Lately, Notes on Keys History must seem a lot like Notes on Indian Key History. The truth of the matter is that learning (or attempting to learn) the history of the Upper Keys is an awesome, often daunting task.
From the very beginning, my favorite island to write about has been Indian Key, and while the seemingly non-descript Florida key might not look like much today, a great deal of the history of the Upper Keys is linked to it in one way or the other.
While Indian Key provides an excellent foundation from which to build my understanding of the Upper Keys, there are two other reasons why I have been trying to get into the nitty-gritty of the island’s history as of late. It is the subject of a) my next book and b) my interpretive Indian Key Walking Tours.
Now, as I have previously stated, once upon a time the roughly 11-acre island was the largest civilized outpost in the Florida Keys, outside of Key West. Having said that, it turns out that I was a little bit off in my last column when I said that Thomas Gibson, John Jacob Housman’s brother-in-law, was the first to sell a piece of Indian Key property to the notorious wrecker. While Housman would go on to purchase property from Gibson, a great deal of property, he was not the first to sell to him.
To take a step backwards, Thomas Gibson’s first Indian Key purchase had taken place in 1828 when he bought Silas Fletcher’s general store — for which he paid $2,500. Among other acquired properties, on July 5, 1830 a free colored man named Phebe Taylor sold his home on the west side of the island to Gibson for $1. One month later, on August 6, 1830 James Egan also sold a house to Gibson for $1.
It would be a few months still before the first purchase of Indian Key property would be recorded in Jacob Housman’s name. According to early Monroe County property records, the first piece of property Housman acquired was sold to him by a man named William Johnson. The record, dated November 19, 1830, shows that Johnson sold him a one-story building with two rooms and a kitchen for $30. Kitchens, in those days, were often separate structures to help insulate the main house from fire.
It is thought that sometime between the time Gibson purchased Fletcher’s general store and July 5, 1831 Gibson saw to the construction of a two-story building that would become the Tropical Hotel. The building included a 9-pin bowling alley as well as a billiards table. It was that July 5, 1831 that records show that Gibson sold to Housman a one-story building (likely the general store), a two-story building (likely the hotel building), 9-pin bowling alley, billiard room and table, out house and kitchen for $5,000.
What might not be realized about Housman was that he was no absentee landlord. Housman did more than buy property. He invested in the island’s development. The good captain spent a reported $40,000 landscaping the island with fertile topsoil, flowering shrubs and fruit trees like lemon, lime, orange, papaya and alligator pears. Alligator pears are what the pioneers called avocados. He also saw to it that additional wharves were built because, at least historically, Indian Key had a fairly deep natural harbor that reportedly rivaled the harbor at Key West. Housman also built a three-story warehouse, the island’s largest structure.
The island was growing and as it did, Housman continued to acquire property. March 7, 1835 James Egan sold a house and kitchen to Mr. Housman for $700. Based on the price of the house, this could be the structure referred to in some of the old accounts of life on Indian Key as the “mansion” where Captain Housman lived with his wife Elizabeth.
It was November 3, 1835 when Joseph Prince sold all of his rights and titles to his Indian Key property to Housman for $5,000. The transaction included the purchase of the island’s other general store. While there is no way of knowing which of Housman’s general stores the following information applies to (or if it was intended to include both), at some point in the 1830s Housman’s general store was grossing a reported $30,000 annually.
In the meantime, the community of Indian Key was continuing to grow. While the exact number of buildings standing on Indian Key by 1840 is unclear, according to period maps of the island it appears to be approximately 40. At its peak, the island’s population, including whites, slaves, and free coloreds was around 125 people.
Today, Indian Key stands as the archipelago’s only ghost town and one of my favorite places to spend some quality Florida Keys time. While the book I am working on will not be available on bookshelves for a couple of more years, anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating little island should consider spending 90 minutes with me on one of my interpretive walking tours. For more information visit www.historicupperkeyswalkingtours.com or give me a call at (305) 395-9889.