A Key Biscayne Story

The photo shows Cape Florida Lighthouse and the ruins of Keeper’s house in 1915.
The photo shows Cape Florida Lighthouse and the ruins of Keeper’s house in 1915.

Mary Ann and William Davis purchased Key Biscayne circa 1821 for $100. While there was initial confusion regarding the legality of the transaction, title to the island cleared in 1824.

That same year the U.S. government purchased three acres of the Davis property for $225 on which to build the Cape Florida Lighthouse. John Dubose was assigned as first keeper of the 65-foot lighthouse first lit on December 17, 1825.

Life was quiet on the island for Dubose who observed, “This lighthouse is located different from any other on the coastline in the interior of the island ¼ of a mile from the beach in the midst of scrubs and palmettos, without any tree to shade the [lighthouse keeper’s] house… Wreckers generally pass by on their way for supply of water… sometimes for weeks I do not see a soul on the island.”

While Henry Perrine is perhaps best remembered for his time and untimely demise on Indian Key, he was also connected to Key Biscayne. Before Perrine physically arrived in South Florida, he sent more than 100 boxes of botanical samples to Dubose at Key Biscayne from his post as American consul in Campeche, Mexico. In addition to his perceived notion that Key Biscayne made for an ideal locale for his plants, he was convinced the island was an ideal site for a health resort.

In 1833 he wrote, “We have testimony of the healthiness of Cape Florida in its most unequivocal form. The family of J. Dubose, consisting of eleven whites, and several negroes, he’s not had a case of sickness during the last seven years. The tenderest and most productive vegetables of the tropics are flourishing under his care… The harbor at the cape… is easily accessible and a voyage to and from the northern states can be made easily…. Humanity requires that Key Biscayne should be made an available resort as soon as possible…. At Cape Florida, an association might be readily formed with a capital of a hundred thousand dollars which would furnish the buildings, gardens, and other conveniences requisite for the most squeamish visitor, and keep a packet running every month with passengers and effect and from the north. The most luxurious accommodations could be profitably afforded at half the price paid in Havana.”

Perrine’s plants were destroyed by an 1835 hurricane that swept across Key Biscayne. It would not be the island’s only rough patch. The Second Seminole War erupted on December 28, 1835 when separate Indian factions attacked an encampment at the Withlacoochee River, located northeast of Tampa, and at Fort King, located at what is today Ocala.

Hostilities moved south and it was fortunate for William Cooley that he was not at home on the banks of the New River when Indians attacked on January 6, 1836. Unfortunately, his family was at home and were all killed. Cooley and others living along the river fled in boats to the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Dubose led the frightened group to the safer confines of the larger communities, at first to Indian Key and then Key West.

Fearing for his safety, Dubose refused to return to his post and stayed at Key West with his family. Cooley, however, initially agreed to take the lighthouse keeper’s job, providing he was assigned an armed detail. The deal was agreed upon in principle, but never fully came to fruition, and Dubose eventually agreed to return to his post. The Cape Florida Lighthouse was relit on March 16.

Dubose again returned to Key West to visit his family on July 23. Two men were at the lighthouse that day, Irwin Thompson and Aaron Carter, a handyman. When Indians attacked with a hail of bullets, Thompson and Carter barely had time to escape to the relative safety of the tower and barricade the door behind them. The tower provided temporary relief. The Indians set fire to the wooden door which eventually burned through, setting the wooden staircase inside aflame, and engulfing the tower’s interior.

To escape the flames, Thompson and Carter sought refuge on an exterior stone platform.

Below, the Indians waited for the chance to aim their rifles and shoot at any exposed appendage.

Trapped and desperate, Thompson threw a keg of gunpowder down into the flaming tower and while the subsequent explosion helped to knock out most of the flames, it also cracked the tower’s walls.

Out on the platform, Carter attempted to peek over the edge and was shot in the head.

Thompson was shot through both ankles. While Carter’s wound proved fatal, Thompson suffered and bled, but was rescued by the crew of the transport vessel Motto the following day and recovered from his wounds in Key West.

In response to the attack, a fortification dubbed Fort Dallas was established near the ruins of the Cape Florida Lighthouse the same year. It would be the first of three locations dubbed Fort Dallas. After Key Biscayne, Fort Dallas moved first to the mouth of the south bank of the Miami River. The fort would last settle on the river’s north bank.

Perrine would sail past Key Biscayne and arrive on Indian Key with his wife and three children on Christmas Day 1838. They lived in a two-and-a-half story home owned by his business partner, Charles Howe. In the early hours of August 7, 1840, Indians attacked Indian Key, and Dr. Henry Perrine was one of seven people killed.

When the Cape Florida Lighthouse was rebuilt in 1847, it stood 95 feet high and had an iron staircase. While the Indian threat had long since subsided by the Civil War years, the lighthouse remained a target. Some months after Florida seceded from the Union, three Confederate sympathizers entered the lighthouse and destroyed both the light’s lamp and prism in hopes of hampering Union sailors navigating the reef line.

The Cape Florida Lighthouse is still standing and was purchased by the State of Florida in 1966. Today it is part of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center. The author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history, his column appears every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at