General History of Indian Key
Biography of Jacob Housman
By Jerry Wilkinson
Much has been written about John
Jacob Housman and there appear to be many contradictions when studied thoroughly.
The following is not intended to be a complete history of Housman and is
fragmentary, but contains some of the facts available through genuine research.
Much of the data on Jacob Housman from 1830 to 1840 is covered in the web
page General History of Indian Key with additional information here.
Jacob Housman was the son of Abraham
P., and Mary Mersereau Housman of Staten Island, New York. He had brothers
Abraham and George and sisters Lania, Nancy Ann, Elizabeth, Mary, Matilda
and Caroline. The Housman family were of Dutch origin (Huysman) and Abraham
was probably an oyster man which was the primary industry of Staten Island
in the 1800's.
The author believes that much of the legend
of Housman's beginnings began with a Pensacola Gazette article,
four and a half years after the Indian Key raid, and the opinion of E.
Z. C. Judson written on March 29, 1845, "Indian Key was settled in about
1830 by Captain Housman, who commenced business on his own account in the
following manner. He was entrusted with the command of a small schooner
at an early age, by his father, who owned the vessel. She was employed
in the coasting and packet business along the shores of Staten and Long
Islands, also up the North River. The young captain, however, was too much
of a sailor to keep fresh water, and one day took it into his head to make
a 'West Indie' trip without asking his father's permission, making said
experiment in his father's vessel. The young captain never reached his
destination, for running off his course he struck the Florida Reef. This
injured his little craft so much that he was obliged to put into Key West
for repairs, during which time he got such an insight into the 'wrecking'
business that he concluded to became a wrecker himself. . . ,"
To read the entire article and it is lengthy Click
Supposedly the ship that Housman
took was the WILLIAM HENRY. According to data from the National
Archives, the WILLIAM HENRY's certificate of enrollment was issued
at Charleston, S.C. on July 1825 and the certificate of Registry at St.
Augustine, Florida on December 6, 1825. The previous managing owner was
William Barker. She was a two masted schooner, 46 and 76/95 tons, 56 feet
in length, 19 feet in breadth, 6 feet depth and built in 1821 at Havershaw,
New York. Jacob Housman was shown as the sole owner from January 24, 1825
to April 9, 1827 when the vessel was lost. For your information, a certificate
of enrollment restricts a vessel to coastwise trade only whereas that of
registry permits either foreign or coastwise trade. To date, I have been
unable to prove that his father, Abraham, ever owned the WILLIAM HENRY.
The National Archives also stated
that it could locate no reference of charges of Jacob stealing his father's
boat in the early 1820's. This alone does not mean that it did not occur,
or it was some other ship. This would be an interesting summer project
for someone living in the New York area to research the names of ships
that Abraham P. Housman owned in the early 1820's. The Charleston Courier
on July 27, 1822 shows the port departure under the charge of a Captain
Housman, a sloop, the WILLIAM HENRY. The purpose, or destination
was not indicated.
We know that Housman was in the Keys
in 1825 via the records of the adjudication of the cargo of the French
brig REVENGE in Key West.
National Archives Records also record
ownership by Jacob Housman in the ships BRILLANT, FAIR AMERICAN, JOHN
DENISON, KEY WEST, MARTHA JANE, MOBILE, SARAH ISABELLA, SYLPH, THISTLE
STATES. It is interesting to note from these records that Jacob sold
the SARAH ISABELLA to his father Abraham Housman - September 25,
1828, who sold it to his son George on February 5, 1830, who sold it back
to Jacob's brother, George, on March 7, 1831.
