Jacob housman of indian key florida international university

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Jacob Housman of Indian Key


In the early 1820's a young captain appeared on the Florida reef whose name was to become notorious in those parts. During some fifteen years in South Florida, Jacob Housman was known far and near as an enterprising, adventurous, and unscrupulous man-as a bold wrecker and the autocratic proprietor of Indian Key. The manner of his coming to Florida waters, if we may accept the account given by Ned Buntline,' was perfectly consonant with his later career.

Housman, so the story runs, "was entrusted with the command of a small schooner at an early age, by his father, who owned the vessel. She was employed in the coasting and packet business along the shores of Staten and Long Islands, also up North River. The young Captain, however, was too much of a sailor to keep fresh water, and one day took it into his head to make a 'West Indie' trip without asking his father's permission, making said experiment in his father's vessel. The young Captain never reached his destination, for running off his course he struck the Florida reef. This injured his little craft so much that he was obliged to put into Key West for repairs, during which time he got such an insight into the 'wrecking' business that he concluded to become a wrecker himself. His father having insisted upon considering Jacob's elopement in the light of a theft, the Captain could not return to New York with safety, therefore this was the very business for him to take up." 2

Ned Buntline apparently concurred with those who thought Florida wreckers to be little better than pirates or thieves. It is not too much to say that Housman, more than any other man, was responsible for the ill-repute in which the wrecking business was held. Arriving on the reef in the days before there was any effective regulation of wrecking, he continued to operate in a high-handed and oftentimes illegal manner even after the business was placed under the supervision of the Superior Court at Key West in 1828. 3

The first notices we find of Housman's activities as a wrecker appear in the fall of 1825, in connection with the French brig Revenge, although he had previously "been much engaged in the wrecking business."" The Revenge,




bound from Campeachy to France with cochineal and logwood, early in September went on the reef about three miles from Caesar's Creek. Housman boarded her after she had bilged and been abandoned by her crew. On September 7 he took off in his schooner William Henry "eight Ceroons of cochineal, two boxes of Sugar, and a quantity of Logwood unknown, but supposed to be twelve tons, and a parcel of sails and rigging." 5

Whether he decided to appropriate the salvaged goods without benefit of legal proceedings or clashed with the authorities at Key West over the adjudication of salvage is not clear. But on September 25, Fielding A. Browne, of Key West, charged him with "a most villainous act," namely with robbing the Revenge. It was the intention of Housman, who had "defied both the civil and military authorities of this place," Browne said, "to proceed to Charleston to dispose of his cargo." Browne therefore requested Captain Brown of the U. S. revenue cutter Florida,to pursue Housman and recover the French property. 6

Whatever his intentions might have been, on September 27 Housman brought the salvaged goods into St. Augustine. A week later he libeled the property under the territorial law of July 4, 1823, which provided for adjudication of salvage by a five-man jury. The St. Augustine jury allowed Housman 95 per cent. Considering the award excessive, the French consul at Charleston, who happened to be in St. Augustine, took the case into the Superior Court, where Judge Joseph L. Smith found the territorial law invalid. He did, however, award two-thirds salvage to Housman. 7

In the meantime, Fielding A. Browne's letter charging Housman with theft had been widely published. Pointing to the Superior Court's decree as a vindication of his conduct, Housman branded the charge as libel. Then, as was to be his custom, he hit back at his opponent. He would, he said, "take another occasion to lay before the public, a history of the impartial and disinterested conduct of the gentlemen of many avocations at Key West, in their disposal of property falling under their control, and it will then be fairly understood whether there was more wisdom or folly in my giving preference to a decision at St. Augustine over one at Key West."8 From that day on, a dogged enmity underlay relations between Housman and the Key Westers.

Three years later Housman was again in the news as the result of a collusive agreement with the captain of the French brig Vigilant. The Vigilant, which was carrying $32,000 in specie in addition to a regular cargo, went on shore near Key Vacas. She afterwards floated herself, but was surrounded by shoal water and accepted the services of two wreckers to pilot her into Key Vacas. After she was safely at anchor in a good harbor, Housman ar-



rived in the wrecking sloop Sarah Isabella and agreed to pilot her to Key West for 75 percent on the vessel, cargo, and specie, "with an understanding that Housman would return part of the money to the Captain, for Himself." Vessel and cargo were sold at Key West and the 75 percent duly paid to Housman. One of the real salvors of the Vigilant sued the Captain for $6,000 salvage. The latter deposited that amount with an agent and sailed for Charleston with Housman. 9

