The fiefdom

KEY West the island sits upon a bed of limestone a hundred thousand years old, while Key West the city has for its foundation poor judgments and worse luck that, less than two centuries ago, with painful regularity piled up seagoing vessels on the Florida Reef.

That history created what attorney Charles Walker called “the city of the wreckers.” Its economy of salvage not only benefited the owners of wrecking vessels, wharves and warehouses, but sustained appraisers, arbitrators, auctioneers, clerks, notaries, grocers, keepers of grog shops–an entire population. “You will naturally enquire how we live,” Walker wrote to his relations in the North, “and the reply is very simple, in, by and through wrecks. If we are not directly interested in the business our support wholly comes from it. Stop that and we cease to live.”1

The wrecking industry impressed itself on all facets of Key West life. Its commercial houses vied for the proceeds of every seafarer’s mistake and misfortune littering the waters off Florida’s coast. It was a trade from which not even the island’s most respectable citizens were insulated: without it, in Walker’s words, the lone clergyman “would preach to the bare walls,” and the services of Judge Webb of the Admiralty Court “would no more be required here than in the Rocky Mountains.”

The wrecking business at Key West also concerned William A. Whitehead, as collector of customs. Maritime law required that cargo taken from stranded or disabled vessels be brought to an official port of entry, none other existing south of Saint Augustine, and salvaged goods once sold or distributed became subject to duty. “Our collector is no wrecker,” Walker wrote, but “a few fishing smacks” would constitute the whole of his traffic were it not for the commerce in wrecked merchandise.

In 1835 Whitehead counted twenty vessels–omitting “a few of small tonnage”–ready to render assistance amidst the hazards of the Florida Strait. Time and again, he rose to defend the conduct of wrecking captains and crews as meritorious, even heroic, when others regarded them as little better than smugglers and pirates.2

But in its control of all that pertained to wrecking, Key West didn’t go unchallenged. The arrangements there, which Whitehead would come to consider “systematic” and “well devised,”3 were not universally regarded as efficient or fair.

Whitehead’s responsibilities for the calculation of duty and levy of custom house fees entailed levels of precision and probity with which no one, perhaps, was better endowed than he.4 But it was less certain that the “great competition” Charles Walker detected didn’t mask a culture of collusion among Key West merchants, keeping insurers in the dark and outside bidders at bay, while driving up their own profits.5

Discontent with Key West’s wrecking monopoly was embodied in a single man who, not coincidentally, attracted as well all the suspicions to which the business could be subject. The wrecking career of Jacob Housman began when Key West was in its infancy, and continued after Whitehead left the Keys. At the height of his operations he had a dozen vessels engaged in the trade.

Not one to scruple at contravening the law for his own interests, Housman gained early notoriety by absconding with the cargo of a French brig found abandoned off the south Florida coast. While defending his own actions, he maligned the “conduct of the gentlemen of many avocations at Key-West, in their disposal of property falling under their control”: they were, he implied, in no way as “impartial and disinterested” as they pretended.6

Rather than remain at Key West, powerless, Housman made his base the tiny isle of Indian Key, eighty miles further east. While no match for Key West’s population or amenities, the establishment was far nearer to that stretch of the Florida Strait where most wrecks occurred. Buying up all of the island that he could, Housman effectively, if not legally, became sole owner of a “place of rendezvous for the Wreckers,”7 in whose affairs it was his plan that Key West would have little say.

When Whitehead became collector in 1831, he found a kinsman of his predecessor on Indian Key holding the office of inspector of customs. This man resigned the next year, perhaps at Whitehead’s insistence. Hoping his replacement would prove more effective at “preventing the frauds upon the revenue,” Whitehead proposed that two inspectors be named, one permanently stationed on Housman’s island, the other fitted out with “a proper boat” and crew to sail the entire Reef, and keep tabs on all the islands and inlets from Cape Florida to the Tortugas.8 If there was an iota of truth to one contemporary impression of Indian Key “that many nefarious transactions are effected here,”9 Whitehead had good reasons for the suggestions.

It couldn’t have pleased Jacob Housman or his associates that the collector of customs took a more active interest in affairs at Indian Key. In 1833 and 1834, a flurry of petitions from the latter place reached Washington, boasting of a “rapid increase of business at and in the vicinity of this Island.” The petitioners acclaimed Indian Key’s fine harbor, “not excelled by any in this Southern country.” They extolled its situation, almost at the midpoint of the Florida Keys. They noted, further, the preponderance of wrecks occurring nearby, and the losses in time and property incurred from having to transport cargo all the way to Key West. Had the advantages of Indian Key been known, they said, when the present collection district was created, “a Port of Entry would have been established here rather than at any other port or place on this coast.”10

Whitehead learned only in November 1834, he said, that “the good citizens of Indian Key” were seeking a port of entry and custom house all their own. His studied response didn’t address their boasts, and made no mention of Housman. While it was clear to Whitehead that the petitions took aim “at the prosperity of Key West,” in which he was “in some measure” interested, he pointed out that Indian Key already had a resident customs official, who was authorized to admit coastwise traffic and handle other matters. The limited trade and trading facilities of the wreckers’ rendezvous didn’t justify a second port of entry in the Keys.11

Whitehead thought the goal of the petitioners might be eventual removal from Key West of the Admiralty Court, with the result that “the entrance, adjudication &c of wrecks will be all within themselves.” But such a prospect seemed far off: “That such regulations may be necessary some years hence is not impossible, but they are not certainly at present….”

