Living

Matecumbe, the rise of a community

This is the Matecumbe Methodist Church, which was also used for a school.
This is the Matecumbe Methodist Church, which was also used for a school.

Richard and Mary Russell left Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas in 1838. Upon departure, they sailed to Key West where they created the first of three homes in the Florida Keys. After Key West, the Russells packed up and moved to Vaca Key. 

Their final destination became Upper Matecumbe where they settled down with their now eight children circa 1854 to become the island’s first white settlers.

Richard and Mary were also the first family on the island to make a land claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the proclamation that allowed any U.S. citizen, or potential citizen, who was either over 21 years of age or the head of a household, be it man, woman, immigrant, or freed slave the ability to claim up to 160 acres of undeveloped and unclaimed land from the public domain.

Of course, strings were attached to the deal. First of all, only land previously surveyed by government agents could be claimed. In order to get the homesteading ball rolling, potential land owners would first have to go to the nearest Land Office and file a claim of intent. The agent then checked the records for any prior claims of land ownership and, providing none existed, the claimant paid a $10 filing fee to secure rights to the land. The land agent, too, was paid a $2 commission.

The next step for the homesteader was to clear land for farming, produce crops, and build a dwelling that measured 12 X 14 feet. Homesteaders were only awarded clear title to the land after they improved the property and spent five years living on it. In the case of the Russells, it was still several years after President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law before they were able to file their land grant. Government agents, however, did not begin surveying the Upper Keys until the 1870s. Key Largo, for instance, was not surveyed until 1872.

Based on the land claim filed by Richard and Mary Russell, Upper Matecumbe would not have been surveyed until circa 1877 (that or it just took them a few years to file a claim after their property had already been surveyed). In any case, by the time their land grant was approved in 1882, Richard had passed away. 

The Russell homestead stretched, bay to ocean, from the Whale Harbor Channel to at least the Deleon Avenue area.

Of course, the Russells were not the only family to move to the island and make a land claim. Richard and Sarah Pinder are considered the next family to establish a homestead on Upper Matecumbe. Prior to their arrival, the Pinders had been among the 46 people listed on the 1870 Census as living on the 11-acre island nearby, Indian Key. 

The Pinders, who accounted for 18 of the people making up the Indian Key community, were farming pineapples and bananas on the island before the move.

While it is clear the Pinders packed up and joined the burgeoning Matecumbe community, there appear to be no hard and fast dates documenting when the event occurred. 

Three facts, however, remain indisputable. First, according to the 1870 Census, the Pinders were farmers living on Indian Key. Second, the grandson of Richard and Sarah, Preston Brooks Pinder, was born on Indian Key in 1875.

Lastly, and based on the date establishing the Pinder homestead whose property deed was issued April 26, 1883, their land claim could not have been initiated any later than 1878. What can be inferred is that somewhere between 1875 and 1878, the Pinders left Indian Key and settled in the Matecumbe community. 

The Pinders, circa 1894, also initiated the building of a one-room wooden structure built to serve as both the Matecumbe Methodist Church and school. The building was placed on the beach at a spot convenient to both the Russell and Pinder families where it stayed until the arrival of the third major family to the Matecumbe community, the Parkers.

The original Parker to arrive in the Upper Keys, William H. Parker, initially moved from Eleuthera to Plantation Key. It was circa 1897 when the Parker’s packed up and moved to Upper Matecumbe. 

Upon the arrival of the Parkers, who settled south of what is today the Green Turtle Restaurant (a general locale is signified by Parker Drive, the first Oceanside road south of the restaurant), the Russells and Pinders agreed upon a significantly neighborly act.

It was decided that the church/school building would be moved to a place more convenient to the entirety of the growing community. 

The feat was accomplished circa 1897. Without having any firsthand accounts asserting the particulars of the operation, coconut palms were likely arranged strategically on the sand between the building and the Atlantic in order to essentially roll the building over the beach. Once it reached the water, the building was lodged between two vessels and floated south to its new location — what would be considered today the Cheeca Lodge property.

An interesting side note to this story is that while Richard and Mary were the Russells who originally applied for the 160-acre land grant on Upper Matecumbe, Richard “Coach” Russell, the great, great grandchild of Richard and Mary Russell, today lives on what remains of the original Russell homestead with his lovely wife, Mary.

@excuse: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.

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