Florida Keys Museum Tells Story Of Wrecker’s Paradise

The Florida Keys History and Discovery Center in Islamorada tells the story of Indian Key and salvager John Jacob Housman. A detailed scale model of Indian Key, shown above, helps visitors visualize what the island probably looked like around 1840. (Photo by JKN Model Works)

John Jacob Housman’s character was complex and colorful. He was an energetic entrepreneur, a shrewd businessman, a daring adventurer, a visionary developer, and it was all wrapped around the soul of a pirate. And in 1830, he found the perfect place to use these traits to his best advantage—Indian Key, a remote, tropical island in the Florida Keys, close to shipping lanes but well away from too much scrutiny by authorities.

“He was clearly a man with vision who was unafraid of going against the status quo,” said Brad Bertelli, an author and historian who is curator of the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center in Islamorada, Florida.

Still, Housman was not a man to let laws, ethics or common decency stand between him and a dollar. “I do think his moral compass was broken,” Bertelli said.

The 1/300-scale model of Indian Key shows the village–which included quarters for an enslaved community–as it might have looked around 1840. (Photo by JKN Model Works)

A detailed scale model of Indian Key when it was the seat of Housman’s small empire is on permanent display at the Center. The model, funded by a donation of $75,000 from Islamorada philanthropists Ken and Dee Meeks and built by JKN Model Works of Browns Mills, New Jersey, is based on period drawings and maps and some educated conjecture. The result is a captivating glimpse of how the island likely looked when it was attacked by Seminole Indians in 1840.

Bertelli thinks the story of Indian Key—part of the Florida Keys, about 85 miles southwest of Miami—“might be the best kept secret in the whole island chain.”

Prehistoric Native Americans probably were the island’s first occupants. In 1970, state archaeologists found a midden, or trash dump, where ancient Indians disposed of their refuse.

European ships started anchoring in the island’s natural harbor as early as the mid-18th century. Settlers were living on the island by the early 19th century.

Jacob Housman was only 23 years old in 1822, but he already was captain of a 56-foot schooner owned by his father Abraham Housman, a shipper who lived on Staten Island, New York. The younger Housman apparently became bored working the waters around Staten and Long islands, and decided to take his ship to the Caribbean.

He didn’t bother telling his father about his plans.

Like many mariners before him, however, he ran afoul of the treacherous coral reefs off the Keys and had to put in at Key West for repairs to his damaged ship. While he waited, he watched salvagers—known as “wreckers”—from Key West removing cargoes from other ships that had piled up on the reefs. The wreckers received a generous portion of the cargo for their fee. Housman realized the same reefs that had snagged his ship could provide a lucrative livelihood.

He changed his mind about going to the Caribbean, and stayed in Key West to learn the wrecking trade. But Housman’s business practices didn’t endear him to local residents, and after a few years, he wanted his own base of operations. Indian Key seemed a likely place for an ambitious, energetic businessman to set up shop. There was a small settlement on the island, and it was far enough away from Key West that Housman wouldn’t be competing with that city’s wreckers.

Housman bought the 11-acre island and started developing it, and by 1840 Indian Key had become Housman’s tropical paradise.

Eventually he’d sunk about $140,000—roughly $4 million in today’s dollars—into Indian Key. About 150 people lived in a small village on the island, and its amenities included a hotel, general store, bowling alley, restaurant, and a large warehouse where Housman stored the goods he’d plucked from shipwrecks.

He also brought his shady, amoral business practices to the island.

“After Housman purchased Indian Key’s general store,” Bertelli said, “he became the kind of owner who would be more than happy to give you store credit and then, when you couldn’t pay your end, he was also the kind of man who had no problem taking ownership of the collateral.”

Housman’s political influence increased with his prosperity, and he persuaded territorial officials to create Dade County and make Indian Key the county seat in 1836.

