Islamorada Florida Keys history
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Many people guess, but nobody really knows why the Spanish Explorers named this area "Purple Isle". The area of Islamorada is comprised of the Matecumbes, or Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe, Lower Matecumbe and the islands of Lignumvitae Key and Indian Key, located just offshore.

Spanish sea charts of the 1500s show that the freshwater wells located on Lower Matecumbe were important to the explorers and later seafarers who passed by. There is archeological evidence that several different Indian communities were located there and that they were frequently visited by the explorers who came ashore for fresh water.

The local Indians began incorporating Spanish words and names into their language, a sign that they were interacting with Cuban fisherman who frequented the area. The seafaring Indians were also proficient divers and were the first salvagers of the ships that foundered on the dangerous reefs that parallel the Keys. They sometimes enslaved the passengers of these ships.

The Indian Key Massacre

The harsh conditions of the Upper Keys made daily life difficult for early settlers. But, in the 1820s and 1830s, a small community flourished on Indian Key. The first general store in the Keys was founded in 1824 there by a Spaniard, but an avid wrecker who eventually landed on the island had designs to take it over.

John Jacob Housman was born in 1799 on State Island, New York. His father was in the shipping business, so John grew up around the sea. While piloting one of his father's boats, he decided to sail south for the West Indies but, before he made it, he foundered in the Florida Keys.

While waiting in Key West for his ship to be repaired, he became interested in the wrecking business, the most popular venture at that time. Wreckers would salvage goods from vessels that ran aground on the treacherous reefs just offshore. The owners of the vessels would then negotiate with the wreckers, in wrecking court, for a share of the cargo. While this didn't seem fair to the owners, retaining some of your cargo was better than losing it all.

Housman dropped his plans for continuing on to the West Indies and went into the wrecking business. He soon became frustrated when he found that decisions in the wrecking courts were unfairly balanced in favor of the locals and made a decision to leave Key West for Indian Key, 75 miles north. On his 30th birthday, he bought the island of Indian Key with money he made with his wrecking business there.

Between 1831 and 1840, Housman made Indian Key into a very busy wrecking center. He eventually owned four wrecking vessels and built wharves, warehouses, workshops and thirty cottages. Of course, most of the work was done by his twelve black slaves. The settlement that was eventually built had paved streets, a town square, and its own transient accommodations in the Tropical Hotel; one of its guests was James Audubon.

Housman was a harsh, uncharitable man. It was sometimes his habit to forgive debts at the general store in exchange for some slightly unethical favors. In order to distance his business from the bondage of the legal system in Key West, he persuaded a friend who was a representative in the territorial legislature to push through a bill that made Indian Key the seat of a new county, which they named Dade.

Housman became quite wealthy with proceeds from wrecking, rents, and his general store. Then, in 1938, it was proven that he had embezzled goods and money from some vessels that he salvaged and his wrecking license was revoked. This fact, coupled with a drop in commerce due to the Seminole Wars, caused his wealth to greatly diminish.

Then, in 1939, he came up with a scheme that may have proven to be his undoing. He proposed a deal to the government that he would "catch or kill all the Indians of South Florida for two hundred dollars each". Some say this provoked the Indians to attack. They arrived just after midnight on August 7, 1940. Someone who couldn't sleep spotted them, so the raid started in the dark.

Jacob Housman and his wife jumped through their back door into the water at the end of their dock, just as the Indians were bursting through the front door of their house. Their dogs followed them out to the water's edge, barking and running after their masters. When he could not keep them quiet, Housman was force to drown the dogs with his bare hands. As the sun came up the next morning, the Housmans and a group of other survivors, watched from a Navy schooner as the Indians burned every building and wharf on the island.

Housman withdrew to Key West where he auctioned off the remainder of his possessions, several boats, and his slaves. He went to work as a seaman on a wrecking boat and died in a freak accident less than a year later. He was forty-two years old.

Another prominent resident of Indian Key was a botanist by the name of Dr. Henry Perrine. Like Housman, he was born on Staten Island. He had a plan to start an agricultural experiment in southeast Florida but, because of the danger of violence during the Second Seminole War, he thought it was too risky. So, he took his family to Indian Key to wait until the danger was over.

His family associated with the Charles Howe, the Indian Key Postmaster, and his family. Howe had a wife, three children, and seven slaves. Dr. Perrine and Howe were partners in a joint agricultural venture on Long Key, but Dr. Perrine managed to plant seeds of many varieties of tropical plants not only on Indian and Long Key, but also on Lignumvitae Key and Cape Sable. Decedents of the original plantings still exist in those areas.

On the night the Seminoles attacked Indian Key, Dr. Perrine hid his wife and children in the turtle pens under their house and he climbed into a cupola on the roof of his house to hide himself from the invaders. His family had to listen to his screams as the Indians brutally murdered him.

Because one of the first things the Indians did that night was help themselves to the hotel's liquor supplies, it became easier and easier for the residents to hide and evade capture. While most of the inhabitants of Indian Key survived that terrible night, there are stories of some horrible deaths.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

At the very end of August in 1935, the citizens of the Keys were warned that a hurricane was on its way to them. Nobody really knew which way the hurricane would travel, or just how strong it would be. Key West prepared for the worst, but was spared the brunt of the storm as only the outer bands skimmed it on the night of September 1st. On the afternoon of September 2nd, the barometer at Islamorada read 26.35, a sign that the residents were in for a terrible storm.

In an attempt to try to take the residents of Islamorada to a safer area, Overseas Railroad officials sent a train out of Miami. Unfortunately, many factors contributed to delays. As the train headed south, many climbed on for the ride. The train finally reached Lower Matecumbe around 8:30 p.m., just about the same time as the hurricane. The winds were clocked at about 200 mph and the tidal surge reached eighteen feet.

Part of the train was thrown from the track and laid on its side. The engine, however, remained standing, and several men climbed in and survived the storm. Some of the survivors happened to be in houses that were able to float. The huge tidal wave swept the island almost clean, soil and all.

When it was all over, the destruction was unbelievable. Most of the dead were so mutilated by the winds they were unidentifiable. Many bodies didn't even have faces, as the winds sand blasted them into pulp. Some victims also died by being swept into Florida Bay by the tidal surge. Others were sucked into the Atlantic by the undertow caused by the passing of the wave or being hit by flying debris.

Nobody knows exactly how many people died that day. President Roosevelt, as part of the New Deal, had given 650 WWI veterans jobs and living quarters in a camp in the area. They were at Islamorada to work in the new highway that would link Miami with Key West. The Coroner's report listed 423 known deaths; most of them were thought to be veterans. Because of their military service, it was suggested their bodies be transported to Arlington Cemetery for burial. But, there was no refrigeration for body storage, and no train for transporting them. Finally, the bodies were burned in four massive fires.

For many years after the storm, skeletons were found on small islands in Florida Bay. Many probably still remain.

Ernest Hemingway, who at that time lived in Key West with his wife and two of his sons, motored to Islamorada on his fishing boat, Pilar. He published a story about the storm's destruction in a socially conscious magazine called The New Masses. The article, entitled "Who Murdered the Vets?", lambasted the government for sending the veterans down to work on the bridges without giving them any protection against the storm or opportunity to leave.

 

 

 


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