Carysfort sheds light on our island's history

Later this month, an anniversary will pass largely unnoticed except for a few history buffs who simply love anything to do with lighthouses.

Most Keys residents today don’t know the history of the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, but it’s the oldest iron screw-pile lighthouse still guarding the reefs off our coast and dates back to 1852.

Prior to 1852, the Carysfort Reef was marked by floating beacons aboard coastal schooners anchored in the shallow waters off Key Largo.

The first light was aboard the Caesar, which took up its post in 1825 after a brief retrofit in Key West.

As captured by author John Viele in his book, “The Florida Keys – A History of The Pioneers” (1996, Pineapple Press), the Caesar turned out to be of poor construction, rotting away within six years of launch.

Congress approved money to build a replacement and the 225-ton Florida was completed in New York and sailed to the Keys.

The crews’ reception by their neighbors at Indian Key was hardly welcoming, Viele recounts, since Indian Key’s major source of income was salvaging wrecked vessels offshore. And positioning a light at Carysfort Reef was designed to warn ships safely away from the hull-ripping coral ridges that dot waters off Key Largo. Indeed, Viele cites contemporary sources to claim that this section of the Florida Reef was considered the most treacherous along the coast between St. Augustine and Key West.

Capt. John Whalton found provisioning his crew from Key West difficult at best, and prices set by the wreckers who owned the ship’s store on Indian Key were too high.

That led the captain and crew to plant their own vegetable garden on shore. This area of Key Largo is now known as Garden Cove.

On this site, June 23, 1837, “the captain and four of his crewmen embarked in one of the ship’s boats to go ashore to gather wood.”

Viele continues the account, “as the boat beached and the crew began stepping ashore, a volley of musket fire erupted from behind some water casks left on shore. Whalton and one of his men fell dead instantly; two other men were wounded.”

Whalton was among Keys victims of the Second Seminole War, described by Viele as the “longest and bloodiest of the three Seminole wars.”

For anyone who’s kayaked out to Indian Key in recent times, it’s hard to imagine what the island settlement looked like in 1837.

Here’s Viele writing about the 11-acre island that became, briefly, the seat of government for much of what is now Miami-Dade County:

“Jacob Housman, a 37-year-old wrecking captain from Staten Island… owned nearly everything on (Indian Key). In addition to a store, the only one in South Florida outside of Key West, he owned four wrecking vessels, a hotel, nearly 30 hours, cottages and workshops.

“He owned four wharves and a warehouse; imported soil to grow coconut palms, fruit trees and gardens; employed ships carpenters, sail makers, clerks and a blacksmith.”

Chafing under the thumb of Key West wreckers and their lawyers who handled salvage cases, Viele petitioned the territorial legislature in 1835, asking that Monroe County be divided into two counties.

On Feb. 4, 1836, the council created the new county and gave it the name Dade as tribute to Major Francis L. Dade, killed along with 107 of his men on Dec. 28, 1835 in a battle with the Seminoles that took place near present day Bushnell, Fl. (some 40 miles south of Ocala).

That battle triggered the start of the Second Seminole War, which 18 months later resulted in the death of Capt. Whalton at Garden Cove.

Even though Dade’s role in history is well remembered, few know the names of Capt. Whalton or even Housman.

To learn more about this fascinating period in Keys history, check out

And if you happen to be hosting family or friends, be sure to show them some of our fascinating history along with the many other cultural and environmental attractions of the Florida Keys.