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

Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicines, Magic, and Religion

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Mention the name Seminole and most Americans think of the Florida segment of the tribe—Indian men in colorful shirts poling dugouts through the black waters of the Everglades and women sewing patchwork in palmetto-thatched chickees. But another Seminole population, much larger in numbers, lives in the prairie and scrub oak hill country of Oklahoma.

Studies of the Oklahoma segment of the tribe have been few, and James H. Howard’s objective in writing this book has been to record the richness of Seminole culture in the West, presenting that culture as it is seen and interpreted by its more traditional members in Oklahoma today.

Much of the Seminole culture is held in common, but many differences have grown up between the two groups since the “Trail of Tears” separated them in the 1830s. This does not necessarily mean greater acculturation to white ways by the Oklahoma Seminoles. In some instances the Oklahomans are the more traditional, in that they retain cultural forms mentioned in early records but long forgotten in Florida.

Howard documents contributions from many persons, but the greatest amount of information came from Willie Lena, a Seminole town chief who lives in Wewoka, Oklahoma. Born in 1912 and reared by his conservative grandparents, Lena was shielded from the white culture during his childhood and carefully trained in Seminole ways and values. Recognized since his youth as a traditionalist leader, Lena has a lively intelligence, artistic talent, and a warm personality that have led him to serve as an enthusiastic ambassador of his own culture both to the younger generation of Seminoles and Creeks and to non-Indians as well.

In a detailed report of Seminole culture as it is found in Oklahoma today, Howard has included chapters on herbal and non-herbal remedies, magic and witchcraft, supernaturals, the Green Corn Ceremony, the nighttime dances and other ceremonials, sports and games, mortuary practices, and other aspects of the Seminole world. Based on firsthand information and extensive fieldwork, Howard’s descriptions are appealing and immediate. He also displays extensive knowledge of the related literature, and parallel material recorded in earlier sources is often cited for comparison. Lena’s illustrations add further interest and authenticity to the book.

Seminole culture, with its unique attitudes and beliefs and distinctly Southeastern Indian worldview, has persisted in spite of more than four hundred years of exposure to European and American culture. It is quite clear from the material presented in this book that there will continue to be American Indians in Oklahoma who proudly call themselves “Seminole” for many years to come.

The Seminole Freedmen – A History

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Popularly known as “Black Seminoles,” descendants of the Seminole freedmen of Indian Territory are a unique American cultural group. Now Kevin Mulroy examines the long history of these people to show that this label denies them their rightful distinctiveness. To correct misconceptions of the historical relationship between Africans and Seminole Indians, he traces the emergence of Seminole-black identity and community from their eighteenth-century Florida origins to the present day.

Arguing that the Seminole freedmen are neither Seminoles, Africans, nor “black Indians,” Mulroy proposes that they are maroon descendants who inhabit their own racial and cultural category, which he calls “Seminole maroon.” Mulroy plumbs the historical record to show clearly that, although allied with the Seminoles, these maroons formed independent and autonomous communities that dealt with European American society differently than either Indians or African Americans did.

Mulroy describes the freedmen’s experiences as runaways from southern plantations, slaves of American Indians, participants in the Seminole Wars, and emigrants to the West. He then recounts their history during the Civil War, Reconstruction, enrollment and allotment under the Dawes Act, and early Oklahoma statehood. He also considers freedmen relations with Seminoles in Oklahoma during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Although freedmen and Seminoles enjoy a partially shared past, this book shows that the freedmen’s history and culture are unique and entirely their own

Dreaming With The Ancestors

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Indian freedmen and their descendants have garnered much public and scholarly attention, but women’s roles have largely been absent from that discussion. Now a scholar who gained an insider’s perspective into the Black Seminole community in Texas and Mexico offers a rare and vivid picture of these women and their contributions. In Dreaming with the Ancestors, Shirley Boteler Mock explores the role that Black Seminole women have played in shaping and perpetuating a culture born of African roots and shaped by southeastern Native American and Mexican influences.

Mock reveals a unique maroon culture, forged from an eclectic mixture of religious beliefs and social practices. At its core is an amalgam of African-derived traditions kept alive by women. The author interweaves documentary research with extensive interviews she conducted with leading Black Seminole women to uncover their remarkable history. She tells how these women nourished their families and held fast to their Afro-Seminole language — even as they fled slavery, endured relocation, and eventually sought new lives in new lands. Of key importance were the “warrior women” — keepers of dreams and visions that bring to life age-old African customs.

