By Jerry Wilkinson

  Wrecking, sponging, farming, fishing, turtling, cigar, salt and charcoal making, and the military were early Keys industries. Wrecking in this use means 'salvaging.' Of the above, wrecking and farming significantly shaped the early settling of the Upper Keys. Ships and their crews became known as 'wreckers.' 

      The end of wrecking overlapped with the beginning of farming and most of the products from both wrecking and farming were taken to Key West for disposition. In Key West, cigar manufacturing replaced the wrecking economy. Sponging, turtling and mackerel fishing also flourished for awhile; however, they were almost completely controlled by Havana at first. Control by Key West, then Key West and Miami, followed Havana's control. 

     The following is a very brief discussion of the complex subject of wrecking. It was the industry that dominated the Florida Keys from the first wrecked Spanish ships to about 1890. Most of the shipwrecks were in the Tortugas and middle/Upper Keys' areas. Wrecking included, but seldom mentioned, the wrecking of slave ships such as the Spanish Guerrero in 1827. Human cargoes turned out not to be very lucrative. 

     From the beginning of commerce with the New World, ships crashed onto the reefs of the Florida Keys. Some were simply grounded high and dry while others had their hulls ripped open, and were sinking or sunk. 

     Many factors were involved. The early square-rigged merchant ships were often overloaded, very difficult to control and did not sail into the wind very well. What charts there were did not indicate the dangers that lay beneath the water's surface. Precise navigation equipment and accurate charts were still centuries away. Little was known of weather conditions in this part of the world. There were no lighthouses and little communication existed when bad weather threatened. 

     The word "wrecking" in this use refers to the salvaging or the saving of crews, ships and/or cargoes -hopefully, in that order. Of course, some kind of reward, or payment was expected and this became the function of the wrecking court to adjudicate. When Florida became a territory in 1821, there were no U.S. statutes, only the "Common Laws at Sea" and a Bahamian Admiralty Court. From its inception, wide differences of opinion and almost constant controversy on the pros and cons, ethics and nature of wrecking existed. 

     The Florida indigenous Indians were the first salvagers or wreckers. For example, they were employed to assist the Spanish in saving what they could from the 1622 Spanish Fleet wreck in the Marquesas. The Atocha and the Margarita are the better known ships of the fleet. About eight years of salvaging of the treasure of the two ships by the Spanish was partially done with hired Indians.

     Meanwhile, Dutch mariners frequently harassed the Spanish salvagers. With little doubt, the native Indians profited one way or another by diving for sunken goods. Quite possibly the Bahamians were the ones who developed wrecking into an industry. Once it was organized, the adjudication of salvage claims was done at Nassau, Havana, or mutually between the parties involved. 

     Maritime records abound with events where complete ships, cargos, passengers and crews were saved. Most expect that the entire gambit from heroism to outright piracy existed. Tales of moving navigation lights to placing false lights exist. The Georgia Gazette of October 7, 1790 ended an article of two English ships, one saved and one lost, as follows: ". . . The wreckers [Bahamians] generally set the ships on fire after they have done with them, that they may not serve as a beacon to guide other ships clear of those dangerous shoals." This editorializing by the writer implies that the wreckers did not want markers showing other ships where the dangerous reefs were. The same arguments can be made that wreckers moved navigation lights to cause groundings. Most likely when any ship saw any light it would immediately know it was far too close and steer away to seaward. A better argument would be that they extinguished the lights. There is no real data to substantiate these allegations. 

     Shipwrecks occurred everywhere. In the Upper Keys, Carysfort Reef was an especially dangerous reef and the waters around Tavernier Key was a favorite anchorage location while waiting for wrecks on the off-shore reefs to happen. In early times, the name Carysfort was frequently used generically to include all the reefs in the general area. It was while waiting for wrecks here that Captain Ben Baker started growing pineapples on Plantation Key and Key Largo, and quite possibly launched the pineapple industry. One wrecking report actually stated that Captain Baker spotted a wreck while sitting on his front porch on Key Largo. Almost all wreckers performed work other than wrecking. Most were also spongers, turtlers, fishermen or something that placed them in a good position when a wreck occurred. 