Now to the property of Indian Key,
Monroe County Deed Record books indicate that Silas Fletcher sold to Thomas
Gibson all his right, title and interest to Indian Key on November 13,
1828 for $2500. Richmond County, N. Y. Records of Deeds also show that
Abraham purchased property from a Silas Fletcher on December 28, 1830 in
New York. Congress later declared that neither Silas Fletcher, Jacob Housman
nor anyone else owned Indian Key in the 1800s. However, Indian Key property
was sold back and forth until finally in 1908 the U.S. Government issued
a legal land patent deed to W.W. Dewhurst for $68. Some other significant
recorded transactions are as follows:
The first recorded Indian Key property
sold to Jacob Housman was on November 19, 1830 for $30 and was the property
of William Johnson consisting of a one story building with two rooms and
Thomas and Ann Gibson in turn sold
to Jacob Housman a two-story house, a store, 9-pin alley, billiard room
and table, outhouse and kitchen for $5,000 on July 5, 1831. One might conclude
that Housman was serious about Indian Key around this time, if not before.
Jacob and Ann Housman sold
to Charles Howe a lot and house for $580 each on April 23, 1835.
Joseph Prince sold to Jacob
Housman all his rights and titles to Indian Key including all buildings
and improvements for $5,000 on November 3, 1835.
Much is written about Housman's adjudicated
misdeeds as a wrecker. However, it must be remembered that it was a rough-and-tumble
occupation in which to be involved. In reviewing the Admiralty court records,
there were many cases found in his favor. His large participation in the
industry, as well as the nature of the industry, would have necessitated
considerable court action. It can be argued that there may have been many
irregularities that were never reported and that he was worse than the
records indicate. Who knows?
There is little doubt that
Housman was the political and economic force for the development of the
small island. Had the island been larger and a source of at least brackish
water it would have been a force to be reckoned with. One must remember
that both it and Key West were developing almost together, Key West having
a slight head start, size, military, deep water port, etc. As small
as Indian Key is, had Housman been able to maintain his on-site militia
and prevented the massacre, history could have been significantly different.
Jacob Housman mortgaged
Indian Key and buildings thereon (except those belonging to Charles Howe)
to Smith Mowry, Jr. of Charleston, S.C. for $8,583 on March 19,1840. On
the same date Jacob mortgaged the same property to Joseph Lawton of Charleston
for $5,726.62 at 10% interest. This was about four and a half months before
the August 7, 1840 attack. It is also three days after Housman's proposition
was presented by a Mr. Dowling "...to the Governor and Legislative Council
of Florida and to the President and national Congress of the United States,
to catch or kill all the Indians of South Florida, for $200 each."
One can wonder what he
had done with his mini fortune in those days and why the mortgages were
necessary. It does appear that he had lost his fortunes in the latter days
of his life. Read on.
After the attack, Jacob and Ann sailed
to Key West and eventually auctioned off some of his remaining property.
In early May 1841, while at sea he died.
Six days later, Jacob G. Pierce
filed for damages in Key West for the collision of Housman's ship KEY
WEST with the LEANDER on April 30, 1841 which was the day before
his death. On May 30, 1841 with Mrs. Housman as the respondent, Judge Marvin
found in favor of Pierce ordering, " ..recover of the said sloop KEY
WEST, her tackle, apparel and furniture or their owners the sum
of $65 for the damages sustained by the Brig LEANDER ...as well
as his costs and charges in their behalf expended..." The collision occurred
the day before Housman fell to his death. Was there a connection? Not much
is written about Housman's activities while in Key West.
One reference that
I found of Mr. Housman being interred on Indian Key was that by Henry Perrine
Jr. in his "Return Visit to Indian Key In 1876." He wrote, "Near Housman's
epitaph stood the charred trunk or stump of a palm tree . . . ." Nothing
of the nature of the epitaph was revealed by Henry Jr.
Another reference is
by J. B. Holder in his writing of Along the Florida Reef during his voyage
of 1860: ". . . Near by was an ambitious looking slab, covering
a brick tomb. . . . " This is the only reference I have found of it being
a brick tomb.
A newspaperman in the Florida
Times Union on May 22, 1892 wrote the following: "...Any one who visits
Indian Key will see upon the beach a ponderous slab of the purest marble;
its size is about four feet wide by seven feet in length; it lies on the
beach - it "lieth" in more ways than one, for it is a standing falsehood.
The inscription is something like this: (he quotes). The stone does not
tell the truth, because the body of Captain Houseman [sic] does not lie
beneath; in fact the stone remains on the beach where it was landed, just
above the high water mark, years and years ago..."
