NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

The Wrecker King of Indian Key, part 2

July 5, 2013 

Sketch of Florida wreckers at work from J.B. Hollder’s “Along the Florida Reef,” published in an 1871 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. (Image courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Upper Keys Historical Preservation Society)

Florida’s wreckers are often remembered as men whom were considered little better than pirates. It is said they lit false fires to seduce captains into “safe” waters and prayed on the misfortunes of others.

While history proves wreckers were well equipped, diligent men of action, within every industry there exists a bad seed. Now, without disparaging the parenting skills of the long dead parents of the man who would become the wrecker king of Indian Key, John Jacob Housman grew up to be one bad apple.

While there are many fuzzy facets to the Housman story, history does recall him as a fearless sailor. History also recalls him as not only a dubious captain, but one of Florida’s first rate rapscallions. He is, at the very least, partially responsible for besmirching the reputation of Florida’s wreckers as a whole and attributing to them their bad name.

In an 1859 article printed in Harper’s Magazine called “Wrecking on the Florida Keys,” Charles Nordoff was interviewed in regards to charges levied against Captain Housman by the Florida Supreme Court in 1838. The crime was the result of the 1836 Carysfort Reef wreck of the Ajax. The judicial ruling proved the end of his wrecking career.

In terms of Captain Housman, Nordoff reported, “It was charged 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 Indian Key. The main fact having been proved, the wrecker was denied all salvage from his four vessels employed, and deprived also of his wrecking license.”

Captain Housman’s storied legacy as a wrecker officially began in 1825, the year he first entered the annals of Florida wrecking industry. Housman and his wrecking crew were sailing the reef line during a spat of heavy weather, canvassing the shallow corals for wrecks, when they came upon an abandoned French brig, Revenge. Housman and his crew boarded the Revenge and salvaged cochineal, logwood and sugar before strong winds and heavy waves forced them off the wreck. It is this next, pivotal, maneuver that would begin to define the history of Housman and of Indian Key. Captain Housman pulled up anchor and sailed north with the bounty. Suffice it to say, trouble ensued.

According to the Wrecking Act of 1823, all property salvaged in Florida territorial waters had to be reported to a Florida port of entry. As of 1825, there were only two ports of entry along the east coast of the Florida Territory: Key West and St. Augustine. When the Key West collector of customs, Fielding A. Browne, got wind of Housman’s good fortune, and the direction the captain was sailing, he suspected Housman was sailing not for St. Augustine, but to South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor.

Browne charged Housman with robbing the Revenge and absconding with the goods. He went so far as to report his suspicions to Captain Brown of the U.S. revenue cutter, Florida, who set off in pursuit of Housman. Furthermore, an account of Browne’s allegations was published in the Pensacola Gazette. Captain Housman first heard of the charges after his schooner, the William Henry, sailed into the St. Augustine port with the bounty he had salvaged from the Revenge.

The charges against Housman were investigated by the Admiralty Court of East Florida and Housman was cleared of any wrongdoing. However, Captain Housman, offended by the allegations, fired off his own letter in the East Florida Herald, dated Nov. 8, 1825, in which he responded that he would, “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 is more wisdom or folly in my giving preference to a decision at St. Augustine over one at Key West.”

While it is unclear if this was the actual beginning of the bad blood between Captain Housman and the people of Key West, it certainly started a chain of events that altered the history of the Florida Keys in general and the Upper Keys in particular. Indian Key was transformed from a sleepy little island into Housman’s private wrecker’s paradise.

An 1833 visitor to Indian Key was quoted in the Charleston Mercury as reporting, “There are many poor persons, and some of them not noted for honesty, settled on the Florida Keys, who are compelled to deal with this man. He, by allowing them credit and indulgence in his store, gains an ascendancy 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.”

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

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