Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 7
Chapter 7: Naval Indian Hunters
During that time, her sailors helped the citizens clear the woods at the edge of town to hamper the Seminole's ability to launch a surprise attack.
The Key West Inquirer lamented, "We have no cannon, but must depend solely on the muskets without bayonets, rifles, pistols and a species of short broad swords or, more properly, cane-knives, for our defense."
Jacob Housman was not about to abandon his forty-thousand dollar empire to the savages. He formed a twenty four man militia comprising all the able-bodied white males and six negro slaves. He advanced them pay and subsistence at regular Army rates, assuming he would ultimately be repaid by the government. Not surprisingly, the militiamen elected Housman their captain. With the help of all the settlers, the militia constructed defensive embankments and mounted six cannon at strategic points around the island.
In the meantime, the islanders saw more and more signs of the presence of warriors in the upper Keys. [so cryptic... what signs?!]
When the fire reached the lantern room, it broke the glass and set Thompson's clothes on fire. Thompson decided to end his suffering by throwing a keg of gunpowder down into the inferno. But instead of killing him, the explosion blew out the fire.
To vary their dull routine and diet, the crew had planted a farm-garden on Key Largo. On October 5, 1836, a band of about seventy natives crossed Florida Bay to Key Largo and destroyed the garden and storage buildings.
The Seminoles looted the vessel and then burned her.
At the time he was trying to get Indian Key designated a port entry so he could bring wrecked ships and cargoes to his domain instead of to his rivals in Key West. In his typical scheming fashion, he offered each sailor and marine a glass of grog in return for a signature on his port-of-entry petition. Nearly all signed happily, some more than once.
On the morning of June 23, 1837, a band of natives ambushed and killed the captain of the Carysfort Reef lightship and one of his crewmen as they stepped ashore on Key Largo to gather wood for the ship's stove. [There it is again. Stove wood - the ultimate call to adventure]
Coste sent a boat with muffled oars (wrapped in canvas to reduce noise from rubbing in the rowlocks) to investigate.
Afraid the sickness would spread to the Poinsett's crew, Mayo sent the surgeon and his assistant, together with several nursing attendants, ashore to set up a hospital. Sailors erected a large tent made from sails. In a short while, the medical staff became ill, and one of the nursing attendants died.
On Tea Table [Key], sailors and marines underwent intensive training in handling the small boats and canoes and in firing small arms. They also set up a hospital for possible future casualties and for men who might come down with malaria.
...the crew's standard fare was beef, pork, bread, and cheese with a daily ration of whiskey. On rare occasion the monotony of the menu was relieved by the receipt of fresh turtle meat.
One disgruntled seaman deserted while the Wave was taking on supplies at Key West - a poor choice for a place to escape. Three weeks later he was back aboard, lashed to the gratings, with all hands mustered to witness punishment. The log entry simply read that he was "punished with the cats for desertion."
Over the next six months McLaughlin led his men on probes up rivers and streams along the southern coast and into the fringes of the Everglades. No Seminoles were found, but the sailors and marines learned how to paddle and pole their boats through dense sawgrass and muck, and how to live, eat and sleep onboard their tiny craft for days on end.
McLaughlin went to Fort Dallas to try to obtain John's services as a guide but was refused. He was allowed to talk to the prisoner, who was cooperative and even volunteered directions to Chakaika's island deep in the Everglades. Armed with this information, McLaughlin led an expedition to try and find Chakaika's hideout. But after just seven days of wandering in the sawgrass wilderness, his men were exhausted and he realized it was hopeless without a guide.
When they saw the Wave, crowded with men and canoes, sail away, they knew the moment had arrived to launch their attack. At 2:00 the next morning August 7th, 1840, the warriors beached seventeen dugout canoes on Indian Key and crept silently among the houses. Only the chance sleeplessness of a carpenter saved the inhabitants from annihilation. Looking out his door, he saw the canoes pulled up on the beach and awoke his neighbor. Together the headed toward Housman's house to spread the alarm. On the way, the accidentally stumbled across the warriors lying in wait to mak their attack. Shots were fired, which awoke the settlers. In the darkness and confusion, most of the inhabitants found hiding places or escaped in boats, but the attackers discovered and killed five of them.
...two turtling boats from Key Vaca foolishly ventured into Florida Bay. When they were near Sandy Key, just south of Cape Sable, a band of Indians in dugouts and boats began chasing them.
The razorsharp sawgrass cut their uniforms to shreds and inflicted festering wounds. ... Heat, mosquitoes, exhaustion, and fever were the real enemies. One officer's report read, "Private Kingsbury fell in his trail and died from sheer exhaustion". Passed Midshipman Preble returned from a fifty-eight day scout with his legs so badly infected from sawgrass cuts and mud that the navy surgeon at Indian Key prepared to amputate them. Fortunately for the midshipman... the surgeon reconsidered, but it was two years before his legs healed.
A Congressional committee... made a number of allegations against McLaughlin, including unnecessary and extravagant purchases, collusion with a merchant on Indian Key, double issue of rations for sick men, misuse of government property, profitable speculation in currency exchanges, and improperly receiving pay as a captain instead of as a lieutenant in command.