The Wrecker King of Indian Key

The Staten Island hhome where Indian Key's 'Wrecker King' grew up in the early 180ss.  Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson
The Staten Island hhome where Indian Key's 'Wrecker King' grew up in the early 180ss. Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson Reporter Columnist

Part 1 of 3

The accompanying image is the Staten Island, NY home of the man who grew up to become the wrecker king of Indian Key. That man, John Jacob Housman, was born in 1799. One of nine children, he was the son of an oysterman.

While the last decade of his rather short life was pretty well documented, there is scant information regarding his formative years. As for the facts regarding those early days, a few are generally agreed upon. For starters, John Jacob Housman proved himself at a young age to be not only a capable sailor, but a bold and fearless one. Housman's father sufficiently believed in his son's talents to declare him captain of his 56-foot schooner, the William Henry.

The ship was used in, "coasting and packet along the shores of Staten and Long islands, also up the North River." It did not prove a challenging route for the young Capt. Housman.

After a few years navigating the New York river systems, Housman decided on a change of scenery and hoisted his sails, left New York, and set his compass for the West Indies. While he never made it to the Caribbean, he did make quite an impact on the history of the Florida Keys. As for the facts, in 1822 the William Henry was recorded in manifests as entering and leaving Charleston Harbor. John Jacob Housman would have been 23 years old. After leaving Charleston, Housman entered the waters of the Florida Territory. Shortly thereafter, he had a life-altering encounter with the Florida Reef.

Basically, the Florida Reef runs from Fort Lauderdale to the Dry Tortugas. Somewhere north of Key West, the William Henry ran afoul of the corals and got hung up on one of the approximately 6,000 individual reefs that make up the barrier reef system. The corals did not deliver a fatal blow to the ship's hull. While salvage operation records from those early days of wrecking are murky, the ship was apparently refloated. Capt. Housman managed to sail the schooner as far south as Key West before deciding to dock for repairs.

It was this time in Key West that altered the course of his life, as well as the history of the Florida Keys. While marooned in Key West, Housman got a good hard look at the wrecking industry - noting how the entire community benefited from a ship wreck. In addition to the wreckers out salvaging on the high sea, back in port, dock workers, carpenters, storage facilities, mercantilism, and those in the hospitality industry, the hotels, bars, and restaurants all benefited from the salvage trade.

When the William Henry was repaired, Housman stayed in Key West and established himself as an able Florida wrecker. Out on the sea he was a formidable captain. Back in port, it did not take long to recognize the relationship between the captains, boat owners and shop keepers, each of whom had long-nailed fingers and backs marked with scratches. Housman grew to understand the monopoly at work in Key West and wanted in on the action.

It took some doing, but Capt. Housman moved his operation north to Indian Key and established his version of a wreckers' paradise independent of Key West. He went to great lengths to accomplish the feat, but then he was a persistent man who could get things done. To simply say he was ambitious would be an underwhelming tribute to his achievement. What Housman is most remembered for, however, is being a man of dubious character.

Whatever else can be said, the man did develop the community on Indian Key, cultivating not only the island, but the largest community in the Florida Keys at the time - outside of Key West. By the time Capt. Housman was in his mid-thirties, he was the wrecker king of Indian Key.

Because he held interest in nearly every business on the island, including the hotel, bowling alley, post office, courthouse, and saloon, the island might as well have been called Housmanville.

Suffice it to say, the young Capt. Housman grew up to be one of the more historically colorful characters entwined in Florida Keys lore. In fact, history presents Housman as not only one of the Florida Keys all-time colorful characters, but as one of its first-grade rapscallions. He was a bad seed who helped malign the reputations of the Florida wreckers.

Capt. Housman never seemed to return to Staten Island. This may or may not have to do with how mad his father was after the young captain absconded with the 56-foot schooner.

Stories suggest that the reason Housman never went back to New York was because of legal trouble regarding his trek south, but no affidavits pursuant to the act have ever surfaced.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions