The government’s first effort to mark Carysfort Reef came in the form of the 220-ton two-masted schooner Caesar. The Caesar was a lightship. Each of its two masts was fitted with a lantern designed to be visible up to 12 miles away.
The ship also had a bell that would echo across the Atlantic with every ebb and flow of the ocean. The Caesar was first assigned to a safe anchorage near Carysfort Reef called Turtle Harbor in 1824.
Lightships would continue to mark Carysfort Reef until the rust-colored lighthouse that marks the reef today became operational in 1852. As it so happened, the lightships were not always effective as Commander David D. Porter, U.S.N., of the U.S. mail-steamer Georgia pointed out in a letter dated July, 1851:
“On the reef near Cape Large, the floating lightship, showing two lights, intended to be seen twelve miles, but they are scarcely discernible from the outer ledge of Carysfort Reef, which is from four to five miles distant. On to [sic] occasions I have passed it at night, when the lights were either very dim or not lighted.”
The first man assigned to captain the Caesar was John Whalton of Key West. He was stationed aboard lightships marking Carysfort Reef for just over a dozen years, but it was while still stationed aboard the Caesar, on December 19, 1827, that Captain Whalton heard the exchange of cannon fire between two vessels echoing over the Atlantic. He reported, “I saw the flash and heard the report of seven or eight guns.”
What Whalton heard was the British warship H.M.S. Nimble trying to apprehend the slave ship Guerrero that was attempting to escape with 561 African chained in her holds. The Guerrero slammed into Carysfort Reef. The ship’s masts snapped, the hull opened and 40 Africans drowned where they were chained.
It was not the last time Captain Whalton would hear gunfire during his tenure at Turtle Harbor. The last time was June 25, 1837. By that time the Caesar had essentially rotted away and had been replaced by the lightship Florida. What the Florida had in common with the Caesar, in addition to New York shipbuilder Henry Eckford, was that her commission was lonely, isolated duty.
As a result, the captain and crew relied heavily on outside resources to deliver supplies.
Deliveries were subject to, among other things, weather. Fortunately Captain Whalton, who understood both the limitations and unreliability of his suppliers, had options. It helped that the warm shallows surrounding the lightship offered snapper, conch, turtle and spiny lobster. It also helped that the captain and his crew cultivated a garden nearby on Key Largo where tomatoes, melons and other fruits and vegetables were grown.
Again, the last time Captain John Whalton heard gun fire was June 25, 1837. That day, he and four of his crew had taken a boat from the Florida and sailed it to Key Largo. The subsequent events were documented in a letter written in Key West, published in the Charleston Courier and reprinted in The Plaindealer in New York on July 15, 1837.
It read: “Captain John Whalton, with his crew of four men, left the light ship for the purpose of procuring wood on Key Largo, a distance of about six miles, at which place he had cultivated a garden for some years past. The Indians, six in number, seeing them unarmed, secreted themselves behind some bushes and barrels on the shore, waited deliberately until they landed, at which point they fired and killed Captain Whalton. The men next him gave the alarm, and the four men ran for the boat, three of whom succeeded in getting on board; the other man was shot down in the water.”
Captain Whalton and the fallen crew member were scalped. In order to take a ring from one of the captain’s fingers, the finger was cut off. Reports indicate that two brave wreckers, one being Captain English from the ship Brilliant, came ashore at Key Largo to secure the bodies and that they were then transported to Indian Key where Whalton was buried.
During archaeology digs on Indian Key in 1972 and 1973, project archaeologist Henry Baker noted in his report, Archaeological Investigations at Indian Key, Florida, “A Caucasoid burial was uncovered… Artifacts discovered with the burial included four single hole bone buttons recovered from the chest cavity and an 1819 large cent.”
Was it the body of Captain John Whalton? No one knows. According to Baker’s report, “After exposing the burial and photographing it, the bones were left in situ and the test pit was refilled.”
Captain John Whalton’s wife Felicia and their four children returned to Key West.
The skeleton subsequently disappeared.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.