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Indian Key Massacre

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. This article does not explain that the Indian Key attack was thought to be in retaliation for threats made by settlers. Jacob Housman (Captain Houseman in this article) had made an offer to congress to get rid of the Indians for $200 per scalp.]

For several years people on Indian Key lived in constant dread of an attack from the Indians. At Tea Table Key, about a mile from Indian Key, there was a naval depot and a detachment of United States troops was stationed there. A revenue cutter cruised constantly near Indian Key, making that its principal anchoring place.

Captain Houseman, who owned a large wharf and warehouse, and did a general storekeeping and commission merchant business, had for eighteen months been making preparations to defend the island from an anticipated attack, and spent about $20,000 for that purpose. In the fall of 1838 three hundred Indians congregated on the adjacent keys with a view of attacking the island. They sent a Spaniard, who was living with them, to Indian Key as a spy, but he was taken prisoner by Captain Houseman, who was informed by him that there were two Indians on Lignum Vitae Key. These were also captured, and the Indians realizing that the inhabitants were on the alert, abandoned their plan of an attack at this time. Captain Houseman ascertained from these spies that it was the intention of the Indians, after capturing Indian Key, to proceed to Key Vaccas and thence to Key West. He kept them prisoners for eighteen months, and on the arrival of the revenue cutter, sent for the protection of the people at Indian Key, they were turned over to the captain, from whom they effected their escape.

Captain Houseman and the citizens of Indian Key had repeatedly petitioned the government of Florida and Congress, to furnish troops for their protection. They urged that the troops and the naval depot should be at Indian Key and not at Tea Table Key, but their petitions were ignored, It was believed at the time that Tea Table Key was selected at the instance of certain prominent citizens of Key West who owned that island, and the feeling among the survivors of the massacre was very bitter against some of the people of Key West, whom they felt were to some extent responsible.

A short time before the massacre, Mr. John Whalton, the keeper of the Carysfort Reef lightship, was killed by a party of Indians on one of the keys where he had a garden. Mr. Whalton's family were living in Key West, and he has a number of descendants living here now.

A few days before the attack, Lieut. McLaughline, who had under his command the revenue cutters Flint and Atrego, left the vicinity of Indian Key, and sent one of the cutters to Cape Florida, and the other to Cape Sable. It was while on this trip that the two Indian spies escaped by jumping overboard. They carried the information to the other Indians that the cutters had left the vicinity of the island, and that there was no one on Tea Table Key except one officer and ten sick men. The Indians hastily gathered in force, and between two and three o'clock in the morning of the 7th of August, about three hundred quietly came in their canoes to the island and disembarked, and were proceeding to surround the houses, when they were discovered by Mr. J. Glass, who occupied one of the dwellings on Water street on the south side of the key. Mr. Glass got up, and looking out of his front window, discovered a large number of canoes along the rocks directly in front of his house. He immediately went to the adjoining house occupied by Mr. J. F. Beiglet and called him, and they started to give the information to Captain Houseman and others, but in crossing the public square they were discovered by a large number of Indians who were creeping silently along the fence which led to Captain Houseman's dwelling. As soon as the Indians discovered them, they commenced firing, screaming and yelling, which gave the alarm to another party of Indians coming around by Mr. Howe's house, and they all rushed for Captain Houseman's store and dwelling. Glass and Beiglet escaped, Glass secreting himself under the Second street wharf, Beiglet in a cistern under a large warehouse. They remained there, with James Sturdy and another man, until the building was set on fire. Beiglet and the other man escaped, but Sturdy was burned to death. Beiglet lost about $10,000.00 in gold.

The inhabitants were aroused from their sleep by the bloodcurdling yells and war cries of the Indians.