This was 51 years after
Housman's demise and a lot of activity had taken place on Indian Key during
that time. The great hurricane of 1846 washed away the Key West graveyard
so there is no way to ascertain if there was a burial plot there. Anyway,
the broken marble epitaph was taken to Miami by the Historical Association
of South Florida in 1952 and now is at Lignum Vitae Key.
There was another unresolved court
case at the death of Mr. Housman. This involved the case of Housman versus
Cussans, November 19, 1839, Docket 64 of Superior Court. Housman sued for
costs, " •.. of supplies, repairs and other necessities to be able to sail
upon the high seas..." in a contract with Richard W. Cussans for the sloops
The case was still not settled at his death and Mrs. Housman petitioned
to be substituted which was granted. She won, but the settlement was reduced
by 10 percent for overpricing, but increased by eight percent for interest
owed. Cussans appealed and lost.
Housman left no legal last
will and testament and Judge L. W. Smith in Key West on January 20, 1842
revoked Elizabeth Ann Housman claim as the executrix to Jacob's will. The
following letter of administration was found in Richmond County, N.Y. 1787
- 1865, file number 448, book 2, page 150, June 29, 1841, May 13, 1843:
"Jacob Housman of schooner Sylph at Key West or Indian Key off the
Florida Coast. Administrator: Father, Abraham P. Housman. Widow: Eliza
Housman at Key West. No children." The only item listed as part of his
estate was the schooner SYLPH valued at $1,500.00. One should note
that the vessel KEY WEST registration continued in the ownership
of Jacob Housman until June 4, 1842. His father, Abraham, pursued the probate
action vigorously for years and eventually lost. His primary efforts seemed
to be directly at reimbursement for the militia expenses since it became
fairly obvious that Jacob did not have title to the land and his buildings
that were burned by the Indians.
After the raid and Housman's demise on
May 1, 1841, Indian Key, except for the Howe property, was sold at public
auction to Mowery and Lawton of Charleston, S.C. for $355 on January 15,
Mrs. Ann Housman remarried later
in 1841. The following data is included in the Monroe County Court House
records 11-64, "Crawford Thompson, Esqr. of Sheffield, England and Mrs.
Elisabeth Ann Housman of Indian Key, Dade County, at present of Monroe
County, Florida were married on December 14, 1841 at Key West by Alfred
E. Ford, Minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church."
There is some evidence that
Jacob Housman had a home also on Lignum Vitae Key. Henry Perrine Jr. wrote
during his "Return to Indian Key in 1876" that while a Captain Bethel was
escorting him around: "We did not stay long (on Lower Matecumbe) as the
captain wanted me to go over to Lignum Vitae Key, the island where Capt.
J. Housman had very extensive improvements, to show me his watermelon patch
and pineapples. The only trace of Housman's former occupancy was a portion
of the wall and chimney of a kitchen." Rudy Atmus photographed the site
There is a lot written about Indian
Key and Jacob Housman. Some of it involves the operation of the U. S. Navy
in the area. Much of the Housman claim against the U.S. government involves
support provided to the Navy from about 1836 up to the raid. Additional
claims were for the formation and maintenance of Company B, 10th Florida
Militia (included in this web site) for the defense of Indian Key. In Senate
Report 484 of the 29th Congress on August 8, 1846 is shown, "The extent
of the indemnity claimed is $144,630 . . . ."
Later in House Report 798 - 30th
Congress - 1st Session - June 25, 1848 Committee of Claims Report said
in part, " . . . What right had Housman to this property? He had no title
from Spain previous to the Florida Treaty . . . .we notice a remarkable
fact, that some $15,000 or $20,000 of this claim is for the burning of
cisterns cut in solid rock of the island . . . Housman had no real right
there whatever." This ended the claim of the Housman heirs who received
nothing from their pursuit.
A great juvenile novel, now out of
print, about Jacob Housman and Indian Key, and fairly factual, is The
Rumskudgeon by Kaye Carter available in our local libraries.
Some of this information is repeated
in other chapters.
tour to a list of ships owned by Housman
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Key Home page