But the US government had been fighting the Seminole tribe of Florida for years, and in 1840 a Seminole war party attacked Indian Key, setting fire to the village and killing a dozen or so residents. Housman and his family escaped, but he sold his interests on the island soon after the attack and moved back to Key West. In 1841, he was killed in a salvaging operation off Key West.

Bertelli said building a 1/300-scale model of Indian Key “was not even on my radar” until the museum received the donation from Ken and Dee Meeks.

“It is one thing to tell someone the island was home to a pretty sophisticated community,” Bertelli said, “but it is another thing altogether to be able to show them the island with all the buildings and docks that once stood on this relatively small island.”

James Roberts, owner of JKN Model Works, said building the model was “unusual from day one” because the builders didn’t have an exact idea of what the island looked like 175 years ago.

“We worked with hearsay and sketches,” Roberts said. “We had to make it up along the way. (Bertelli) sent loads of information, and we had to do a lot of reading to understand what was going on there.”

Still, the builders created a brilliantly detailed conception of what the island probably looked like—right down to tiny oranges and lemons hanging on fruit trees and privies on the docks for sailors’ and residents’ use.

Indian Key’s population dwindled after the Seminole raid, and eventually the settlement was abandoned. Today, the island is Indian Key Historic State Park and is accessible only by boat.

Listen to IPPY Award-winning author Willie Drye talk about his latest book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold An Impossible Dream In Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 10th year. Follow him on Facebook.

When Native Americans were arms dealers: A history revealed in ‘Thundersticks’

In the years after the American Revolution, Seminole Indians built an arsenal of weapons acquired from Cuban and British traders that allowed them to defend their lands as an alternate and well-armed Underground Railroad in what was then Spanish-controlled Florida. To the horror of Deep South elites, the Seminoles shielded and supplied guns to Panhandle communities of Black Seminoles, small villages peopled by plantation runaways, intermarried tribal members and freed slaves of the tribe themselves.

“Together they resolved to keep white Americans and their slave catchers out of Seminole territory,” historian David Silverman writes in “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America.” “An alliance of militant Indians and black maroons supported by European resources was the materialization of a nightmare that had haunted white southerners ever since the seventeenth century.”

Written in an accessible and at times swashbuckling style, the book is in many ways a retelling of the U.S.’ Indian Wars from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with a twist. It cracks the mystery of how Colonial-era Native American tribes came to master a continent-spanning, gun-running network  in smoothbore flintlock muskets, often decades in advance of European settlement . …more

John Horse

John Horse was born about 1812 in Spanish Florida. His mother was of African descent and his father a Native American, Charles Cavallo, a Seminole town chief. He also had a sister named Juana or Wannah John Horse, or Gopher John as nicknamed by military following turtle ruse with Major George M. Brooke. Over a period of several weeks John sold the major’s cook the same turtle several times (soldiers savored the turtles, they called gophers). Discovering John’s fraud, Brooke opted for leniency and let John go on condition he make good on the missing turtles which he apparently did. This began a lifelong relationship between John Horse and the American military and earned his nickname, Gopher John.

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Seminole Tribe searches for remains of ancestors on Egmont Key

Scattered throughout Egmont Key in plain sight are remains of its bustling past as the location of Fort Dade, built to protect the Tampa Bay area from invasion during the Spanish–American War in the late-1800s.

But hidden somewhere underground on the scenic island at the mouth of Tampa Bay lies evidence of its darker days as home to a U.S. military internment camp for about 300 Seminole Indians in the mid-1800s.

Seminoles who died there were buried without markers. No one knows how many there are.

So on Tuesday, the Seminole Tribe of Florida stepped up its efforts to find these ancestors.

Using ground-penetrating radar, the tribe’s archaeology team searched the northern part of the island near the iconic lighthouse and found areas they called “dense spots.”

Over the next few weeks, the archaeologists will process the data they gathered to determine whether these could be burial areas.

“We’ll be looking for two things: Does it have the proper dimensions of a grave and is it at the right depth,” said Domonique deBeaubien, who works with the tribe protecting Seminole remains.

