was highly esteemed here … both as a gentleman and officer, and the loss society has sustained from his death is deeply deplored.

Key West mourned, too, with the bereaved wife and children of Captain Gardiner, “who are now here, and we understand that Lieut. Bessenger [sic] has also left a family.”13

Whitehead’s “extra” of 14 January 1836, reporting the annihilation of Major Dade’s command on 28 December and the massacre at New River on 6 January.

Whitehead, though, had little leisure to dwell on a tragedy enacted a few hundred miles away, now that the sprawling south Florida jurisdiction assigned to Dade was temporarily his. The report of an Indian massacre at the New River enclave–the modern Fort Lauderdale–caused the settlement to be totally abandoned. Cape Florida was thought insufficiently safe, driving panicked settlers in the direction of Key West. These included the keeper of the Cape Florida lighthouse, its vital beacon left dark for several nights.

Whatever brought about the New River attack (the circumstances are murky, and appear to have been the object of some distortion),14 Whitehead had ample reason to be concerned. With militants from the Southern states mobilizing “for the defence of the inhabitants of Florida,”15 he worried that such pressure would only push the natives further down the peninsula. Of equal urgency was a swelling refugee crisis, as many as 200 having turned up at Key West in the first week. Some had only the clothes on their backs. Here was yet another situation demanding “prompt and efficient action on the part of the Government.”16 But for the moment Whitehead was almost all the government there was.

The townspeople of Key West held an emergency meeting near Clinton Place to organize their militia. This “motley assemblage” must have bristled with an odd array of weapons, for Whitehead could not but think of Falstaff’s ragtag army.17 Committees were formed to run night patrols on land and sea (although these were soon abandoned), cut down trees that could give cover to an Indian invasion, and send appeals for assistance to two American vessels of war lying at anchor in Havana. Thanks in part to Whitehead’s friendly acquaintance with a master of one of those vessels, a naval force arrived promptly in Key West harbor, ready to help clear the woods near the town, patrol the waters around the Keys, and see to the re-lighting of the Cape Florida lighthouse.18

Whitehead warned in the Key West Inquirer that the Cape Florida light was out of service, owing to Indian “depridations”.

Whitehead assured the citizens of Key West that their island, being the farthest from the mainland, was least in danger.19 But there could be no swift return to business as usual, for them or for him. Whitehead too had gone to war, as customs collector and superintendent of lights, and as editor of the Inquirer. Through the pages of the latter, he continued to press the national government to rehabilitate its post on Key West, and to add new fortifications on the Gulf and Atlantic sides of the mainland. He aired a modest proposal to build shallow-draft boats for expeditions into the interior.20

Whitehead also used the Inquirer to correct misapprehensions, counter falsehoods and offset the sensationalism in which many, including some in his own circle, were liable to indulge.21 These had sparked the Florida war in the first place, and added fuel to it. While he could not openly criticize the aims of the government he represented, he could silently deplore its many, deadly failures.

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Francis L. Dade, Garrison of Key West 14 August 1835, to T. S. Jessup, 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) 168-169. As supporting evidence Dade separately sent to Washington a copy of the Key West Enquirer, probably that of the week before, which complained of egregious delays in the mail packet from Charleston: cf. The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 8 August 1835 3:1.

[2] F. L. Dade, Fredericksburg (Va.) 12 October 1833, to Alexander Macomb, in Letters received by the Office of the Adjutant General, Main Series, 1833, D105; Returns from U.S. military posts, Key West and Key West Barracks (Fla.) (hereafter Returns), November 1833–November 1834. Both: Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762-1984, National Archives and Records Administration.

[3] D. L. Clinch, Fort King (Fla.) 24 April 1835, to Roger Jones; Robert P. Smith, Fort King 24 April 1835, to Dade; D. L. Clinch, St. Augustine (Fla.) 8 October 1835, to Roger Jones; Territorial papers XXV 129-131, 169, 183-184.