First page of a petition for the division of Monroe County. Jacob Housman’s is the lead signature.

Early hopes for a port of entry at Indian Key died in the halls of Congress, and that appeared to justify Whitehead’s serene dismissal of the threat. But with Jacob Housman, there was no shortage of resolve or powerful friends. A petition by 57 “sundry inhabitants of Monroe County,” with Housman’s signature heading the list, was sent to Tallahassee, requesting the division of the county into two. When the Territorial legislature convened at the beginning of 1836, it approved “An Act to organize a County to be called Dade County,” taking more than two-thirds of the Florida Keys and half the mainland from Monroe, whose seat was Key West, to create a new jurisdiction with its temporary seat at Indian Key.12

The petition to divide Monroe County had, as far as Whitehead could learn, been kept a secret from the vast majority of its residents. He believed that creation of a new county worked to the detriment of people in both, especially in the formation of juries for criminal and important civil cases: it promised to make this part of Florida, “by law, the pleasure ground of every villain….”13

The contest between Indian Key and Key West, now fully joined, raged against a backdrop of warfare with the Seminoles. For a time, the fear of attack drained all but those two islands of their white inhabitants. Housman and his friends continued to agitate for a port of entry but, having once had substantial trade with mainland Indians, he was now compelled to arm his vulnerable domain against them. War brought the nature of his designs into bold relief, precipitated his decline, and put an end to the commercial potential of Indian Key forever.

This battle for control of the wrecking economy overshadowed Whitehead’s last two years in the Keys. After he resigned and returned to the North, it became a source of even greater affliction for two years more, an episode that late in life he would revisit, writing it out in detail, though without bitterness.14

Whitehead lost none of his affection for Key West, where was laid “the foundation of my future usefulness….”15 His years as collector of customs were materially useful, in large part, because he understood the basis of its prosperity: the business of wrecking. In a modest effort to influence the choice of his successor, Whitehead couldn’t forbear to suggest that someone “already in some measure acclimated and acquainted” with wrecking matters be named. For, “to a stranger, the relations between the Custom House and this business would present difficulties perplexing to him, and consequently annoying to the community.”16

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Charles Walker, Key West, Fla., 1 February [1838], to Timothy and Lydia Walker, published in Kenneth Scott, “‘The city of wreckers.’ Two Key West letters of 1838,” Florida historical quarterly 25:2 (October 1946) (191-201) 193-194. Walker was appointed U. S. Attorney for Florida’s Southern District in 1839: Charles Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXV. The territory of Florida 1835-1839 (Washington 1960) (hereafter Territorial papers XXV) 599-600. An account of salvage in 1838, bearing Walker’s name, suggests that he was more than a casual student of the matter; it received national exposure in the pages of The American almanac and repository of useful knowledge, for the year 1840 (Boston 1839) 276-277.

[2] “Florida wreckers,” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 26 December 1835 3:1. For Whitehead’s defense of the wrecking community, see especially “North American Review vs. Florida wreckers,” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 15 August 1835 3:1-2, examined in my previous post The collectors (part 1). See also “Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 25 April 1835 3:1-2; “Wreckers,” The enquirer 13 June 1835 3:2; “Usefulness of Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 26 September 1835 3:1; “Misrepresentation. Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 5 December 1835 3:1-2. Judge Webb, too, commended the services of wrecking crews, in an opinion first printed in The enquirer 12 December 1835 4:(1-3) 2. Whitehead repeated Webb’s remarks in “Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 26 December 1835 3:1, and in 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, 8b-9a, text 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) 70.

[3] “Wrecking fifty years ago,” Reminiscences of Key West, No. 13, published in Key of the Gulf (Key West, Fla.) 7 July 1877, and in Thelma Peters, ed. “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta 1:25 (1965) (38-42) 39. References hereafter to Peters’s text appear in parentheses thus: (Peters 39).

[4] “During the summer of 1832, the Collector being absent, the duties of his office devolved upon Mr. [David C.] Pinkham, and a number of wrecks being brought in loaded with foreign merchandize entailing processes with which he was not familiar, it was not surprising that matters should not have gone on as smoothly as they would have done under other conditions.” Reminiscences of Key West, No. 9, published in Key of the Gulf  in May or June 1877 (Peters 28). The delicacy of custom house work is suggested by the episode of the British ship Eliza Plummer, on a portion of whose illegally salvaged cargo the deputy collector, in Whitehead’s absence, charged duty: “Look at this,” Key West (Fla.) gazette 5/8 September 1832 2:1-2.