Skeletons will not be moved. Rather, markers will be placed and the Seminoles will work with state officials to ensure the areas are not disturbed.

Egmont Key was a holding area for Seminoles who were being sent to reservations after they were forced from their villages in Florida.

Not all survived the wait. Some died of disease on Egmont Key. At least one is known to have committed suicide.

The island was later used during the Civil War by Confederacy blockade runners. Later, it hosted Fort Dade with its military batteries, ammunition storage, suburban-style homes, general store and even a bowling alley. Shells of some structures still remain.

Because of this past, “you never know what can be found there,” said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance, a nonprofit that preserves and protects the island’s natural and historical resources.

Sanchez pointed to a lightning fire that burned more than 80 acres of the island last July and in the process, cleared vegetation that had long hidden the remnants of former military buildings — three concrete walls of a radio-weather station and foundations for a hospital and morgue.

“I wouldn’t say we didn’t know they were there,” said Sanchez, who joined the Seminole Tribe in their search on Tuesday. “They’re documented. But they were forgotten.”

Also on Tuesday, the Seminole Tribe performed a metal detection survey of the middle of the island.

“We found some interesting artifacts from the time period the Seminoles would have been there,” tribal archaeologist Maureen Mahoney said. These include square construction rivets and a bullet believed to be from the Civil War era.

Without government permission to remove these artifacts, they placed them back in the ground and mapped where they are, explained Seminole archeology field technician David Scheidecker.

The Seminoles chose the lighthouse as a starting point in their search for burials because it is the locale of a small cemetery with 19 graves for an eclectic group — lighthouse tenders, U.S. armed forces, and five Seminoles. Only one of the Seminole markers has a name — Chief Tommy.

It’s possible, the archaeology team said, that the cemetery extended past where its boundaries are now set. The team plans to expand its search later.

The American soldiers did not respect the Seminoles enough to bury them in one place. Instead, bodies were scattered across the island and with no markings.

Some bodies may already have been washed away along with nearly 300 acres of the land the island has lost through erosion in the last century.

“We will continue to survey the island for Seminole presence and clues about what happened there,” said Paul Backhouse, historic preservation officer for the Seminoles. “For the tribe, this is a huge part of their history.”

Porter was early railroad developer

With the Railroad Act of 1866, Congress authorized two rail lines to be laid through Indian Territory. One was to run north and south and the second was to run east and west. Because three railroads had been building in Kansas with plans to enter Indian Territory, there was a race to see which would win the right to build to Texas. The Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (Katy) won that race and completed its line across the Indian nations by 1872.

There was only one railroad with plans to cross the territory from east to west. This was the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad (A&P), but its lofty goal of stretching from sea to sea was never realized. The A&P entered Indian Territory from Seneca, Missouri, but extended only 34 miles to Vinita. Here it met the Katy line in 1871 and stopped.

At this point the A&P had learned that the federal government would not grant large swaths of right-of-way through the Indian lands. And because the population was still sparse in Indian Territory, there was little freight to ship or passengers to carry. For over ten years, the A&P was content to give the Katy a virtual monopoly on rail traffic through the territory.

In 1882, the A&P extended its line to the little Creek community of Tulsey Town on the Arkansas River. It completed a bridge over the river in 1886 to another Creek town called Sapulpa. But there was so little traffic on the line, it only ran during the fall months when cattle were being shipped to market.

The Creek Nation was being served by two rail lines, the Katy and the A&P, with service to Muskogee, Eufaula, Tulsa and Sapulpa. But neither of these roads extended to the Creek capital at Okmulgee. And the Seminole Nation had no rail service at all.

Between 1886 and 1896 several more short lines were built, many in Oklahoma Territory. Still the Seminole and Creek capitals needed rail service. So when a new line called the St. Louis, Oklahoma & Southern Railroad was being organized and board members sought, John Brown, the Seminole chief, and Pleasant Porter, a prominent Creek citizen living in Muskogee, joined this line’s board with the intent of influencing its route through their capital cities.

