I recently had an eye-opening email exchange with a friend of the Keys History & Discovery Center. Knowing how I feel about Indian Key, my favorite island in the whole of the island chain, he wrote to tell me that during the second escalation of the Seminole War the USS Constellation was the first vessel to arrive on scene after the August 7, 1840, Indian attack.
The first time he reached out to me with this information I told him that, while I felt I knew a thing or two about the island, I had never come across that particular bit of information.
When asked about his source, he said he had read it in a book, but could not recall the title. Then, while touring the floating Constellation museum in Baltimore, he had asked the tour guide if the ship was the same one that reached Indian Key in 1840. The guide told him yes.
I was unconvinced, if only because a ship of that size would not be able to approach the island. And then as I was researching the Seminole War a list of military ships that served in the Keys during the second escalation (1835-1842) appeared and there on the list was the Constellation.
Wanting to know more, I contacted the curator of the Constellation museum and was informed that a previous Constellation, a frigate, indeed served in this area during the Seminole War. By the time of the Indian Key attack however, the ship was undergoing repairs in the Charleston Navy Yard. As for the USS Constellation, the floating museum, the ship that had reportedly been the first vessel to arrive at Indian Key in the wake of the attack, it would not be commissioned until some 15 years later in 1855.
When I reported my findings, the news was taken soberly and followed by a declaration regarding rum. Hopefully, what this story emphasizes is how easily misinformation can be disseminated. Fortunately, like my wife tells me, I like to argue when I think I am right. If there is some uncertainty with by beliefs, I will research the subject until the truth is revealed — one way or another.
Suffice it to say, people who visit museums, read historical markers, books or newspaper columns tend to take the information conveyed at face value. For those fortunate enough to interpret histories for public consumption, they should make every effort to do their homework and present their words carefully as they should reveal truths and not promulgate local legend and mythology. Perhaps the perfect local example of legend and myth obfuscating the truth is the thoroughly discounted notion of Islamorada being the Purple Isles. The correct interpretation, according to William J. Krome who chose the name Islamorada, is island home.
Unfortunately, Indian Key has been unjustly saddled with more than its share of bogus information. What is perhaps saddest about this is that the history surrounding the 11-acre island is so tantalizing it does not need to be sensationalized by uncorroborated supposition like pirates calling the island home or the rumor that Ponce de Leon once stopped there.
While the idea of pirates in the Keys has been a historically sticky subject, to stay they called any island in the chain home seems presumptuous. At best the Florida Keys acted as a locale of ambush for gold-laden ships attempting to navigate the Florida Reef. Though the idea of pirates in the Florida Keys has been embraced by storytellers and rum drinkers (among others), their occupancy of the island chain remains wholly unsubstantiated.
As for the Ponce de Leon link to Indian Key, besides lacking any corroboration, the only thing making the statement less credible is the name of the island associated with his arrival on the interpretative marker boasting this story — Matanca. Matanca is an English bastardization of what is perhaps the earliest name associated with Indian Key, Cayuelo de las Matanzas. The name Matanca does not appear in the public record until 1772, more than 250 years after the arrival of Ponce de Leon.
Another excellent example of legend and mythology clouding the facts are stories of eight-foot Calusa Indians. Certainly the Calusa would have appeared large to early European explorers, but what is important to keep in mind is that early Europeans explorers were diminutive and stood about 5’5” tall. Had the Calusa been true giants it only seems logical that the historical record would be filled with observation and testimony corroborating the account.
While I would have never imagined myself in this position when I moved to the Florida Keys some 17 years ago, here I am. It is my job to tell our local history and I will make sure the Keys History & Discovery Center continues to exhibit the most accurate histories attributed to the Florida Keys in general and the Upper Keys in particular.
When I make a misstep, and I have, I work to correct my mistakes by pouring through all the best available information. If my findings happen to contradict formerly held beliefs and I step on a few toes while clarifying our local history along the way, well, so be it.
Brad Bertelli is a freelance writer and Upper Keys historian who has written or co-written six books about Keys history, snorkeling, and the Netflix series Bloodline. His column, Notes on Keys History, appears monthly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.