Along the Florida Reef, 1870
Page 2
By Jerry Wilkinson

     [We continue with Dr. J. B. Holder's published papers of his experiences in the Florida Keys in 1860 and 1861. He has completed his dissertation of farming and a lengthy explanation of Keys birds. We join him continuing his voyage. JW] 

     "Meanwhile we get underway for Indian Key, the grand rendezvous for the wreckers, fortunately for us near at hand. Indian Key is one of the few islands of the Reef that can be called inhabited. Here for many years the wreckers have resorted, as it is convenient as a midway station and the safest harbor in heavy weather. Like the island of Key West it is increased in height be a lime formation called oolite. The foundation is probably the same as the other keys, but nearly twelve feet of extraneous matter has accumulated upon it. The soil is excellent, and various tropical trees and shrubs thrive well there. The whole island seems to have been under cultivation. Fine cocoa palms and many flowering shrubs are here, and what with the several houses the place looks quite village-like and picturesque. Wrecking was a lively business when the highway of commerce bore great numbers of ships richly laden with cotton; and here those hardy mariners found convenient resort. The anchorage is safe and valuable for that class of vessels. Other places, more or less protected, were frequented; and certain stations were recognized, mostly within sight of the reef.

"The wrecking vessels are usually small schooners, much like our pilot boats, owned frequently by companies who fit them out, and divide the profits with those concerned. Vessels consort with others, and a system of signals is used. They anchor within sight of each other along the reef, and readily exchange signals when a wreck is seen. A vessel unluckily strikes upon the reef, the fore and aft canvas of a wrecker is seen bearing down upon her, and ere the hull is quite visible above the horizon white specks in the distance grow sprectre-like into life, and soon spread a protecting cordon around the hapless craft. So promptly do these vessels come to the rescue they are likened to the condor shat swoops down upon his prey; but the valuable aid to life and property rendered by the wreckers of the Florida Reef should be subject of more just appreciation. Rather let these 'toilers of the sea' be seen as they are: watchers by day and night; sea-faring sentinels in their snug craft, pacing the deck under the tropic sun heat, or peering forth from the mast-head as they are tossed upon the gale. Good men and true most of them. They are average men, not pirates. . . ." [Dr. Holder continued his praise for the wrecker and his assessment is correct given the years he observed the wrecking industry. US courts were by 1860 well established and Judge Marvin awarded significantly better claims where the ship, crew and cargo were saved. Dr. Benjamin Strobel wrote and entirely different story for the Charleston Courier in 1837.]

    " This picturesque island has a few of the old houses remaining that were built during the Indian war. At one time the whole place was burned, and was the scene of a fearful massacre. The present proprietor [William Bethel] of the island, now living here was one of the few who escaped with their lives. It was the old story, whisky and close bargains. The Indians were incensed, and came in a body, burning and destroying. There was, however, one notably exception, the family of Mr. [Charles] Howe, who had always treated the Indians with kindness and fairness. They were not harmed, though the savages who had made the attack were insane liquor stolen from the stores, and ready for any act of cruelty.

     "Dr. Perrine, a gentleman who had located here for the purpose of pursuing studies in natural history, was burned to death in his house, his family escaping by boats. We are led to the end of the island, and shown where the savage Seminole warriors crept softly from their canoes in the darkness to ply the fire-brand and tomahawk, and to 'frighten the isle from its propriety' with their terrible war-whoop. Near by was an ambitious-looking slab, covering a brick tomb. [I believe this is the only account describing Housman's tomb being of brick.] Considering the result of the incumbent's dealing with the Indians, one is apt to reflect upon the old adage, viz. 'Such is life.' The inscription which we found written on the slab is the following:

sic transit gloria mundi
Here lyeth the body of Capt. Jacob Houseman, who
died by accident.
To his friends he was sincere, to his enemies kind; to
all men faithful.
[The slab is now on Lignum Vitae Key.]
Houseman [sic] and others were fortunate in reaching the revenue cutter, which was lying at anchor in the harbor, but died some years later.

    " In often times, when cotton ships were frequently ashore on the Reef, and wreckers were numerous, this island resounded to the high reveling of its frequenters. The large storehouse was made redolent with fumes of Jamaica rum, and resonant with tones of the violin. Jig dances and clog dances and walk arounds, checkers and old sledge, were their amusements. Pableau is a good violinist, and now, responsive to a loud from interested islanders, who had collected at the old store, he furnished music to a rehearsal of the old time scenes.

     "Among the residents was an old hulk, who had been driven ashore here years ago, and now lived on Lignum-vitae Key, near by, where he raised a few water-melons, and so kept hunger from his door, selling his produce to dealers in Key West.  Old in the service of the sea, Captain Cole is yet hale and hearty, at temperate man, and one well worth  the acquaintance of any one who should happen to drift that way. He is Norwegian by birth, and a very intelligent man; having no friends, he prefers to live alone, almost a hermit's life. Boats for the sponge trade are built here; one upon the stocks was quite egg-shaped; made to cater largely, and to run in shallow water.

     "We were quite amused at a scene which we encountered on our first landing; but were told that it was of almost daily occurrence. A brace of Indian pullets -- Aranus giganteus-- [limpkin] alighted on a tree, when forthwith several women sallied out and 'drew bead' upon them. The lucky ones bagged the game and withdrew, wringing the necks, and resuming work with an air of practiced hands.

     "From Indian Key to Virginia Key and Cape Florida, the extreme eastern point, the island are separated by wider and deeper channels, and here it became quite evident that so much cable would be required between the keys nothing would be gained by adopting this route. The survey was rapidly made from here. At Cape Florida light we anchored, after a two week's sojourn on the waters of the Reef. In our boats we proceeded across the sound, seven miles, to the mouth of the Miami River, at the southernmost extremity of Florida, where we met the overland party in camp at Old Fort Dallas."

     The above are the highlights of the cultural portions of Dr. Holder's first paper. In his second paper he concentrates on the Miami/Cape Sable area, the third paper Fort Taylor and Key West, the fourth,  fifth and sixth papers the Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas area. There are excellent concentrations of the flora and fauna of these areas. These were all Monroe County property at the time. JW

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