Dr. Henry Edward Perrine
By Jerry Wilkinson


         "The full story of Indian Key where Dr. Perrine established his headquarters has yet to be written.  In this day of easy communication we forget that in Dr. Perrine's time South Florida was practically an island.  Even Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas was not begun until 1846.  This part of the State was completely separated by miles of black mud and unbridged rivers.  Within the memory of many now living,  mail carriers walked the beaches and paddled across the rivers in small boats.  The first members of our legislature from Key West went to Tallahassee by way of New York."  These are not my words.  This was written in 1924 by John C. Gifford in his book "The Rehabilitation of the Florida Keys."
         To some extent it is still true today.  Historical facts of Indian Key are difficult to research as most, if not all, of its official records were lost when most of the island was burned in the raid of August 7, 1840.  Indian Key was also the county seat of Dade County and remained in Dade County until 1866. 
        This booklet was quickly thrown together for the 1995 Indian Key Festival while traveling to search for historic facts on Lignum Vitae Key, so no editing other than my own was done.  Most readers understand the results of editing one's own writings.  However, I was at the Florida Archives and the P. K. Yonge Library and did verify as many of the facts as time and material allowed.  The concerned researcher of  Dr. Perrine should access these documents as some inconsistencies seem to exist.  A limited  bibliography is provided at the end.
       Dr. Perrine has stood the test of time.  He was and is known and respected throughout the continent, perhaps the world.  Without any doubt he was a visionary far ahead of his time whose life was snuffed out at the young age of 43 by a senseless act.
       He was totally engrossed with the potentials of southern Florida.  His words to the editor of the Farmer’s Register, January 1, 1840 from Indian Key pretty much summed up his position, “How many years have I fruitlessly labored to convince the American people that the most slandered section of their immense domains is the most desirable district in the union for the physical enjoyments of the human race.” 
       However, he went on to suggest, “Indeed I would advise South Florida to be avoided by every person who cannot cheerfully abstain from the use of tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, until he can produce them with his own hands!!!”
 He further cautioned, “He who cannot find sufficient enjoyments in his own head, with his own family, or in his own hands on his own lands, is not fitted for a pioneer in any new settlement, and especially in the southern extremity of Tropical Florida.” 
       This had to have been a characteristic of all the early successful pioneers.  It is often asked what motivated the Russells, Pinders, Parkers, Alburys, Lowes, Knowles and countless others to forsake the then modern Key West to seek happiness in the deserted Upper Keys.  However, the pioneers of Key West and all settlements also had forsaken conveniences to make them  realities.  Dr. Perrine was giving the answer in the above epistle to the editor.

        Henry Edward Perrine was a descendant of a French Huguenot family who settled in New Jersey around the year 1665.  Henry's grandparents spelled their name Perrin.  Exactly when the final (e) was added to the name is not known by the author,  but it was there by the time that his father, Peter Perrine, married Sarah Rozengrant.
        Henry was born April 5, 1797 at Cranbury, New Jersey and in his early manhood taught school in Rockyhill, New Jersey.  He studied medicine in College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City where he graduated in 1819 as a MD.  The faculty of that college was from Columbia University, charted in 1807 and rejoined Columbia in 1860.  After graduation, the young graduate of twenty-two years of age settled in Bond County, Illinois (near Ripley) in September, 1819. He practiced medicine in Illinois for about four years.
       From Illinois he wrote on November 15, 1820, "I came here on the 30th of  September, and got into business immediately.  Dr. Drake was not as well satisfied as myself and declined doing much.  By the first of this month I booked about $200, of which $55 was in one day.  During the same month Dr. Drake made only forty dollars, not as much as I did in one day; of that $55 I feel pretty certain of $33, which will still make it a good day's work.
      "About 22 miles above this is a new seat of government laid out called Vandalia.  A few reside there and by exposure several became sick.  I was sent for to four, and the fifth a Black.  By law I am allowed 50 cts. a mile.  That was $11.00 apiece exclusive of the medicine."   He remained in contact with this Dr. Drake throughout his life.
       If we can judge from the letters that Dr. Perrine wrote back to his family, his time in Illinois was satisfying.  Letters to his brother show him alive with ambition.  He wrote: "By all that is free, and all is desirable in freedom, I had rather endure the privations of this country for years, with the prospects I have before me, than to live in Jersey for the same time among comparative conveniences."