Featuring more than thirty illustrations and maps, including historic photographs never before published, Dreaming with the Ancestors combines scholarly analysis with human interest to open a new window on both African American and American Indian history and culture.

Grave Houses of the Mvskoke Creek – Traditions and Assembly Book

Throughout the Mvskoke and Seminole Nations, at the older country churches, you will occasionally find an old cemetery and there you will find grave houses. A small scale house built and placed over the grave of a departed loved one, shingled and painted all set for a spirit…

Arbeka Indian Methodist Church Cemetery

Arbeka Indian Methodist Church Cemetery

Coming Soon!

Grave Houses of the Mvskoke Creek – Traditions and Assembly Book

Look for details at Seminole Nation, I. T. to order your copy.

Mvto!

Seminole Burning

The Seminole Burning Case was one of the most sensational of Indian Territory. There was almost a full page in the New York “Herald” of June 18, 1899, describing the crime which instigated the burnings and the trial held before Judge R. Thomas relative to the mob action. A court scene is depicted, along with pictures of Judge Thomas and  some of the principals in the case as well as the Muskogee jail. The account was given as follows:

Men who lynched Indians by burning must pay the lawful penalty-conviction of the ringleaders of Oklahoma mob which wreaked vengeance on two young Seminoles suspected of an awful crime creates a sensation in the Indian country. 

With the conviction of several members of the mob who in January, 1898, burned two Indians accused of an atrocious crime, lynch law in the Indian Territory and Oklahoma has received a blow which will go far to exterminate it. Fifty-two indictments were found against members of the mob, and only one of the five whose trials have been completed have escaped conviction, although it is hardly likely that the large proportion of convictions will be maintained, as the evidence being presented at the trials now going on is hardly direct as in the first few trials.

The crime for which Lincoln McGeisey and Palmer Sampson, young Seminoles, were burned at the stake, while a howling mob, maddened with liquor, danced around them, was a most revolting one, but whether they were guilty or not, it is not likely will ever be known. What purported their confessions, it is true, were offered in evidence, but if they were confessions, they were wrung from perhaps innocent men after the cruelest torture to which they were put. Time and again they were strung up until the life was nearly choked out of them. Their death was one of the most horrible imaginable. As is in mockery of justice, when the brush had been heaped about them, an man-a minister of the gospel-knelt beside the doomed Indians and prayed with them. As he arose from his knees, the evidence in the recent trial shows, it was he who applied the torch.

Stoically, the Indians went to their death. One of them, it is true, when the pain was unbearable, leaned forward and sucked the flames into his lungs. But the other, like the braves among his ancestors who had silently borne the worst tortures enemies could devise, stood erect until the flames ended his life, a dreadful punishment at the best made still more dreadful by the thought that the victims might have been innocent of the crime laid on them.

Crime An Atrocious One

On the farm of Thomas McGeisey, one of the leading members of the Seminole tribe, lived a young farmer, Julius Leard, a white man. On December 30, 1897, while Leard was away, his wife was attacked by two Indian boys. The children of the Leards saw their mother slain and were the only witnesses to the tragedy. They were unable to identify any of the score or more of Indian boys whom the infuriated whites seized and brought before them.

Shortly before the murder was discovered, a frenzied mob of Oklahomans, under the leadership of Nelson Jones and Sam Pryor known as “Tex” or “Texas Ranger,” scoured the country for miles, and Lincoln McGeisey was the first arrested. Leard’s child said he was not the man who killed his mother, but Jones put him in chains and held him prisoner with John Washington and George Harjo, two other Seminoles, from Sunday until the next Friday night, January 7,1898 when Palmer Sampson was brought in by Pryor and others.

The crime for which Lincoln McGeisey and Palmer Sampson, young Seminoles, were burned at the stake, while a howling mob, maddened with liquor, danced around them, was a most revolting one, but whether they were guilty or not, it is not likely will ever be known. What purported their confessions, it is true, were offered in evidence, but if they were confessions, they were wrung from perhaps innocent men after the cruelest torture to which they were put. Time and again they were strung up until the life was nearly choked out of them. Their death was one of the most horrible imaginable. As is in mockery of justice, when the brush had been heaped about them, an man-a minister of the gospel-knelt beside the doomed Indians and prayed with them. As he arose from his knees, the evidence in the recent trial shows, it was he who applied the torch.

