Bahamian sailors once called the island Kay Comfort. Historically it boasted a naturally-occurring deep harbor that rivaled that of the one at Key West. Freshwater, too, was available close by on nearby Lower Matecumbe.
Also, the island was located approximately midway along the Florida Reef. Lastly, the island known as Indian Key today had a reputation for remaining relatively mosquito free.
Two of those four facts still ring true. Indian Key is the approximate midway point of the barrier reef system. The Florida Reef begins to rise from the ocean floor just offshore of the Fort Lauderdale area and comes to an end at the Dry Tortugas approximately 70 miles southwest of Key West. Also, the island still retains its reputation for remaining relatively mosquito free. However, the freshwater once found on Lower Matecumbe disappeared a long time ago and the island’s deep natural harbor is not as deep as it once was.
The filling in of the harbor was due, at least in part, to the construction of the Key West Extension of Henry Flagler’s Over Sea Railway. When building the tracks, railroad workers closed the gap separating Lower and Upper Matecumbe keys using fill instead of the combination of fill and bridges that link the island today. As a result, the natural flow of water between the islands was altered causing sediment to accumulate where it historically did not. Then, when the most powerful hurricane to ever strike North America, the Great Labor Day Storm of 1935, passed directly over the Matecumbes, railroad fill was washed out and redistributed around Indian Key.
In any case, the island, as well as the whole of the Florida Territory, came into possession of the United States with the enactment of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, otherwise known as the Florida Treaty. Under the Adams-Onis Treaty many of the islands of the Florida Territory were listed among the Spanish land grant properties. Indian Key was not. Had the island been listed among the Spanish land grant properties, the United States government would have recognized any agreements pertaining to land rights claimed by individuals previously recognized by Spanish officials.
Instead, Indian Key was deemed property of the federal government.
What remained true, however, was that back when Bahamian sailors were still calling the island Kay Comfort, it proved a popular spot for fishermen and turtlers, wreckers and Indians to stop and trade. After the sale of the Florida Territory, it was not long before settlers began developing a community on Indian Key.
The first recorded white settler on the island was Silas Fletcher who arrived in 1824. Fletcher had been the employee of Solomon Snyder. When Snyder partnered with wrecking captain Joshua Appelby, they decided to invest in the development of a general store on Indian Key. Silas Fletcher was chosen to both build the store and run it.
A ship was loaded with supplies at Knights Key (located at the northern foot of the 7 Mile Bridge). Mr. Fletcher and the supplies arrived on Indian Key in April 1824. Fletcher hired Joseph Prince to help him not only build the store, but help with operations. The general store was up and running before the end of the year as notes written by Pardon C. Greene in the Monroe County Deed Book dated prior to January 1825 state: “he furnished Joseph Prince with goods for a store and that he received several letters from said Prince in the way of business and that these letters were dated Indian Key.”
By the end of 1824, Fletcher and Prince had also decided to partner up and buy out their employers. In January 1825, Fletcher and Prince became formal partners and bought, “the store belonging to Snyder and Appelby, and all their interest and claim in and to Indian Key.” The two men additionally constructed other buildings on the island, in particular a home for Fletcher and his wife Avis and their two children, William and Abigail.
With the addition of the general store, Indian Key was becoming a legitimate source of comfort and convenience for sailors, fishermen and wreckers operating in the area. It did not take long for other families to begin to establish homes on the island. As for Fletcher and Prince, their partnership only lasted a few months. Prince sold his half of the general store to Fletcher in May and moved to Massachusetts leaving Fletcher to become the sole proprietor of the only store in the burgeoning community of Indian Key. It would be a short-lived distinction.
Six months after his departure Prince not only returned to Indian Key, but opened a competing general store.
Business on the island must have been good. Fletcher then sold his store on November 13, 1828 to Thomas Gibson for $2,500. The sale would mark the first permanent arrival of a Housman to Indian Key. That Housman would have been Ann Housman, wife of Thomas Gibson and sister of notorious wrecker John Jacob Housman.
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.