Brown and Porter joined other board members in traveling to St. Louis to encourage speed in surveying a new line. But it wasn’t until 1899 that construction would begin.

This railroad was to start in Sapulpa, picking up where the A&P had terminated. Then, the route took a meandering path through Beggs, Okmulgee, Henryetta in the Creek Nation and Weleetka and Sasakwa in the Seminole Nation before continuing on through the Chickasaw Nation to Denison, Texas.

Later, in 1903, Porter and his friend, Charles Haskell, would work to build a line from Muskogee to Okmulgee connecting the St. Louis line to the Katy line.

Both of these lines, as well as the A&P, were later purchased by the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad (Frisco). The Frisco bought up several other short lines through the Twin Territories and by statehood had more miles of track than any other railroad in Oklahoma.

Thloco Tustenuggee


Thloco Tustenuggee  (also known as Thlocko, Thlocco, and Tiger Tail) was one of the most prominent Seminole leaders in the Second Seminole War. He spoke English fluently, and also spoke Muscogee. Tustenuggee was one of the three leaders of the 300 Seminoles who fought in the battle that became known as the Dade Massacre. During the war, he and Halleck Tustenuggee, another prominent Seminole leader in the war, met with General Walker Keith Armistead to negotiate, but negotiations broke down and the war resumed. As the war waned, Armistead used money to bribe several Seminole leaders to surrender, but Tustenuggee refused to be bribed and he continued to lead his band in fighting. When the war ended, his Seminole band was one of the few that remained in Florida. In 1843, Tustenuggee and 26 of his followers were forcibly migrated from Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana. They were transported by the USS Lawrence along with 65 other Native Americans and three black slaves. Tustenuggee then committed suicide by swallowing powdered glass.[ His death was reported in newspapers, as were the deaths of other prominent Native American leaders who died in connection with the Trail of Tears.


Until The Frost Hit


indian medicines were made
from roots and herbs
which the creeks called angelica
was used for a purgative
and likewise button snakeroot
used for the same purpose
dogwood root and butterfly root
including goldenrod were used
as you would use quinine to break a
frost root
and a root they called doctor
dick root was used as a medicine

in eighteen eighty one
there was a smallpox epidemic
at okmulgee indian territory
and it came near wiping out the
entire population of this village


i have seen grass so tall here
that you could ride through it
on a horse and it would be
over your head in places
when they made hay on some farms
they would cut until the frost hit
this was certainly fine land
for cattle ranches

we raised a little corn and cotton
we had horses that
did not know what corn was
in fact they would not eat it
we pastured some cattle
for years and at one time my husband
helped handle seven thousand head
for mister brown

in nineteen o seven
oil was discovered near morris
the first well was drilled
north of here

Drawn from interviews with Muscogee (Creek) Indians conducted in 1937-38 and archived in the Indian-Pioneer Papers, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma: I. Jake Simmons, born 1865; II. Leona Moore, born 1885. Submitted by James Treat.


Spring Is Wild Onion Time In Oklahoma

February until April, gathering wild onions is big event for many members of Five Civilized tribes in Oklahoma. Wild onion dinners are the fruits of their labor. The dinners are traditionally held in homes, community centers and churches. Wild onions are sometimes prepared with scrambled eggs (although not always) and poke sallet.

Some dinners have been served in the same place for nearly a century-like Haikey Chapel in Tulsa. On a recent Saturday, there was a line about a hundred deep waiting to eat wild onions with scrambled eggs, salt pork, beans, corn, fry bread and grape dumplings. Some have attended this dinner since they were kids, others were in line for the first time. Many said it was the cooking that kept them coming back.

Haikey Chapel has a long history in the community and many descendants of the original family attend church here-one was even doing the cooking on Saturday-Sunrise Tiger Ross. As she sauteed onions alongside her sister and cousin in a tent near the church she said, “Hopefully our grandmothers are happy with what we’re serving today.”

Watch here