Yellow fever, also known as the “yellow plague” or the “yellow jack,” was one of the most dangerous and dreaded diseases prevalent in Florida during the 1800s. The disease is viral, spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but this knowledge was not widely known until the 20th century. In the meantime, epidemics often broke out in Florida during the summer months, especially in cities. Read more
It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.
Cube it, slice it, shred it, juice it, grill it, cook it. Pineapples are a delicious treat or compliment to any dish. Today, many people think of Hawaii as the pineapple capital of the United States, but did you know pineapples were cultivated in Florida before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory?
Even in its most picture-perfect settings, the Florida coastline harbors many secrets about the past. At Higgs Beach in Key West, for example, visitors enjoy the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico only yards away from one of the most unique cemeteries in the United States.
The cemetery, which only recently received proper investigation and recognition, originally contained the remains of nearly 300 Africans brought to Key West after they were confiscated by the U.S. Navy from ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery was still legal in much of the United States in 1860, the international slave trade was not. Consequently, when the American-owned vessels Wildfire, William, and Bogota sailed into the Caribbean attempting to deliver their human cargo to Cuba, they were seized, along with more than a thousand African men, women, and children.
The African refugees arrived malnourished and weak from their long trans-Atlantic voyage, and hundreds died while awaiting their fate in Key West. As many as 14 died in a single day – many were children. Scrambling to accommodate these unexpected arrivals, the U.S. marshal at Key West, Fernando Moreno, erected housing and a hospital for the Africans. Officials called the structure a “barracoon,” borrowing terminology used by slave traders operating on the African coast. The building was divided into nine large rooms so the sexes and children of different ages could be separated.
While the Africans were at Key West, Moreno and other federal personnel guarded them vigilantly. Even with the illegality of the slave trade, these individuals were considered highly valuable in a region where slavery was still legal. Officials were concerned that someone might attempt to kidnap some of the Africans, or that they might attempt to escape. The guards mounted artillery pieces to defend against potential attacks, and deployed a police force consisting of Marines and local citizens.
As Moreno and the federal agents at Key West grappled with the difficulties of maintaining such a large group of guests, the United States government investigated ways of getting the refugees back to Africa. Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated a contract with the American Colonization Society to take the Africans to Liberia, a country on the west African coast founded with support from the U.S. as a resettlement location. The first group left Key West for Africa on July 3, 1860, with another group following about two weeks later.
According to a report published in the New York Times, many of the Africans asked not to be returned to Africa, but this may have been a mistaken interpretation. It was more likely the trans-Atlantic journey itself they most feared, and with good reason. Many had died on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, and hundreds more would perish en route to Liberia.
Not long after the last African refugee left Key West, the Civil War broke out, deflecting attention to other matters. The scores of graves at Higgs Beach were mostly forgotten, save for a few references in histories of the island. Over time, the construction of new military installations and roads in the area greatly disturbed the burials, further obscuring their story. Local researchers began a movement to properly identify and recognize the cemetery around 2000. The Florida Department of State erected a historical marker for the site in 2001, and archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to locate at least nine distinct graves the following year. In 2012, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery is particularly unique because its inhabitants were African, yet they never served as slaves, nor were they free. As researchers have explained during the course of the investigation, there are few if any sites of this kind in the Americas.
What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!
It’s that time of year again…
As cool winter breezes penetrate deeper into the Florida peninsula with each passing cold front, mainlanders begin to yearn for something a little more tropical.
For a lucky few, Key West has become part of the winter routine. Those with the wherewithal to venture down to the southernmost city during the colder months may be unaware of the island’s early history, when Key West was plagued by everything from malaria to water shortages and fire to hurricanes.
The images below are some of the earliest renderings of the island known to the Americans as Key West, long before it became a tourist mecca in the days of Flagler and Hemingway.
These two sketches (above and below), drawn by William A. Whitehead, portray Key West as it appeared from the cupola atop A. C. Tift’s warehouse in the late 1830s. William and his brother John were prominent citizens in the small island community. William served as customs collector from 1830 to 1838. He left Key West in 1838, never to return, because the town council refused to institute an occupational tax he supported.
The image below is believed to be one of the oldest landscape daguerreotypes of Florida. It dates to about 1850 and was likely taken from an observation tower in the vicinity of Front and Simonton Streets. Visible near the horizon are First Baptist (left) and St. Paul’s Episcopal (middle) churches.
The steeple of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church helps date this item to circa 1850. St. Paul’s, built in 1839, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1846. It was rebuilt in 1848, but burned along with much of the city in the fire of 1886. In 1909 and 1910, the church again suffered damage from powerful tropical weather. The present Gothic Revival-style structure, constructed of steel and concrete, held its first services in 1914. According to an early historian of Key West, First Baptist Church on Eaton Street (upper left) was built in 1848.
The map below, created by the Monroe County Commissioners in 1874 from city property records, shows Key West as it appeared in the late 19th century. During the 1860s and 1870s, Key West hosted a large contingent of Cubans fleeing from the Ten Years War (1868-1878) in their homeland. This conflict served as a precursor to the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), during which Key West again played a vital role for the exile community.
Cuban businessmen in exile, including Vicente Martínez Ybor, transplanted their cigar rolling operations to Key West during the Ten Years War. Ybor later moved his factories to Tampa and started the community that now bears his name.
Author Ernest Hemingway, born on this day in 1899, is perhaps the most famous former resident of Key West. Only one of his books, To Have and Have Not (1937) was set in the southernmost city, but Hemingway logged many hours perfecting his craft at his Whitehead Street home. An avid fisherman and boater, Hemingway enjoyed all that Key West had to offer.
There Goes the Judge
On April 18, 1863, Judge William Marvin wrote President Abraham Lincoln of his wish to resign his position as “District Judge of the United States for the Southern District of Florida.” Marvin had held his office since 1847, but he now wished to resign to recover his health “in a more northern climate.” Judge Marvin’s resignation may have only received brief notices in the Northern and Southern press, but his official career in Florida had been anything but brief or inconsequential.
Crank the Buffett… It’s the 31st anniversary of the Conch Republic.
Want more Key West? Check out the Dale M. McDonald Collection.
On this date in 1912 the first passenger train arrived in Key West, marking the completion of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to the Southernmost City.