Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel
By Jerry Wilkinson
Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel was another one of the colorful Keys inhabitants, obviously well educated, traveled and willing to take on an adventure.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina on December 5, 1803, he graduated from the Medical College of South Carolina with the class of 1826. His thesis was "Aralia Spinosa or Prickly Heat." The following year he married a Miss Mary Jane Stewart and joined the Medical Society, presumably going into medical practice.
There is not much of his early life known. Dr. Strobel's travels are followed by a series of articles he wrote for Charleston Courier. He published and wrote for the Key West Gazette. His travels and articles are quite lengthy. As lengthy as Strobel is with other details, he is not specific with dates. He began his first article for his departure from Charleson for Key West in 1829 and we may assume he arrived at Indian Key in 1829. Certain names were only abbreviated and whether Dr. Strobel or the editor concealed the selected full names is not certain. James Audubon cites his acquaintance with Dr. Strobel in his travels. It was Strobel who obtained the specimen of the "Mango humming bird, Anthracothorax nigricollis" given to James Audubon.
The meeting between Dr. Strobel and John Audubon was at best brief; however, it must be said that Audubon relied on Strobel’s assistance. They both had visited Indian Key and made commentary in reference to the “wreckers.” Audubon was given a letter of introduction to Strobel by Strobel’s mentor, the Reverend Dr. John Bachman of Charleston. Dr. Bachman co-authored with Audubon, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, 3 Volumes, circa 1845. There is little doubt that Strobel was at least an observant amateur naturalist. One must conclude that there was a short 17 day mutual respect, and both regarded the other with a certain esteem. Audubon departed Key West on May 21, 1832.
We join Dr. Strobel in 1829 via the Charleston Courier published May 4, 1837.
". . . In the course of the afternoon, we reached Indian Key, and came to anchor with the determination of remaining a day or two, as there was a prospect of disposing of some of our cargo. Expecting to meet no persons on shore, but the wreckers and turtlers, I landed in my sea clothes, that is to say, without stockings, a coat with elbows out, and old pair of pantaloons, and no waistcoat. I was therefore not a little surprised with the information, that a ball would take place that evening. To the ball I was determined to go; it was unfortunately too late to return on board to dress myself. What was to be done? Rather than miss the opportunity, I concluded to go, even as I was. I reached the scene of action about 8 o'clock. The company had already assembled. The ballroom was a kind of piazza, or outshot from the main building; it was neither lathed, nor plastered, but was well lit up. The company consisted of ten or twelve well dressed, decent looking females, who were either the wives or daughters of the wreckers or turtlers. Some of these had brought their children, clean, chubby-faced, hearty little dogs. There was also present a dozen or more seafaring men, having on their best suits; they were dressed in clean round jackets and pantaloons, white shirts, silk stockings, and pumps. Taken all together, it was quite a family party. Each of the men, having selected his partner, the fiddle struck up, and at it they went with might and main. They danced what they termed, 'fore and afters.' As near as I recollect, the following description, may give some idea of the figure. Two couples stood up on the floor, one man in the center fronting his partner, whilst the other couple remained in the rear of them. The couple in the center danced without regard to the length of time, each endeavoring to tire down the other, until they had exhausted their strength or their steps, when they 'led off.' Both couples now formed the figure of eight, and the second couple took the center of the room, and danced in their turn. They alternated in this way, until one or the other party was wearied out, when they took their seats. The temptation to me was irresistible; poor a figure as I was likely to cut, I resolved to go in for a jig. Hey, for life in all its variety! Who would not be the lion, even of a ball at Indian Key - I led out my partner, made a thousand apologies, for appearing in by dishabille, declared that had I anticipated the pleasure of so much company, I should have come better prepared, but as it was, I could not resist the temptation. I made myself as agreeable as I knew how, was very gallant and attentive to my partner, and really enjoyed myself very much for a couple of hours. Often will I recur to those hours with satisfaction - a satisfaction, derived from having entered into the poor man's amusement, and participated in his feelings. The ball broke up at eleven o'clock, when we returned on board of our vessel.