       About midway his stay in Bond County, Illinois, he married Ann Fuller Townsend (1802 - 1876) on January 8, 1822.  Ann’s father was the Rev. Jesse Townsend and the first pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Palmyra, N.Y.   Her mother was Anna May, the third daughter of Rev. Eleazer May, 50 years the pastor of the Congregational Church of Haddam, Mass. 
       The following year, Ann bore their first child, a daughter named Sarah Ann, on March 24, 1823.  A little over a year later, the second daughter, Hester Maria, was born on July 21, 1824.  Both daughters were born in Illinois.
        A serious incidence happened to Dr. Perrine while in Illinois and could have influenced his moving away, seemingly to seek warmer climates.   This incidence is related by his son, Henry Perrine Jr. in his writings.  His son wrote: "For the purpose of warding off or preventing an attack of the malady (malaria) he was in the habit of taking a certain amount of Peruvian Bark before going out in the malarious night air to visit a patient.  The bottle and a measuring glass stood on a shelf near by where he could place his hand upon them even in the dark.
       "One evening, having the occasion to visit a patient who lived a mile or two away, he came hastily into the office, and, without waiting to procure a light, took down the Peruvian Bark, put the usual quantity into the glass upon the counter.  A moment later his student came in with a candle, and at once saw the glass with some remains of the powder in it, and also a white substance mixed with it.  He was horrified at the sight, for it was the result of his own carelessness, as he had left a quantity of arsenic in it, and father had unsuspectingly taken the poison.
       "Providentially the student knew where he had gone, and knowing that no time must be lost if life was to be saved, he rushed out, found a horse nearby and mounted it bare backed, he hastened after at full speed.  Fortunately, he succeeded in overtaking him before he entered the patient's house.  The poison had already begun its deadly work, but on learning the cause of the burning pain the Doctor told his student what remedies to procure and apply, and their prompt use finally saved his life, but he was confined to his bed for many weeks, and never fully regained his strength." 
        It is generally believed that this undermined his health and he continued to seek a less rigorous climate.  As it was, he moved southward to Natchez, Mississippi in 1824 after four years in Illinois.  Not much data has arisen about his stay in Mississippi except his acceptance of an appointment as the United States Consul to Campeche, Mexico.  It could have arisen from a visit to Cuba in 1826.   From page 17 of the 25th Congress, 2nd Session, House Report 56, February 17, 1838, "Our first acquaintance with the Doctor (Perrine) commenced in the island of Cuba, to which he was driven by sickness, and by business, in the spring of 1826.  He was then expatiating [in lengthy writing] on the advantages to be derived from the introduction of tropical plants to the industry of our free institutions, and the facility with which it could be accomplished, in consequence of the proximity."
        From this we learn that he had an early interest in tropical plants and an apparent desire to be in a warm climate.
       The consular appointment was made by President John Quincy Adams in January of 1827.  His first and only son, Henry Perrine Jr. was born three months later on March 20, 1827 in Sodus, New York.  Evidently Dr. Perrine delayed his reporting date until his first son could be born.  The family remained in New York during his absence.  In a later letter to a Dr. Ezekiel Johnson asking, "Do me a favor to tell me what sum of money I should have probably gained since my arrival here (Mexico) in June, 1827, if I had dedicated myself exclusively to the interested exercise of my profession, instead of generally practicing it gratuitously with hope of promoting the usefulness of this consulate, and my inquiries after plants suitable for the United States."  Dr. Johnson's answer was "ten or twelve thousand dollars.”  In another letter Dr. Perrine commented, “As the income of this office (Consul) does not furnish a third of the sum required for the economical subsistence of a single person. . .” 
        At the insistence of President John Adams, Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Rush circulated a letter on September 6, 1827 to all consulate officers to procure foreign plants of known, or probable utility, for the cultivation in the United States.  Details of this request are contained in Report Number 564 of the 25th Congress.   This concept appealed strongly to the new Campeche Consul and he began a large collection of Mexican seeds and plants which he thought beneficial to his homeland.  He flooded the Senate, House of Representatives, Departments of Treasury, Army and Navy with detailed reports on botanical data, especially those producing durable fibers.
