NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

The story of the Alligator, Part 2

February 7, 2013 

An aerial view of the Alligator Lighthouse, built in 1822. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Upper Keys Historical Trust)

Four marines were wounded and two killed when the men of the U.S. Schooner Alligator attacked pirates holed up in a small cove near Guajaba, on the eastern coast of Cuba.

The Alligator’s commander, Lt. Allen, died from multiple wounds suffered in the fray leaving his second-in-command, Lt. Dale, in charge. Dale’s first mission was escorting the convoy of liberated American ships, including the confiscated pirate schooner, Revenge, from Cuba to Norfolk, Va.

Before departing Cuba, Lt. Dale heard rumors that pirates were planning to attack his convoy’s stragglers. The problem was that the Alligator was a ship of war built for speed while the convoy was a small fleet of merchant ships built largely for commerce. Dale became distressed as the Alligator sailed along and the convoy continued to slowly drift out of sight.

He gave orders to begin tacking maneuvers to allow the convoy to catch up. While sailing toward the Florida Reef, soundings were taken every 30 minutes. November 19, 1822, 9 p.m., the water measured 270 feet deep. Approximately 30 minutes later, the Alligator came to a sudden halt roughly 3.5 miles off of Upper Matecumbe Key.

The ship was crashing through the water with a full head of steam when it ran afoul of one of the largest spur and groove reef formations in the Upper Keys. It did not take long for Dale to determine the 86-foot ship was hung up pretty good. A longboat was lowered and a kedge anchor rowed out to the deeper waters to the east. The anchor was dropped and the men aboard the stricken Alligator heaved in an attempt to physically drag the ship off of the corals, but the line broke.

Orders were given to lighten the ship and the first to go overboard were the cannons and their shot. Two smaller guns, carronades, were left aboard. The first night and the following day were spent throwing anchor chains, spare sails, everything and anything that might help lighten the load over the side and into the clear turquoise water. It was hoped that with the next high tide, the ship would prove sufficiently buoyant to be refloated. Instead, the wind shifted and pushed the ship harder against the coral bank.

The following morning, another kedge anchor was lowered into a longboat and rowed out to deeper water. The anchor was dropped and again, the crew heaved. Unfortunately, it never took hold and the men only succeeded in dragging the anchor across the limestone substrate and back to the ship. In the meantime, a wrecking crew sailed up and offered assistance. Lieutenant Dale did not formally engage the wreck master, but asked him to hold the Alligator’s papers and what cash they had on hand.

Dale and his crew waited for the convoy to catch up and a few hours later, Dale and his men spotted the first ship. The carronades were fired and the shots attracted the attention of the Ann Maria and her load of molasses. The Ann Maria approached the stranded ship and anchored in the deeper waters to the east. The operating sails and accompanying tackle were loaded on to the Ann Maria. In lieu of leaving what was left of the Alligator for pirates to scavenge like cockroaches, the ship was set afire until she exploded. Kaboom!

The following year, February, 1823, Commodore David Porter took command of the West Indies Squadron, the branch of the Navy that the Alligator had served under. Porter recognized the limitations the squadron had faced while under command of its former boss, James Biddle. The heavy drafted ships employed by Biddle were incapable of pursuing pirates who favored shallow draft vessels capable of navigating the shoals and reefs that can make these waters tricky.

Porter demanded 10 Chesapeake Bay schooners, ships not unlike those used by his foes. He also outfitted the side-wheel New York ferryboat, Sea Gull, as an armed base of operations. Porter established a naval depot on Key West, an island being referred to as Thompson’s Island at the time. In April, 1823 he declared the depot Allenton in honor of Lt. William Allen, who had been shot to death by those pirates aboard the Revenge the year before.

Suffice it to say, Porter was exceedingly more effective in ridding the area of pirates.

While Biddle turned those suspected over to an American court system, Porter went another route and handed his suspects to British pirate hunters who would hang them without benefit of a court hearing. Today, the lighthouse standing approximately 3.5 miles off of Upper Matecumbe Key marks the general location of where the Alligator crashed in 1822. The reef it marks acquired the name Alligator Reef. The lighthouse, Alligator Lighthouse, was built in 1873.

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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