“Indian Key is a place of rendezvous for the wreckers, while engaging in their vocation. Here they procure their supplies of provisions, stores, etc. They are stationed at various positions along the reef; but Indian Key possessing a good harbor, and holding out many other inducements, is much resorted to, and may be considered as headquarters. The wreckers almost invariably make some harbor among the Keys at night; they, however, get under weigh at three or four o'clock in the morning, run out to the reef, and cruise up and down all day, in search of vessels which may have gone ashore. This Island is not over five or six acres in extent - it is nothing more than a rock in the midst of the ocean. It contains twenty or thirty small houses, and one large building, which is used as a hotel. This establishment has in connection a billiard table, nine pin alley, etc. The wreckers, when ashore amuse themselves in playing these various games. In the fissures of the rock of which the Island is composed, a small quantity of alluvial soil has collected. Here I first discovered a beautiful West India plant, called the Cordia Sebestina [The Gieger Tree, a name allegedly given by Audubon.], growing in great abundance; also, several species of wild bean. These plants are found on nearly all the Keys, and are, therefore, I presume, indigenous. By great labor, a quantity of earth has been collected, and a fine garden made. Cocoa nuts, limes, bananas and other West India fruits, are successfully cultivated. Upon the whole, Indian Key is a delightful residence - a little gem in the midst of the ocean, and may be supposed in some degree, to realize the aspirations of the poet.
'Oh, had we some bright little Isle of our own,
In a blue summer ocean, far off and away.'
"The families of the wreckers and turtlers are the principal inhabitants; they are thirty or forty in number. The waters in the neighborhood abound with the finest fish in the world, and great quantities of turtle are taken on the neighboring shores. But what avails it that nature has lavished her bounties with no sparing hand. Man, vile man, instead of being penetrated with gratitude for the bounties of Providence, and having his heart softened into benevolent feelings, only avails himself of the advantages of his situation, to prey upon the misfortunes of his fellow man. Like the barren keys by which he is surrounded, upon which the gentle and refreshing showers of spring, the warm and vivifying rays of the summer's sun descend in vain, they yield back in return no fruitful product. Many notorious transactions have been effected here, both in the way of wrecking and smuggling. It was here that I took my first lesson on wrecking.
"Like most people who arrive on the coast of Florida, I was possessed of the shell mania, and I must needs go a 'shelling.' One morning after breakfast, I borrowed a boat from one of the inhabitants, who was kind enough to send down a boy, who rigged it for me. Being at a loss for a companion, I went round the Key and tried among five or six boys, to hire one or two, to accompany me, but not one could I get. They all hung back, notwithstanding, I offered liberal pay, to any one who would go. The only reason which struck me as accounting for their unwillingness was that they thought they could make more money out of me, by selling me shells, than by hiring themselves to shew me where they could be procured. This supposition only increased my determination to go, if for no other purpose than to spite them. I took my gun, great coat and umbrella to the boat, and determined to visit a small Island, which was pointed out to me as "Shell Key." The wind was fair and by the aid of two boys who shoved me off, I was soon under a press of sail, for the island of expectations. No sooner had I left the wharf, than I discovered that the boat had no jib, no tiller, no ballast, and no oars; I made an attempt to 'tack ship' and return, but missing stays, and observing a group of females on the beach, who appeared to be laughing in their sleeves, I had no alternative but to 'keep away before the wind.' I consoled myself with idea of getting lots of shells, and that on my arrival at the Key, I could fix my boat, so as to render her manageable. As soon as I reached Shell Key [near Lignum Vitae Key], I hauled my boat ashore, and made her fast to root of a mangrove tree, took my gun on my shoulder, and started along the beach. I walked a mile, or more, without ever looking up; in fact, so intent was I examining the ground for shells, that I did not perceive a tremendous squall, which was gathering over head. The first intimation I had of its approach being the drops of rain. The fable of the Philosopher, who walked along so intent on surveying the stars, that he fell into a well, came forcibly to my mind, and I drew the conclusion that a man might look too low as well as