      On May 7, 1822, Key West was declared an official port of entry. The following year, Commodore David Porter with his West Indies Anti-Piracy Squadron was sent to clear the waters of pirates so U.S. shipping could proceed in peace and safety. (see photo) During this process Commodore Porter wrote to the Secretary of the Navy of the dilemma in regard to the lack of written legal statutes. 

     The federal legislature took no immediate action. The legislative council of the Territory of Florida passed its own wrecking act on July 4, 1823. It contained 14 sections provided that salvagers of wrecked property brought into the territory must report it to the nearest justice of the peace, or notary public (section one).  Section two gave the officer the duty to gather a jury of five. Section three gave the composition of the jury as two members nominated by the salvagers, two by the owners and one by the justice or notary. Other sections established court costs, advertisement, required a certified copy to be sent to the clerk of the Superior Court, etc. As there was not a Superior Court in Key West until 1828, early records are difficult to locate. Section 14 covered the making or holding false lights, devices, or anything "with the intent to mislead, bewilder or decoy the mariners of any vessel on the high seas, whereby such vessel may be cast ashore, or get aground . . ." If convicted, . . . be deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death." 

     The act gave far too much power to minor offices as a Notary. Section two allowed the officer to appoint representatives for the owners if none were present. Key West only had a population of a few hundred. Ships and entire cargoes were sold. Therefore, wrecking got off to a bad start in the Keys.

     The June 10th, 1826 Pensacola Gazette reported that gross duties paid on goods landed in Key West increased from $389 in 1823 to $14,108 in 1824, and this was only the beginning. 

      In these early territorial times, as well as later, settlement could be resolved by agreement or arbitration. A court was only required in cases of disagreement. In some cases the ship's owner did not agree with the ship's master and neither agreed with the salvager, in which case a court was usually necessary. In maritime law, the word "master" referred to the person in charge of a civilian vessel and "captain" was used for a military vessel. In some cases there was the fourth party, the insurer, who had to represent his interests. Appeals of decisions could and did last for years. 

     A recent 1990 court case involved the sinking and salvaging of the U.S.S. Central America, which had sunk off of South Carolina in the 1850s. It was transporting gold from California to Washington, D.C. and the gold was salvaged. The insurance company recovered part of its losses by court action. 

     To prevent the spoils of shipwrecks within U.S. jurisdiction from being carried to foreign ports for adjudication, Congress passed the Federal Wrecking Act on March 3, 1825. It mandated that all property shipwrecked in these seas had to be brought to a U.S. port of entry. Businessman John Simonton reported in 1826 that “…from December, 1824, to December, 1825, $293,353.00 of wrecked property…” was sold in Key West. 

     In 1828, the U.S. established a Superior Court in Key West with maritime and admiralty jurisdiction and James Webb was appointed as its judge. Judge William Marvin replaced him in 1839 and wrote the book on wrecking laws. Judge Marvin made considerable improvements on the then adversarial system against the ship owners. The only other courts were at St. Augustine and Pensacola, so almost all of the Florida Keys wrecking property was taken to Key West. The wrecking act was further tightened in 1847. 

     The first Superior Court case tried in the Key West court was that of the ship Nanna, which had run aground on Carysfort Reef and was able to be pulled off once lightened of 456 bales of cotton. The un-grounding was accomplished by three wreckers who happened to be near. This was often the case when a ship ran aground at low tide, if her hull was not split open and quick acting assistance was near. The wreckers would secure their anchors in deeper water, lighten the ship's cargo and as the tide rose, pull the stricken ship off of the reef using their capstans. There are a lot of "ifs" in doing this, like principally, weather permitting. 

      Keep the above case in mind as you read the remaining and ponder what if the wreckers were not immediately available, the ships ran aground at other than low tide, the weather was fierce, and the cargo did not lend itself to be easily off-loaded rather than throwing it overboard. In the Nanna's case, the salvaged cotton was valued at $60,000, of which the wreckers were awarded $10,000. 

     There were many wreckers operating during the wrecking hey-day. Some of the better known were Jacob Housman, Ben Baker, Brandish "Hog" Johnson, John Geiger, "Bull" Weatherford and John Lowe. 

