NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

Islamorada's Hemingway wrote about the wrecker king of Indian Key

August 1, 2013 

This sketch of Indian Key was drawn circa 1860 by Dr. J.B. Holder. (Image courtesy of the Jerry Wilkinson/Upper Keys Historical Preservation Society)

Ned Buntline was cut from the same cloth as Ernest Hemingway or, rather, Hemingway was cut from the same cloth as Buntline.

Like Hemingway, he was prone to boozing, women, and fighting; Buntline arrived in the Florida Keys nearly 100 years before Ernest ever sat down in a Key West saloon and sipped a libation. Ned Buntline, however, was not his real name.

He was born Edward Zane Carroll Judson, March 20, 1823 in the small village of Stamford, N.Y. The boy desired adventure and ran off to join the U.S. Navy as a teenager. While in the Navy, Judson was briefly stationed at Fort Paulding, a Navy "fort" once constructed on the small island of Tea Table Key where he served aboard the Ostego.

Mr. Judson was in the Navy until 1844; he was 21 years old, which was about the time he really got to work. He was a prolific writer who authored as many as 400 dime novels. Dime novels were inexpensive melodramatic adventures published in paperback between the 1850s and 1920s, and Judson was one of the most commercially successful writers of his time. He was a contemporary of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

While Judson is most remembered for writing as Ned Buntline and Buntline is most remembered for bringing to print the Wild West antics that made Wild Bill Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, famous, he also did a little writing about Captain Housman. While stationed at Tea Table Key, Judson would have been stationed less than one mile from Indian Key.

Judson penned a popular version of Housman's exploits in a piece entitled "Sketches of the Florida War," published in the Pensacola Gazette, March 29, 1845. The story was originally credited to the Western Literary Journal and Monthly Review and in it, Judson described Housman, thusly: "...wrecks came rapidly and as his purse swelled, his importance likewise extending.

He took great care to let none except those who were subservient to his will, reside upon the island, this literally making himself a monarch of all he surveyed. After his return from Charleston, was doubly successful in his calling, and his property rapidly increased on the one hundred thousand principal three or four times multiplied."

Judson wrote that Captain Housman, "spent such care upon its (Indian Key's) improvements, that it soon became a miniature eden." To that point, July 5, 1831, Housman purchased a 2-story house, general store, 9-pin bowling alley, billiard room and table, outhouse and kitchen. Next, he financed the building of houses, shops, wharves, and warehouses. He designed a town center and mapped out what would become a series of paved streets. It is also alleged that he spent as much as $40,000 to cover the island with fertile top soil, fruit trees and flowering shrubs.

Many things can be said about John Jacob Housman, but what cannot be denied is that he was a man who could get things done. By 1833, Indian Key records indicated that commerce levels on the wharves were sufficient to qualify for an Inspector of Customs. The following year, Post Office Indian Key Station, Florida was established. Indian Key was growing, flourishing. In fact, as far at the Florida Keys were concerned, outside of Key West, the Indian Key community was the largest in the whole island chain.

The Second Seminole War marked the beginning of the end for Captain Housman and the 11-acre Eden he developed on Indian Key. Indians had mounted attacks in Cape Florida and Key Largo, with tragic results. His store suffered losses because the Indians, once frequent traders, were being hunted down. Settlers, too, retreated to the safer confines of Key West. To make matters worse for Housman, in 1836 he was found guilty of embezzling salvaged goods from the wreck of the Ajax.

And then, in the fall of 1838, Housman showed up at a wreck site on Carysfort Reef and performed duties as part of the salvage operation. After the operation was completed, instead of sailing directly to Key West to document the goods salvaged, Housman stopped off at his home port of Indian Key and unloaded an undeclared portion of it. The ruling judge in Key West, Judge Marvin, fed up with Housman's antics, took away his wrecking license once and for all. Of course the end of Housman's wrecker's dream occurred August 7, 1840, the day of the Indian attack.

E.Z.C. Judson wrote about the event in his piece, "Sketches of the Florida War." He wrote, "The attacking party was led by Chico and Chikika, two celebrated and bloody chiefs. They were supposed to consist of from two hundred to two hundred and fifty to three hundred in number."

Like Hemingway, Judson was prone to exaggeration.

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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