The Dreaded Yellow Jack

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.

With no good understanding of how the disease was caused or spread, Floridians often blamed the infection on contact with a yellow fever patient or the presence of “miasmas,” swampy areas whose fumes supposedly affected those who breathed them in. Preventing yellow fever infection became an essential part of life in Florida. Entire communities, such as Bel Air outside of Tallahassee, were developed to provide a place for those who could afford it to get away from sickly downtown areas during the summers. Yellow fever even affected the social seasons, as many businesses and schools ceased operations during the hottest months to avoid the danger.

A life insurance company's travel endorsement with a yellow fever exclusion clause (1882).

A life insurance company’s travel endorsement with a yellow fever exclusion clause (1882).

As more people moved into the state and transportation by rail became faster and more common, yellow fever epidemics became larger and deadlier. A series of outbreaks emerged in 1887 and 1888 in cities across the state, infecting thousands and wrecking local commerce. Larger port cities like Key West, Tampa, and Jacksonville were the hardest hit.

A drawing from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicting Florida being dragged down by yellow fever (circa 1870s).

A drawing from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicting Florida being dragged down by yellow fever (circa 1870s).

Hundreds of residents fled the cities, while those who remained tried every conceivable method to combat this scourge whose origins they could not understand. In Jacksonville, townspeople built large fires with heart pine, believing the pungent aroma of burning pitch would cleanse the air. Cannons were packed with heavy charges and fired in the center of town, with the belief that the shock waves would break apart the invisible organisms responsible for causing the fever.

Pinewood fires burning in the middle of Bay Street in Jacksonville, which it was believed would purify the air (1888).

Pinewood fires burning in the middle of Bay Street in Jacksonville, which it was believed would purify the air (1888).

Yellow fever wrought considerable destruction in Florida, but it indirectly benefitted the state as well. The severity of the epidemics in 1887 and 1888 led legislators to take action by forming a State Board of Health to combat the problem. The Board met for the first time in 1889, with Dr. Joseph Y. Porter of Key West as the first State Health Officer. Porter and his colleagues across the state immediately set to work establishing quarantine policies for ports and working with local governments to clean up potential breeding grounds for disease. Survivors of yellow fever became immune to further infection, and the State Board of Health issued “immunity cards” to these individuals so they could travel during epidemics without being subject to quarantine. As conditions improved, the board moved into other area of public health, including the collection of vital statistics and the regulation of burials and transportation of the deceased.

A yellow fever immunity card issued by the State Board of Health (1899).

A yellow fever immunity card issued by the State Board of Health (1899).

A death certificate completed for the Nassau County Board of Health, patterned after a template recommended by the State Board of Health. This certificate is one of over 2000 death and burial record entries from Fernandina now available for searching on Florida Memory.

A death certificate completed for the Nassau County Board of Health, patterned after a template recommended by the State Board of Health. This certificate is one of over 2000 death and burial record entries from Fernandina now available for searching on Florida Memory.

By 1900, scientists had demonstrated that yellow fever could indeed be carried by mosquitoes, which helped health authorities to better target their efforts to eradicate the disease. As a result, fear of the “yellow jack” these days is little more than a footnote in the history books.

In Plain Sight: Secrets Beneath the Sands of Higgs Beach

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.

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

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 slave deck of the bark

The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, one of three brought to Key West after being seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (Harper’s Weekly, 1860).

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship Williams, one of three vessels captured by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (drawing 1860).

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.

A print from Harper's Weekly depicting the

A print from Harper’s Weekly depicting the “barracoon” in which the African refugees were housed while awaiting their fate (1860).

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.

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of “princess” by whites who visited the Africans, on account of her “fine personal appearance and the deference that seemed to be paid to her by some of her companions” (1860).

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.

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

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.

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!