     Jacob Housman of Indian Key was involved in salvage court with a French ship, the Vigilant, which had run aground near present-day Marathon. He was found guilty of consorting with the ship's master to cheat the ship's owner. Evidently Housman and the ship's master split the reward. In this case there were $32,000 in coins aboard. To learn more about Mr. Housman go to the History of Indian Key. 

     The courts employed 13 rules of wrecking which are quite involved so I will only summarize. These were legal rules and defined all parties, dealt with collusion, licensing, discrimination, bribery, price fixing, using a disaster to make a profit, wharfage, providing the ship's master with a copy of rules, rights of the master wrecker, et cetera. 

     The wrecking ship and its master had to be licensed; its owner's name only had to be recorded. The ones who really got rich were the ship owners and warehouse owners. William Curry, John Lowe and Asa Tift of Key West are good examples. 

     Consortiums existed when various ships worked together. There were basically two types of consortships, one more or less permanent and another which applied only to a specific shipwreck and was null and void after that specific salvage. 

     Wreckers also rewarded agents, such as fishermen, who reported a shipwreck to them. Being the first to arrive at the wreck site meant being capable of being the "wrecking master," who could, but not necessarily, receive a larger reward. This designate also was able to choose other wreckers which he wanted to assist in the project. The ship's master could choose whomever he wished to be the master wrecker or none; however, in any circumstance other than a simple low tide grounding, he usually needed assistance as soon as the first wrecker arrived on the scene. 

     Ideally, only sufficient cargo should be removed to float the ship free at the next high tide. Often this required the assistance of other wreckers, who would divide a reduced number of shares of the first, or master wrecker. There is a case where a beer-laden ship was salvaged and considerable cargo was consumed in the process. The court decreed no additional fees. In another case, the wreckers consumed considerable food from the wrecked ship and the judge deducted this from the award.

      At this point for additional reading, I wish to offer portion of a diary written in 1931 by a Key West attorney - William R. Hackley. The latter portion of this portion is relative to wrecking industry. If interested Please Click HERE.

     The wrecking industry began to wind down with the advent of effective lighthouses. Cape Florida, Sand Key and Dry Tortugas had lighthouses since the 1820s. Many of the wrecks, though, were occurring in the Upper Keys. The Carysfort lighthouse was lit in 1852. Possibly before, at the same time or later were a series of fixed iron day beacons along the outer edge of the refine. According to a 1855 dated U. S. Coast Survey chart each beacon had an alphabet letter from A through P and “Erected by Lieut. James Totten U. S. Army.” The letter “A” was at Eastern Sambo off of Key West and the last was “Beacon P” off of Fowey Rocks south of Cape Florida. The total height of the beacon assembly was about 45 feet depending on the water depth. Each beacon had a five-foot square lettered vane that rotated with the wind direction and a 3 foot wide and five foot high cylinder of hoop iron on top. Some remains can still be found. 

     The Sombrero Reef lighthouse off of Marathon was placed into operation in 1858. Slowly navigation was improved with the addition of lighthouses at Alligator (1873), Fowey (1878), American Shoal (1880) and Rebecca Shoal (1886). The advent of the steam powered steamship -steerable regardless of wind conditions- doomed wrecking as an industry. As a time reference, steam powered ships were fairly common by the end of the Civil War. 

     The grounding of the steamship Alicia of Bilbao on Ajax Reef off Miami while en route to Havana is usually acknowledged as the end of the wrecking industry. The year was 1905 and wreckers came from many parts to assist. Captain "Hog" Johnson was the master wrecker. With much of the cargo was removed, the ship was floated only to be sunk again the next day in a severe wind squall. 

     For further information, all of the records of each shipwreck are in the Miami and Key West libraries. They are known as admiralty records, but are officially titled The Federal Court, Southern District of Florida, Setting in Admiralty. 

     The Wrecking License Bureau of the court closed in 1921. The last known licensed wrecker, Captain Chet Alexander, passed away in 1984 -the final curtain. 

     The book and movie, "Reap the Wild Wind," starring John Wayne, Ray Milland and Paulette Goddard set in 1840 dramatized the life of the Key West wrecking industry. Check your local library. 


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