The house occupied by Dr. Perrine belonged to Mr. Howe. It was the largest on the island, being three stories high, with a porch and cupola, and built so close to the water that, during high tide, three sides were surrounded by water. Fronting the porch was a short wharf. Under the wharf was a crawl for turtle. It communicated with the cellar by a narrow passage way walled up above high water mark. The cellar being open to the influx of the sea, was used by the family for bathing, and was entered by a trap door from the dressing room above. It was into this cellar that Dr. Perrine hurried his family when they were awakened by the discharge of guns, crashing of glass and wild yells of the Indians. His family urged him to come into the cellar with them, but he knew that the Indians would discover the trap door, so he remained in the house and closed the opening, and piled upon it bags of grain, etc., so as to completely hide it. He then got his guns ready but discovered that he had no caps. His family heard him parleying with the Indians in Spanish, trying to prevail on them to spare his dwelling. Soon the distressed listeners in the cellar heard the Indians make a furious assault upon the dwelling, and one of them say in English, "All hid; old man upstairs." They heard with terror the rush up the stairs, the heavy blows upon the massive doors which led to the cupola, the terrific crash as it yielded, a single rifle shot, the awful war whoop, and the demonic yells of the savages; and the family below knew that their father and husband was no more!

[Editor's Note: The narrative continues here, describing the graphic death of the Mott family.]

Captain John Mott, his wife and two children, and his mother-in-law, were discovered by the Indians about daylight. Mott and his wife were shot. The oldest child, a girl about four years old, was picked up and her brains dashed out against a post. The baby was choked to death and thrown into the sea. Mott and his wife, who were not yet dead, were dragged about fifty yards, and killed with blows from clubs, and their hair and clothes set afire. The mother-in-law escaped and hid under a building until the Indians left.

After the massacre they set fire to houses, and what they did not burn they destroyed. One house alone escaped. It belonged to Mr. Charles Howe. Mr. Howe was a Mason, and when the Indians left the island, his Masonic apron with its all-seeing eye and other mystic symbols, was found spread out on a table. The savages had found it in ransacking the place, and whether they knew anything of Masonry and spared Mr. Howe's house on that account, or whether it appealed to their superstitions and frightened them, will never be known; but it was believed that this home was spared on that account. After his death the apron was presented to Dade Lodge No. 14, F. & A. M., but it was destroyed in 1886, when the Masonic Temple was burned.

Nearly all who escaped massacre did so by secreting themselves in cisterns. Many of them remained in water up to their necks for five or six hours, and where the cisterns were under the houses which were burned, those who escaped, endured frightful tortures.

Captain Elliott Smith's family, consisting of wife and one child and his wife's little brother, who resided on Fourth street, were among those who suffered in this way. The older members of the family managed to escape, but the boy, about twelve years of age, was burned to death.

In addition to burning and destroying property, the Indians carried away all the slaves that they could find. They took three belonging to Mr. Howe and a negro girl from Captain Houseman.

While the Indians were still on the island, the few soldiers who were in the hospital at Tea Table Key, unfit for active service, manned a small boat, in which they placed two four-pound swivels, and put off about daylight to attack the Indians and cut off their retreat. In the hurry of their departure they took six pound bags of powder instead of four. When they came within about two hundred yards of the wharf they opened fire on a number of the Indians, who had congregated on the wharf, but at the first discharge of the swivels, the overloaded guns recoiled overboard, and the Indians fired upon the boat, killing one of the soldiers and they were forced to beat a retreat.

One of the most pathetic incidents of the massacre, which the people of Key West saw the effects of for many years, happened to the family of Mr. Williams, of Key West, who were living at Indian Key. They escaped being massacred, only to find that their young son, James, had been driven insane, and for many years he wandered the streets of Key West uttering harsh cries, and at times screaming "The Indians are coming." "Crazy Jim," as he got to be known, was a pathetic sight in Key West until death gave him relief.

Beiglet afterwards moved to Key West and married the widowed mother of Hon. Peter T. Knight. Mr. Charles Howe also came to Key West, and was afterwards collector of the port for many years. His sons, Charles and Edward, became large land owners and prominent business men of Key West. His daughter, Miss Amelia, married Mr. Horatio Crain, and is living here with her son, St. Clair, who conducts the Key West News Company.

Many years after the massacre Dr. Perrine's remains were taken from lower Matecumbie and interred in the family lot in Palmyra, N. Y. His monument is of granite, representing a cocoanut palm, on which is a tablet with a short narrative of the Indian Key massacre.

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


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