        The above referenced House Report 564 goes on to state, "The Doctor has very judiciously concluded his account of the cultivation of the Agave Sisalana, in the peninsular of Yucatan, without entering into the details of the great benefits which would be derived from its cultivation in the peninsular of Florida, as they are evident to every reflecting mind."  These were the times of the sailing ship and fibrous rope was important.   It remained of local importance for the remainder of the century.  At the turn of the century during the Spanish American War, the United States seized the Philippines and procured the use of Manila hemp.  From then on the emphasis on locally produced fiber subsided.  Also, the steamship which required few fiber ropes had come  into operation.  It seems that the lack of a machine to process the Agave leaves was the deciding factor.  On October 4, 1832, Dr. Perrine offered $1,000 for such a machine.  In passing, the need for fiber from the coconut husk was the reason that so many coconuts were planted in the Keys. 
       Dr. Perrine did not forego his practice of medicine.  His son wrote that he was almost as busy practicing medicine as he was attending to government affairs.
       These were the days of rampant tropical and sub-tropical fevers.  Yellow fever, malaria and cholera decimated the country side.  There was no scientific knowledge as to their etiology and being a practical clinician, Dr. Perrine was diligent in recording and publishing his observations.  Quinine and cinchona bark were being used freely.  The Philadelphia Journal of Medicine and Physical Sciences in 1826 published an article by Dr. Perrine titled: "Fever Treated With Large Doses of Sulphate of Quinine."  Dr. Perrine also discovered and cultivated a stingless bee of which he shipped samples to Judge Webb in Key West, however many arrived dead and the others failed to reproduce.
        It is fair to state that his work in the Yucatan laid the ground work for his work in the Florida Keys.  From the works of C.F. Millspaugh, 1904, located in the library of the New York Botanical Garden: "He also conceived the idea of starting a tropical plant station in South Florida and to that end petitioned Congress in 1832 (three years before the start of the Second Seminole War in Florida) for a grant of land in that region after reporting at length upon the subject to the State and Treasury Departments.  In a Treasury Circular of the 6th. of September, 1827, Mr. Linn says: 'Doctor H. Perrine appears to be the only American Consul who has unreservedly devoted his head, heart and hands to the subject of introducing tropical plants in the U.S. and his voluminous manuscripts alone exhibit a great amount of labor and research which promises to be highly beneficial to our country."'
        Mr. Millspaugh continued: "In this work he associated with Mr. James Webb of Key West and Mr. Charles Howe of Indian Key in a 'Tropical Plant Company' whose object was to be first the production of Henequen (Agave Sisalana) and secondarily to encourage the introduction and promote the cultivation of tropic plants in the United States.  In his various reports to the Department he dwelt to considerable length upon tropical economic botany.  During his residence in Campeche he suffered serious attacks of both yellow fever and cholera.  During the epidemic of the latter disease in 1833 he remained in the city, when, it is reported, all other physicians fled to the mountains.
     “U.S. Senate Doc. 300, 25th Congress, 2nd. Session (1838) contains the following papers by Dr. Perrine:
     ‘Letters on Tropic Plants.’
    ‘Meteorologic Tables of Indian Key, etc.’
     ‘List of Officinal and Economic Plants of the Tropics.’  This is annotated for plants or seeds already introduced by him into South Florida.
     ‘Cuban Economic Plants.’ containing lists and remarks upon cereals, roots, farinaceous fruits, edible seeds, vegetables, salads, pulpy fruits, dyes, tans, oils, gums, fibers, resins, etc.
     ‘Tropic Fiber Plants' with 24 plates.’”
    “U.S. House of Rep. Report 564. 25th.  Congress, 2nd Session (1838) additionally contains reports made by Dr. Perrine.
   ‘Plants of Mexico.’
   ‘The Agave Sisalana or Sisal Hemp.’
   ‘Letters on Tropical Plants.’
   ‘Propagation of Fibrous Leaved Plants.’”
        From the above, we can conclude that Dr. Perrine did have a well conceived plan before arriving on Indian Key (Christmas day of 1838).
       Another part of his plan was the incorporation of The Tropical Plant Company approved on July 8, 1838, almost a year before his arrival.  The Act of Incorporation contained 20 sections of legal specifications. To read a copy of the Act creating the Tropical Plant Company please Click Here.  In a brief summary, Section 1 established Henry Perrine, James Webb (Key West) and Charles Howe (Indian Key) as trustees.  Section 2 set the capital stock at $50,000.  Section 20 set the life of the company to be 20 years from the time of organization.
       There are references to Dr. Perrine's correspondence with Captain DuBose, the lighthouse keeper for the Cape Florida lighthouse on Key Biscayne, as early as 1833.  Capt. DuBose had planted trees on both Cape Florida and the mainland.  I know of no references to his children while residing in Mexico.
 Continued on page 2- click HERE
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