It was undoubtedly his wrecking profits that enabled Housman to develop Indian Key. This island, only eleven or twelve acres in area, not only possessed a good harbor for wreckers but was admirably situated for a wrecking rendezvous, lying as it does halfway between Key West and Cape Florida. Housman acquired it in 1825 from two squatters named Fletcher and Prince. who had settled there a year or two before.o1 All accounts agree that he spent lavishly on the improvement of the key, transforming it, as one observer wrote, from a barren rock into "a miniature Eden." "It is, upon the whole," remarked another, "a delightful residence, reminding me forcibly of the lines of Moore-

"'Oh had we some bright little isle of our own, In a blue summer ocean far off and alone.' "'I

Housman neatly laid off the island into streets and squares. He built himself "a large and elegant mansion," erected another large building for use as a hotel, and constructed a number of smaller houses for the families of his crews. He extended three substantial wharves out to the channels on the north and south of the key. He had several cisterns cut in solid rock to store rain water, and laboriously brought top soil from a distance to make gardens in which subtropical fruits and flowers flourished.' 3 By 1834 he was said to have spent nearly $40,000 on such improvements.'"

In December, 1832, the Government stationed a customs inspector at Indian Key, Charles Howe being appointed to the post. 15 The harbor must have been quite a busy little port, for Howe reported 637 arrivals in 1834 and 703 in 1835.16 On the other hand, the charge of Key Westers was probably true that "every little fishing boat, turtler, or wrecking vessel that stops there is noted as an arrival"in order to magnify the commerce of the place. 17

In the spring of 1834 a post office was established with regular monthly mails from Charleston and New York. In an advertisement dated May 15, 1834, Henry S. Waterhouse, postmaster, stated, "All letters and papers for persons residing on this island, at Cape Florida, Kayo-Biscayno, New River, Key Vacas, on board the lightship Florida, or on board any of the wrecking



vessels, excepting the Pizarro, will reach their intended destination most readily if mailed for this Office."' 8

As this advertisement indicates, many wreckers used Indian Key as a headquarters where they procured provisions and ships stores and were in an advantageous position to hurry to wrecks occurring to the eastward. Housman held a tight rein over his little island and exploited its advantages to the utmost. As his fortunes increased, he acquired three more wrecking vessels. His was the hotel which provided accommodations for transients and amusement for wreckers ashore in the form of billiards and nine pins. His, also, was the sole mercantile establishment, which grossed $30,000 a year from its trades with wreckers, settlers to the eastward, and Indians of the Southern coast.

"There are many poor persons, and some of them not noted for honesty, settled on the Florida Keys," wrote a visitor in 1833, "who are compelled to deal with this man. He, by allowing them credit and indulgence in his store, gains an ascendency which he turns to some account. These people are his agents, or spies . . . when occasion requires they are brought in as disinterested witnesses to prove a meritorious claim for salvage."'1

One such case, for which ample documentation exists, was that of the North Carolina, Captain George McIntyre, which left Apalachicola for Charleston March 9, 1833, laden with 336 bales of cotton. On the night of March 14 she went ashore at low tide on Pickles Reef. The Hyder Alley, Joshua B. Smith, master, came up at daybreak to relieve her. Although neither took any part in the relief of the North Carolina, the Sarah Isabella, Housman, master, and the Brilliant, Austin Packer, master, were consorted with the Hyder Alley and would, according to the custom of the reef, automatically share in any salvage awarded the latter. The Hyder Alley took off 115 bales of the deck load to lighten the schooner. The North Carolinathen floated off the reef and accompanied the Hyder Alley into Indian Key.

Housman, neglecting to inform McIntyre of his own financial interest in the salvage, persuaded the Captain to consign schooner and cargo to him as agent and to submit the salvage to arbitration instead of going to Key West. Lemuel Otis and Charles M. Johnson, both residents of Indian Key, were named arbitrators. They appraised schooner and cargo at $8,940, valuing the cotton at $20 a bale although it had actually cost $36 in Apalachicola, and awarded 35 percent salvage. McIntyre paid the salvage of $3,129 with 122 bales of cotton, $100 in cash, and a $600 draft on the owner of the cargo. In addition to his share of this salvage, Housman received the customary agent's commission of 5 percent, or $156.45, on the salvage.