[4] A recent West Point graduate, Benjamin Alvord joined the Key West garrison 17 October 1835, while Dade was conducting reconnaissance around Cape Florida and the New River settlement. Returns, October–November 1835. Cf. D. L. Clinch, Fort Drane (Fla.) 16 December 1835, to Jones, Territorial papers XXV 214. “Passengers,” The enquirer 14 November 1835 3:3.

[5] “Important from Tampa,” Key West inquirer 19 December 1835 2:3-4. This issue, the first number of volume 2, introduced the change of spelling. “We this week commence the second year of our editorial labors,” Whitehead wrote. “We present some slight alterations in the size and appearance of our paper, which we have deemed necessary, and hope they will meet the approbation of our subscribers.” Ibid. 2:2.

[6] “From Tampa–The Indians,” Key West inquirer 2 January 1836 2:4.

[7] Benjamin Alvord, Fort Brooke 31 December 1835, to R. C. Buchanan, quoted in “Seminole War,” The Army and Navy chronicle n.s. 2:4 (28 January 1836) 56; “A late staff officer” [Woodburne Potter], The war in Florida: being an exposition of its causes, and an accurate history of the campaigns of Generals Clinch, Gaines and Scott (Baltimore 1836) 102-103.

[8] Whitehead’s report in early January suggests Dade was known at Key West to have retained the command: “The situation of Fort King being considered the most exposed, two companies had been ordered thither under Major Dade.” “From Tampa – The Indians,” Inquirer 2 January 1836 2:3.

[9] Cf. Albert Hubbard Roberts, “The Dade Massacre,” Florida historical quarterly 5:3 (January 1927) (123-138) 134 n18.

[10] Daily evening advertiser (Portland, Me.) 31 March 1836 2:1-2; Narrative of Ransom Clark, the only survivor of Major Dade’s command in Florida; containing brief descriptions of what befell him from his enlistment in 1833, till his discharge, in 1836; with an account of the inhuman massacre, by the Indians and Negroes, of Major Dade’s detachment (Binghamton 1839) 12-16.

[11] J. Mountfort, Fort Brooke 1 January 1836, to Putnam P. Rea, in New Orleans (La.) commercial bulletin 11 January 1836 2:2. Word of the loss of Dade’s detachment had spread to other ports before the printing of Mountfort’s letter, leading to a widely disseminated account published the same day at Mobile: “Indian massacre!” Mobile (Ala.) daily commercial register and patriot 11 January 1836 2:1. Whitehead’s information, however, came straight from Fort Brooke, in the form of a letter of Captain J. M. Armstrong, “sent to the Editor of the Key West Enquirer,” dated 9 January and received on the 10th, according to Dr. Nourse: Benjamin F. Nourse, Key West 12 January 1836, to Col. M. (Michael) Nourse, Nourse family papers, MS 1390, Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives, Box 1, Folder 9. Nourse copied the text of Armstrong’s letter into his own.

[12] “The Inquirer–Extra. Key West, January 14, 1836.” Whitehead sent a copy of this sheet with a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, communicating the abandonment of the Cape Florida lighthouse and “the unprotected state of the whole coast”: W. A. Whitehead, Key West 13 January 1836, to Lewis Woodbury (with enclosures), Letters received by the Office of the Adjutant General, 1836 (hereafter “Letters received, 1836”), W17, in: Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762-1984, National Archives and Records Administration.

[13] Whitehead reprinted the text of the Extra in the Inquirer of 16 January 1836 2:1-3, correcting two details in the earlier report of the New River attack (see the next note). As with so much of the Inquirer’s content, his initials, added to the University of Florida copy of this newspaper, identify him as the author. Whitehead recalled how news of the tragedy was received, in a newspaper column written forty years after the event: “It is scarcely necessary to say that the island was thrown into a state of great agitation and alarm by this untoward event, brought home to all more closely from the fact that both officers and men had been long enough at Key West to become generally known personally.” “Incidents of the Seminole War,” Reminiscences of Key West, No. 5, published in Key of the Gulf (Key West, Fla.) in April or May 1877, and in Thelma Peters, ed. “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: the journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) (3-42; hereafter “Incidents”) 16. References to Peters’s text appear in parentheses thus: (Peters 16).