too high. As soon as I took a survey, I was surprised and astonished at the appearance of the heavens; no time was to be lost, as I saw the rain approaching rapidly over the water. I ran with all possible speed back to the boat, secured her well, put on my great coat, hoisted my umbrella, took a seat in the 'stern sheets,' and very deliberately struck fire, and lit my segar. Here I sat, like a Philosopher, the rain pouring down, until the boat was half full of water. Segar after segar was consumed, and I never felt so independent in my life, as I did at that moment, as the big drops of rain splashed around me in the water. After an hour's continuance, the rain at length ceased, and it became necessary for me to think of getting back to Indian Key. I went some way up the Island, and brought down several large pieces of rock, which I stowed away for ballast. A piece of stick found on the beach, being fastened to the rudder with my handkerchief, served very well for a tiller. Having 'bailed out,' the boat, I got 'under weigh,' the wind being 'dead ahead.' Whenever I attempted to tack, the boat having no jib refused to 'go about;' I had no oar to pull her round, and was compelled to 'wear ship.' By this manoeuvre I lost all that I had gained upon the tack, and found myself exactly at the same spot from whence I started. Ten times did I repeat the experiment, and every time with like success. Meanwhile night was coming on, and it was necessary to seek some shelter, I landed, struck a light, and made a fire, and was preparing to lodge for the night under a tree, when I saw a boat coming down from Indian Key. The boat soon reached me, and I was taken on board, whilst one man was left in charge of my boat to bring her up. Arrived at Indian Key, I was informed that they had been quite amused at my efforts to return, and not a little gratified at my failure. I had to pay five dollars damage, besides having been out all day, with nothing to eat or drink, and to cap the climax, did not bring home a single shell. I have no doubt, from all that transpired, the condition of the boat, the refusal of the boys to accompany me, & c. that these fellows had laid a regular plan to wreck me, in order that they might get salvage out of me. I returned about supper time, and determined to make the best of a bad bargain. I paid the five dollars without saying a word. I now walked up to the house, where I found supper ready. On the table was a huge dish of fried fish, another heaped up with journey cakes, whilst a large motherly tea pot, at the head of the tables was sending forth a volley of steam. I need not add, that I made up for my fasting all day. After supper, I walked out upon the sea shore, and laughed heartily with my head P-----, at the days disaster.
"I have lately been informed that efforts have been made to establish a Port of Entry at this place. The Government would act very unwisely in doing so. Why should a Port of Entry be established at a place, certainly not over a few acres in extent, with a very small number of inhabitants, in a back country, and no exports or imports? The obvious reason why those concerned are disposed to have a Port of Entry established at this place is, that they may have full swing in the management of wrecks. The establishment of a Court, and the appointment of an agent for Insurance Offices at Key West, has kept those concerned in embezzling property in very considerable check. They want, if possible, to get out of the reach of the Court and the spy of the underwriters as they call him. Establish a Port of Entry at Indian Key, and so long as the officers of the Court remain at Key West, all wrecks will be taken to the former place, and Captains will have a good excuse for submitting to arbitration, because the Judge is not there. Remove the Court to Indian Key, and every vessel shipwrecked, or her cargo, would be taken to Key West for the same reason. A vessel was lately taken to Indian Key, and an award of thirty three and one third per cent. salvage was given for a few hours service.”
"Whilst lying at Indian Key, we were joined by five wrecking vessels, whose licenses having expired, it became necessary for them to go down to Key West to renew them. We determined to accompany them on the following morning. From all that I had heard of wreckers, I expected to see a parcel of low, dirty, pirate looking crafts, officered and manned by a set of black whiskered fellows, who carried murder in their very looks. I was, however, very agreeably surprised, to find their vessels fine large sloops and schooners, regular clippers, kept in first rate order, and that the Captains were jovial, good humored sons of Neptune, who manifested every disposition to be polite and hospitable, and to afford every facility to persons passing up and down the Reef. The crews were composed of hearty, well dressed, honest looking men.