Housman apparently expected to reap additional profit by purchasing the other two salvors' share of the cotton at the low appraised price. When Oliver O'Hara, as agent of the consignees, on May 18 libeled the cotton taken from the North Carolina, Housman appeared as claimant. At that time he had only 72 bales in his warehouse, having sold 50 bales in Charleston at $50. Judge James Webb of the Superior Court at Key West decreed restitution of the 72 bales to the consignees on the grounds of a fraudulent agreement between Housman and McIntyre. Pending an appeal, Housman was permitted to keep the cotton at an agreed price of $33 a bale. In 1838 the Territorial Court of Appeals upheld Judge Webb's decision, whereupon Housman carried the case to the United States Supreme Court. Before that tribunal finally decided against him at the January term, 1841, his little kingdom had collapsed in ruins.20

In 1836 Housman was found guilty of embezzling goods taken from the Ajax, the penalty being forfeiture of his share of the salvage.21 In the fall of 1838, soon after the Court of Appeals had ruled against him -in the cases of the Ajax and North Carolina,Judge Webb revoked his license as a wrecker. The immediate occasion for this drastic penalty, according to Charles Nordhoff who was in Key West at the time, was the wreck on Carysfort Reef, "of a large merchantman-large according to the standard of the times-with a full cargo of assorted merchandise." "It was charged," said Nordhoff, "that a certain wrecker had received from the wreck goods which he failed to deliver at Key West. Further, this wrecker had on his way stopped at his home at I. Key. The main fact having been proved, the wrecker was denied all salvage for his four vessels employed, and deprived also of his wrecking license."22

In the meantime, the outbreak of the Indian war had greatly alarmed inhabitants of the south Florida coast. With characteristic energy, Housman prepared for the defense of his island, which was expected to be attacked because of the large quantities of provisions and munitions in his store. On January 1, 1836, he procured the assent of all the able-bodied males, both white and slave, then at Indian Key to a "convention" which, declaring it to be "the duty of every man who enjoys the protection of Society to be prepared and willing to defend it," did "ordain determine and declare to raise such number of good Sober faithful men who are willing to enlist and Conform to the rules and regulations of the officers' under whose Command they may be placed." "It is therefore understood," the document concluded, "that those who Sign their names to this paper are inlisted and willing to obey the officers placed over them."23



A week later, 24 men, including at least six slaves, enlisted for 40 days in Company B, 10th Florida Militia. Housman was elected captain and William H. Fletcher lieutenant. Others were later recruited, the greatest effective force of the company being 39 early in May. Housman advanced pay and subsistence at the regular army per diem of 30 cents for wages and 50 cents for rations. He also provided arms and powder for the recruits.

By the end of January, embankments had been erected and a half dozen six- and twelve-pound cannon had been mounted at strategic points. 2 4 As a place of refuge for women and children, in the event of a successful attack, "a vessel, belonging to Housman, was prepared with portholes, a bulwark around the decks, and an armament, & moved a short distance from the Island."

For the next eight months the inhabitants of Indian Key lived in daily terror of an attack, and with good cause. The little Island was crowded with refugees who had been driven from their homes at Cape Florida and on the eastern reef. Frequent reports were received of concentrations of Indiansnow at New River, now at Cape Florida or Cape Sable. 25 "The Indians were all around them-on the maine, on the neighboring Islands-ready with blanket sail canoes, to cross at any moment." There was scarcely a night but their fires could be seen from the island.

But the only incident that occurred was on March 16, when a canoe with a lone Spaniard 26 in it, came to Indian Key, under the pretense of trading. Suspecting that he was a spy, the islanders "obliged him to tell that two Indians came with him, and that he left them on an island about one mile distant. A boat was immediately dispatched with a number of men in search of them, and after some difficulty, they were found and brought to the island."27 The three "spies" were imprisoned at Indian Key until July, when they were turned over to the revenue cutter Dexter, from which they succeeded in escaping.

In spite of the Indian war, Housman continued to develop and promote Indian Key. In 1837 and 1838 he employed James Dutcher, a marble cutter of New York City, to cut a large cistern out of solid rock at a cost of about $4,000. This and the smaller cisterns previously built, according to Dutcher, "furnished the only supplies of water for the inhabitants and the navy in the vicinity."28 In 1836 and 1837 Samuel A. Spencer assumed management of the hotel and advertised Key West as "A Resort for Invalids" where there was "just sufficient business done . . . to amuse and not annoy invalids."z2

One person, at least, was attracted to the key as a health resort early in 1837. Thomas Jefferson Smith is of interest primarily because his is the only

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