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Key West: Indian Hostilities

Key West: The Old and the New


[Editor's Note: This 1912 article represents the perspective early Florida settlers had of local Indians. They used the word "massacre" to describe Indians killing settlers.]

In March, 1836, Secretary of War Lewis Cass requested General Scott, who had charge of the military operations against the Indians in Florida, to detach a garrison from his forces and re-occupy Key West, and directed the ordnance department to forward without delay one hundred and fifty stands of arms, together with the necessary ammunition. to the commanding officer here, and, if there was no army officer, then to the care of Mr. William A. Whitehead, the collector of customs.

On the 15th of December, 1835, Major Dade, who was in command of the army post at Key West, left on the transport Motto for Tampa, with his entire command, where he led an expedition against the Indians in South Florida. On December 28th he attempted to march from Tampa to Fort King, but his command was ambuscaded and one hundred and fifteen officers and men massacred. Only one escaped.

So complete was the ambuscade that all of the officers were killed at the first fire. Among them was Captain Gardener, whose wife and children were in Key West where they had been living during the time that Captain Gardener and Major Dade were stationed here. They were both highly esteemed and had a large social acquaintance, and the news of their death threw the city in mourning. Captain Gardener's wife and children were objects of tender consideration from our people, and every kindness and attention possible was extended to them in their bereavement.

On January 4, 1836, the Indians attacked the family of Mr. William Coolie at New River, murdering his wife and three children, together with Mr. Joseph Flinton, of Maryland, who was employed as instructor for his children.

The inhabitants between New River and Cape Florida, and along the Florida Keys, became justly alarmed, and about two hundred fugitives came to Key West for safety.

There were about three thousand Indians operating in South Florida, and as they carried their hostilities farther south on the East Coast, an attack on Key West was feared. Our citizens chartered a vessel, and sent it to Havana to buy arms and ammunition, and to solicit a visit from any American man-of-war that was then in port. This at once brought Commander Dallas, in the frigate Constitution, and Captain Rosseau in the sloop-of-war St. Louis, to Key West for the protection of our people.

After the massacre of Mr. Coolie's family at New River, several attempts were made by the Indians to attack Cape Florida light-house, and on January 16th it was abandoned by the keepers, and notice of that fact published to the world by the collector of customs at Key West.

About the time of the massacre at Indian Key an attack was made on the light-house at Cape Florida; the keepers and their families abandoned their residences, which were destroyed, and took refuge in the top of the light-house where the Indians were afraid to attack them, the spiral staircase affording excellent facilities for defense. They set fire to the interior of the light-house and destroyed part of the staircase, and but for the timely arrival of a revenue cutter the inmates would have perished.

Among these was the daughter of the light-house keeper, Miss Drucilla Duke, who married Captain Courtland Williams, and was the mother of Mrs. George W. Reynolds and Mrs. H. B. Boyer. At Indian Key the people made ready for an attack by erecting embankments, mounting cannon, etc.

A land patrol of the most prominent citizens was organized at Key West, which kept up until the spring rains set in, when the gentlemen composing the guard abandoned their patrol, and sought shelter on the verandas of the houses, and finally staid at home altogether.

A water patrol was also organized and the island was circumnavigated every night.

An incident, which illustrates the demoralizing effect of fear, is told by Mr. Wm. A. Whitehead. "I was both amused and provoked one night by being summoned by the captain of the watch to leave my family to look after some Indians supposed to be in the woods, saying that 'the sound of a drum bad been distinctly heard several times.' The captain was no less a person than Mr. Alden A. M. Jackson. Mrs. Whitehead and I got up, and he marched us all the way to the barracks to see if the drum known to be there was in its place. The ridiculousness of the Indians having gone to the barracks and stolen the drum, and beat an alarm to give notice of their approach, never once occurred to the captain of the watch. It was later discovered that the noise was caused by a dog striking his leg on top of a cistern, while scratching fleas."

This incident found a counterpart in the Spanish American War, when Captain W. H. H. Sutherland, of the United States Navy, discovered and reported a Spanish fleet in the vicinity of Tampa, just as the transports were about to sail for Cuba. A fog or mist deceived him, as the dog scratching fleas deceived Captain Jackson.

The massacre of a number of Key West citizens on Indian Key was one of the most harrowing events in the history of our people. There were about twenty families living there, all of whom had relatives in Key West. A deputy collector of customs, a postmaster, commission merchant, warehouseman and others, were living on Indian Key. Among them was Dr. Henry Perrine, who had obtained a grant from congress, in 1838, of a township on Biscayne Bay for the purpose of demonstrating the adaptability of that part of South Florida for nearly all tropical and subtropical plants. Dr. Perrine moved to Florida in the winter of that year with his family, and several others who were to form part of the colony which was to develop his grant. On account of the Indian war it was not deemed safe to establish a colony on the mainland, and they took up their residence on Indian Key to wait the termination of hostilities.

Dr. Perrine brought plants and seeds from Mexico, Central and South America, which he planted on Matecumbie and Lignum Vitae Key as nurseries for his mainland colony when the war should end. His massacre by the Indians indefinitely postponed the colonization scheme, but the plants that he set out grew abundantly, and other bands reaped the harvest which the dead had sown. The presence of mahogany and other hard woods on these islands, which do not grow on the other keys, is the result of Dr. Perrine's sojourn there. After his death his family moved to New York, and his son, Mr. Henry Perrine, some years ago married Mrs. Folsom, the mother of Mrs. Grover Cleveland.

Congress lately confirmed the grant made in 1838, and Dr. Perrine's heirs came into possession of a township on Biscayne Bay. His descendants now living in Florida are Mrs. Sarah R. W. Palmer, her sons, T. W. and J. D. Palmer, Jr., two daughters, Misses Jessie and Minnie, who are living in Miami with their mother. Another daughter, Mrs. Sarah Rogers Colmore, is the wife of Rev. Charles D. Colmore, an Episcopal clergyman in Cuba.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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