"At the appointed hour, on the 13th day of September [Here he states a specific date.], we all set sail together, that is, the schooner Jane and five wreckers. As the Jane was not noted for fast sailing, I accepted an invitation to go on board of a wrecker. The fleet got 'under way' at 8 o'clock, A.M. The wind light, but fair, water smooth and the day fine. How shall I find words to express the pleasure and gratification which I this day experienced. The sea was of a soft beautiful pea-green color, smooth as a sheet of glass, and as transparent; its surface barely ruffled by our vessels as they ploughed its bosom, or dimpled by a pelican in pursuit of his prey, which rising for a considerable distance in the air, would plunge suddenly down, with distended jaws, and secure his food. The vessels of our little fleet, with every sail set which would catch a breeze, the white foam curling around their prows were gliding silently along, like islands of flitting shadows, on an immovable sea of light. Several fathoms below the surface of the water and under us, we saw great quantities of fish, large and small, diving and sporting among the sea grasses, sponges, sea feathers, and beds of coral with which the bottom was covered. On our right hand we were passing the Florida Keys, which as we made them in the distance, looked like specks upon the surface of the water, but as we neared them, rose as if by enchantment to view, clad in the richest livery of spring; each variety of color rendered more soft and delicate, by a clear blue shy, and a brilliant sun over head. All was like a fairy scene - my heart leapt up in delighted admiration, and I could not refrain from an exclamation, in the language of Scott:
'Those seas bold,"The trade wind played around us, with a balmy and refreshing sweetness, and to "give life and animation to the scene, we had a contest for mastry between all the vessels of a fleet, and a deep interest incited in favor of this or that vessel, as she shot a head or fell astern. Who could be otherwise than happy at such an hour, so calm, so sweet, and transient? Who could do otherwise than regret the necessity of relinquishing its enjoyment-
'Round thrice an hundred islands roll'd.'
'The ocean lies before me, but the landIf not interested, click back to return, or for more biography of B. B. Strobel please continue.
Still claims the captive, chained to her dark breast.'
"About three o'clock, P.M., we arrived at Bahia Honda. . . ."
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After leaving Key West in September 1832, and returning again to sail to Sanibel Island in early 1833, Strobel only returned to Florida once again. Evidently Dr. Strobel went into some extent of medical practice upon his return to Charleston in 1833. As has been mentioned, he did participate in the Second Seminole War with the South Carolina Volunteers for three months in 1836 as a regimental surgeon.
From Dr. Joseph Waring’s, History of Medicine in South Carolina, he states, “Strobel was professor of anatomy in the Medical College of South Carolina and in 1836 advertised that he proposed to give a private course of anatomical instruction ‘during the present season,’ to commence about the fifth of November at his rooms at the west end of Queen Street.” We can assume that he was somewhat in this capacity when he gave his second opinion on Chief Osceola in late January, 1838, as the Chief died on January 30, 1838.
Dr. Strobel made his last known trip to Florida in 1839 when he went to St. Augustine during its yellow fever epidemic. Charleston was undergoing a yellow fever epidemic in 1838 and 1839. Dr. Strobel used spot maps in a small way to chart locations of fever patients. He advocated quarantine, but held steadfast with the then common beliefs of “miasmas” or certain fumes or vapors were the cause.
He wrote a significant paper titled, “An Essay on the Subject of Yellow Fever Intended to Prove its Transmissibility.” His deductions were very advanced for that era as he mentioned rains and mosquitoes. It was not until 1881 that Cuban physician, Carlos Finlay, clearly enunciated that the mosquito was responsible for communicating yellow fever from person to person. Dr. Strobel also contributed three other significant medical articles, however it was his treatise on yellow fever for which he was acclaimed in 1840.
Strange as it will seem, he was dropped from the same Medical Society in 1842. The reason stated was for the non-payment of dues. Few in the know believe that the real reason for dismissal was non-payment of dues, but the reason remains conjecture.
The author lost track of Dr. Strobel until his death on March 24, 1849. The years from 1842 to 1849 must have been a significant period of time for someone as distinguished as he was. It is known that he died at his brother-in-law’s house, Robert Lyle Stewart. For this reason, some deduce that he had met with financial hardships. His wife and at least two children survived him. His widow, Mary Elizabeth (Stewart) moved to Bath, Georgia.
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