Stoically, the Indians went to their death. One of them, it is true, when the pain was unbearable, leaned forward and sucked the flames into his lungs. But the other, like the braves among his ancestors who had silently borne the worst tortures enemies could devise, stood erect until the flames ended his life, a dreadful punishment at the best made still more dreadful by the thought that the victims might have been innocent of the crime laid on them.

Crime An Atrocious One

On the farm of Thomas McGeisey, one of the leading members of the Seminole tribe, lived a young farmer, Julius Leard, a white man. On December 30, 1897, while Leard was away, his wife was attacked by two Indian boys. The children of the Leards saw their mother slain and were the only witnesses to the tragedy. They were unable to identify any of the score or more of Indian boys whom the infuriated whites seized and brought before them.

Both Indians Tortured

During the week, McGeisey and Washington had been hanged and tortured by the mob in an effort to compel them to confess their guilt or guilty knowledge of the crime. Each of them, although most fiendishly tortured, denied any knowledge of who murdered Mrs. Laird. Sampson was taken to a lonely and secluded place and there hanged and tortured until almost dead.

Whether or not he confessed the crime will probably never be known, but his captors reported that Sampson had confessed to being the murderer of Mrs. Leard, and that he had implicated Lincoln McGeisey.

Immediately, McGeisey and Sampson were loaded with chains, and in compliance with instructions of Deputy Marshall Nelson Jones and on the orders of Pryor, they were forcibly put into a wagon and guarded by a mob of from one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five persons, driven across the line into Oklahoma, where they were chained to a tree and amid the frantic howls of the mob, burned to death.

The Territorial authorities of Oklahoma, while deprecating the lawless deed and deploring the unwarranted and unjustifiable conduct of this large number of its citizens of the Chickasaw country, found themselves thwarted in every effort to apprehend and bring to justice the guilty parties. Finally the United States Courts took the matter up and proceeded with an investigation. The Department of Justice employed Horace Speed of Guthrie, I. T. to assist the United States District Attorney and his assistants, Wilcox and Parker, in collecting the requisite testimony to be brought before the United States Grand Jury.

When the United States Court met at Vinita, I. T., in February, 1899, John R. Thomas, Judge of the United States for the Indian Territory, presided. Indictments were returned against fifty-two men. When the first case was called for trial, the defendants demanded a severance, which under the statute they had a right to do. The former Deputy Marshal, Nelson M. Jones, being the first defendant named in the indictment, was first put upon trial.

It was shown during Jones’ trial that he had recommended torturing the Indians, that he declared there was nothing too bad for the guilty men if they were caught, that he made no attempt to notify the marshal or to  overawe(?) the mob, but that he had himself directed the mob to take the suspected Indians across the line into Oklahoma, so as to be out of the jurisdiction of the Indian Territory Courts. On this evidence, Jones was convicted on May 18th.

The conviction of Andrew J. Mathis quickly followed. It was shown that Mathis had knelt and prayed with the Indians just after they were fastened to the stake by chains. It was proved that immediately after praying with them, he had set fire to the brush that was heaped around them.

Not only did the Seminole Burning Case create a sensation nationally, but it was the lead story in every newspaper in both Indian and Oklahoma Territory.

The Congress awarded each of the families of the Seminoles $5,000 or $2,500 for the prosecution  of the lynchers.

The trial continued until all 54 persons indicted were tried. As time passed some of the accused were acquitted, and others received lesser sentences.

The trial was changed to Wewoka, September 22, 1899. It was the first United States Court held in the Seminole Nation. An article in the Purcell “Register” stated that “Judge Thomas’ charge covered the usual ground but was uncommonly eloquent and patriotic even for the gifted jurists.”

The commissioner’s report of 1899 concerning indemnity granted indicated that a total of $13,078.75 was awarded, $5,000 for the burning of his son Lincoln McGeisey and $1,113.25 for property that had been destroyed. John Washington was awarded $500 for personal injury and $35 for loss of property. George Harjo was awarded $300 for personal injuries, as was William Thlloco. George Kernell received $100 for personal injuries. Seventeen others received $25 to $50 “for arrest and deprivation of liberty.”

“The Muskogee Times” of April 21, 1905 had an interesting article related to the Seminole Indian Burning Case. It stated that Nelson Jones, the Deputy United States Marshal, who was convicted for participation in connection with the lynching, sent Judge Thomas a cane made of leather inlaid with Masonic emblem.