NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

Homesteading in the Keys

January 10, 2013 

A survey of some of the first family settlements on Key Largo in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862. (Image courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

When America was still a burgeoning enterprise, the government was practically giving land away. While only a modicum of cash was required to secure the rights to relatively large swaths of United States soil, there was a price to be paid. Prospective land owners had to earn the land by bartering with good old-fashioned sweat equity.

The process was called homesteading and stems from the Homestead Act of 1862. President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation providing any U.S. citizen, or potential citizen, who was either over 21 years of age or the head of a household, be it man, woman, immigrant, or freed slave, the ability to claim up to 160 acres of undeveloped and unclaimed land from the public domain.

Strings were attached, the first being that the land had to have been surveyed by government agents. As long as that was the case, to get the homesteading ball rolling, the claimant went to the nearest Land Office and filed a claim of intent. The agent then checked the records for any prior claims to ownership and providing none existed, a $10 filing fee was paid to secure the rights to the land. The land agent, too, was paid a $2 commission.

It was the homesteader’s job to then clear land for farming, produce crops, and build a 12 X 14 dwelling. After successfully completing those three tasks, all that stood between the homesteader and his clear title to the land was proof that he had spent five years living on the land in question. Proof came in the form of an affidavit.

The document was standardized, fill-in-the-blank, and read in part: “That the said __ entered upon and made settlement on said land on the __ day of __, 18__ and has built a house thereon __ and has lived in the said house and made it his exclusive home from the __ day of __, 18__ to the present time, and that he has since said settlement ploughed, fenced, and cultivated about __ acres of said land, and has made the following improvements thereon to wit.”

The affidavit had to be signed by two neighbors or friends willing to vouch that the homesteader had fulfilled his obligations. Once both witnesses had signed and dated the document, there was still one last piece of business and it came in the form of a final $6 payment to the land agent. For those homesteaders with more money than time, the process could be expedited for a $1.25 per-acre-fee. In that case, clear title could be procured when only six months of residency could be attested to by two neighbors on the affidavit. In either case, for the homesteader’s effort, he received a clear deed, or land patent, to his land signed by the President of the United States.

The accompanying image has been annotated by Jerry Wilkinson with the approximate locales of some of the first families to settle on south Key Largo. Some of the names are familiar, still. Considering the isolation of early life in the Keys, it took hardy stock to settle these islands. Mosquitoes swarmed in great clouds while hurricanes came with little to no warning. Even Juan Ponce de Leon, who only really sailed past in 1513 while searching for his Fountain of Youth, called them Las Martyrs. Reportedly, the way the gnarled roots of the red mangroves seemed to grapple with the fossilized coral bedrock gave the island chain a tortured appearance.

In any case, some of the first families to arrive on south Key Largo were the Samuel Johnson family and brothers William and Robert Albury. Though it is hard to picture it now, once upon a time, farms, especially pineapple farms, stretched along the Atlantic shore between Old Settlers Park and Harry Harris Park. Captain Ben Baker, too, was farming pineapples a few miles north. Farming, however, was about more than pineapples. The Pinder family, for instance, was farming bananas on Indian Key in 1870.

It was 1872 that Key Largo was surveyed and the island’s land officially went up for grabs. Amos and Ada Lowe were the first recorded family to record a land patent, to successfully homestead their Key Largo property. It was 1880.

The Key West column of the December 27, 1884 Fort Myers Press stated, “Many of the leading merchants own tracts of land on the Keys which are entirely devoted to the culture of pineapples, tomatoes, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, cassava, tapias, beets, carrots, turnips, and various tropical fruits which flourish in abundance. The average shipments of pineapples alone will reach more than $200,000 per annum.”

On June 20, 1885 it again stated that, “The best melons for this season come from Key Largo.”

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear bi-weekly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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