[5] Contradicting Walker’s view of the Key West wrecking business is the denunciation a few years later by “A late resident of Florida” in Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine: “Wrecks, wrecking, wreckers, and wreckees, on Florida Reef,” The merchants’ magazine, and commercial review 6 (April 1842) 349-354.

[6] Jacob Housman, “To the public,” The Charleston (S.C.) courier 1 November 1825 2:4.

[7] The phrase is from Benjamin B. Strobel, whose anonymous “Sketches of Florida–No. 6. Indian Key, &c.,” in The Charleston (S.C.) Mercury 4 July 1833 2:4-5 (hereafter “Strobel, ‘Sketches, No. 6’”), was republished by T. Frederick Davis, “Pioneer Florida. Indian Key and wrecking, 1833,” Florida historical quarterly 22:2 (October 1943; hereafter “Hammond, ‘Pioneer Florida’”) 57-61. Strobel revised the column as “Sketches of Florida. No. III,” The Charleston (S.C.) courier 5 May 1837 (hereafter “Strobel, ‘Sketches, No. III’”) 2:3. See E. A. Hammond, ed. “Wreckers and wrecking on the Florida Reef, 1829-1832,” Florida historical quarterly 41:3 (January 1963) 239-273, and E. A. Hammond, ed. “Sketches of the Florida Keys, 1829-1833,” Tequesta 29 (1969) 73-94.

[8] Alfred B. Thruston, a relation of former collector Algernon S. Thruston, held the inspector’s position at Indian Key until summer 1832. The Treasury Department approved Whitehead’s nomination of Charles Howe to replace him, but not that of William Bunce as a second, waterborne inspector. W. A. Whitehead, Perth Amboy, N.J., 23 August 1832, to Louis McLane; W. A. Whitehead, Key West, Fla., 26 October 1832, to Louis McLane; Louis McLane, Washington, D.C., 21 November 1832, to W. A. Whitehead.  Copies in Correspondence of the Secretary of the Treasury with Collectors of Customs, 1789-1833, Record Group 56, General Records of the Department of the Treasury, National Archives and Records Administration, reproduced as Microcopy No. 178, Roll 38.

[9] Strobel, “Sketches, No. 6,” 2:4; Hammond, “Pioneer Florida” 58. Cf. Strobel, “Sketches, No. III,” 2:3.

[10] “Memorial to Congress by inhabitants of Indian Key,” in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959; hereafter Territorial papers XXIV) 863-865; cf. Jacob Hausman [Housman], Indian Key, Fla., 6 January 1834, to Joseph M. White, in Territorial papers XXIV 938-939.

[11] William A. Whitehead, Key West 24 November 1834, to Joseph M. White, in Territorial papers XXV 67-68.

[12] Petition of citizens of Monroe County to the Florida Territorial Legislative Council requesting a division of their county, Territorial Legislative Council unicameral period records, 1822-1838, State Archives of Florida, S 876, Box 6/3; Acts of the Governor and Legislative Council, of the territory of Florida: passed at the fourteenth session. Begun and held at the city of Tallahassee, on Monday January 4th, and ended Sunday February 14th, 1836 (Tallahassee 1836) 19.

[13] “Division of Monroe County,” Key West inquirer 5 March 1836 2:2. First reports of the division appear to have left Whitehead bewildered, and unsure how to respond: “We consider it one of the wildest schemes that we have heard of lately, but until we hear something more definite respecting it, must remain in doubt as to what will result from the measure.” Key West inquirer 13 February 1836 2:1. His opposition soon crystallized around a citizens’ petition to Florida’s representative in Congress: William A. Whitehead, Key West, 26 February 1836, to Joseph M. White, with enclosed “Petition and remonstrance to Congress by inhabitants of Monroe and Dade Counties,” in Territorial papers XXV 238-243.

[14] The intrigues following Whitehead’s 1838 departure from Key West are far too complex to be treated here. He provided a third-person narrative of the struggle, and his central part in it, in “Dade County and Indian Key,” Reminiscences of Key West, Nos. 2-3, published in Key of the Gulf  7 and 21 April 1877 (Peters 7-13).

[15] Transcription of an unpublished memoir under the title “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which copies are held by The Florida Keys History Center, Monroe County Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 44 of the transcription contains the reference.

[16] W. A. Whitehead, Key West 28 February 1838, to Levi Woodbury, in Applications for Appointments as Custom Service Officers, 1833-1910, Records of the Division of Appointments, Record Group 56, General Records of the Department of the Treasury, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 40.

Images: 1) Indian Key, the wrecker’s rendezvous, in J. B. Holder, “Along the Florida Reef,” Harper’s new monthly magazine 42:249-252 (February–May 1871) (355-363, 515-526, 706-718, 820-830) 362. 2) Petition of citizens of Monroe County to the Florida Territorial Legislative Council requesting a division of their county. Territorial Legislative Council unicameral period records, 1822-1838, State Archives of Florida, via Florida Memory. State Library and Archives of Florida.

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