[14] Between the printing of the Extra on 14 January and the reprinting in the Inquirer two days later, Whitehead had to correct his report of the New River massacre on two points: The Indians had killed, not the mother of William Cooley, his wife, two children and their tutor, but Cooley’s wife, three children and their tutor; and had not left the Cooley home unburned as first reported, but only the outbuildings (“the house in which he kept arrow root and the machinery with which he manufactured it”): “The Indians!!! Horrible intelligence from the seat of war,” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 2:1-3; “Further particulars of the outrage at New River,” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 2:3-4. The value of dry goods carried off by the attackers, given as $7000 on the 16th, was reduced to $700 the following week: “Errata,” Key West inquirer 23 January 1836 2:1. More substantive questions surround the identity of those responsible for the slayings and Cooley’s prior intimacy with them, for which see Cooper Kirk, “William Cooley: Broward’s legend,” Broward legacy 1:1 (October 1976) 12-20, 1:2 (January 1977) 24-36. Whitehead entertained the suggestion that the warriors had the care of those native women and children “sent to a place of safety in the interior,” and “may have made their murderous attack upon Mr. Cooley’s family when on some hunting expedition.” “From Cape Florida,” Key West inquirer 30 January 1836 2:2. Forty years later, he would attribute the attack not to treachery but to “personal differences”: “Incidents” (Peters 17).

[15] “Volunteers for Florida,” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 2:4.

[16] “The Inquirer–Extra. Key West, January 14, 1836”; “The Indians!!!” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 2:2; cf. W. A. Whitehead, Key West 13 January 1836, to Lewis Woodbury (with enclosures), Letters received, 1836, W17, in: Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762-1984, National Archives and Records Administration; “The Indians,” Key West inquirer 23 January 1836 2:2.

[17] “Incidents” (Peters 16-17). “We have no cannon,” wrote Deputy Collector Adam Gordon in the Inquirer, “but must depend solely on muskets without bayonets, rifles, pistols, and a species of short broad swords, or more properly cane-knives.” “From Tallahassee,” Key West inquirer 13 February 1836 2:3.

[18] W. A. Whitehead, Key West 11 January 1836, to Alexander J. Dallas, Territorial papers XXV 222; “Naval,” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 2:4; “Naval,” Key West inquirer 23 January 1836 2:2-3; “Incidents” (Peters 17).

[19] “The Indians,” Key West inquirer 23 January 1836 2:2.

[20] “From Cape Florida,” Key West inquirer 30 January 1836 2:2; “Indian affairs,” Key West inquirer 12 March 1836 2:2.

[21] Whitehead’s efforts were directed in particular at the recurring assertion that arms were being smuggled to the Seminoles from Cuba through the Gulf Coast fisheries around Charlotte Harbor: “Arms of the Indians,” Key West inquirer 13 February 1836 3:1-2; “Alliance between the Indians and Spaniards,” Key West inquirer 19 March 1836 2:2-3. Cf. “From Tampa,” Key West inquirer 20 February 1836 3:1.

Images: 1) “Savage dance”: “Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida” (detail), An authentic narrative of the Seminole war; its cause, rise and progress, and a minute detail of the horrid massacres of the Whites, by the Indians and Negroes, in Florida, in the months of December, January and February (Providence 1836). Cf. Narrative of the massacre, by the savages, of the wife and children of Thomas Baldwin, who, since the melancholy period of the destruction of his unfortunate family, has dwelt entirely alone, in a hut of his own construction, secluded from human society, in the extreme western part of the State of Kentucky (New York 1835). 2) Dade’s battleground: J. E. Johnson, Copy of a map of the seat of war in Florida forwarded to the War Department by Major Genl. W. Scott U.S.A. (Philadelphia 1836) (detail), courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology. 3) “The Inquirer–Extra. Key West, January 14, 1836.” Letters received by the Office of the Adjutant General, 1836, W17, in: Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762-1984, National Archives and Records Administration. 4) “Notice to mariners,” Key West inquirer 16 January 1836 3:2.

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