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A Guide to John Audubon's visit to the Florida Keys 

 

 

 

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Hotels and motels
Florida Keys
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AUDUBON IN THE FLORIDA KEYS


 

 

INDEX

  
AUDUBON


INDIAN KEY
1832


CORMORANT


ROSEATE
TERN


GRAY
KINGBIRD


REDDISH
EGRET


LOUISIANA
HERON


SANDY KEY


WHITE IBIS


WILLET

 
ZENAIDA
DOVE


WHITE
CROWNED
PIGEON


THE AUDUBON HOUSE IN
KEY WEST


AUDUBON'S
KEY WEST


KEY WEST AFTER
AUDUBON


ROSEATE
SPOONBILL


GREAT
WHITE
HERON


GREAT
BLUE
HERON


KEY WEST
DOVE


FLAMINGOS


BLUE-
HEADED
QUAIL DOVE


FRIGATE BIRD


BROWN
PELICAN


MANGROVE
CUCKOO


TORTUGAS


SOOTY
TERN


BLACK
HEADED GULL


BROWN
NODDY


CAYENNE
TERN


BROWN
BOOBY


SANDWICH
TERN


NIGHT
HERON


GREENSHANK


GREAT
MARBLED
GODWIT


MANGO
HUMMING-
BIRD


TROPIC
BIRD




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Key West from Audubon's time to 1869

 
 

 Audubon image ofKey West from Birds of America

Audubon's Key West - 1832

A representation of the City of Key West in the distance beneath a portion of Audubon's Great White Heron print. The detailed sketch of Key West utilized in this plate was done by Assistant Lehman.

 

NEW - YORK SPECTATOR, March 30, 1830

The portion of the text of a March 30, 1830 news account in the New - York Spectator newspaper provides a good description of the Key West Audubon saw. The text refers to Dr. "Shobel" which is most likely a misspelling and should refer to Dr. Strobel.

From Key West - - We have advices from Key West to the 27th ultimo. The Register of the 26th, states that the island was very healthy. The following is a list of deaths from April 1st, 1829, to February, 1830, as certified by Drs. Waterhouse and Shobel : -

"Yellow fever 3, contracted at Havana : Bilious Remittent 15; 9 of these were without medical attendance: Worm Fever 1, child : Visceral Obstruc tion 3, consequent upon intemperance; old drunkards: Mania a Potu 3: Chronic Meningitis 2: Dysentery 1: Childbed 2, no regular attendance: Gunshot wound 1: Accident 1 : Consumption 2 : Marasmus 1 : Ulcera-tion of the prostrate glands 1: Ulceration of the Aorta I : Visceral disease 1 : Tenatus I : Small Pox 1 : Applexy 2: Gradual Decline 1.

Nonresidents 17: Residents 26 Total 1 43."

Since the 1st of Jan. 1826, 1074 vessels have been entered at the Key West Custom house, viz, in 1826, 198 ; in 1827, 265; in 1828, 326; in 1829, 2S5. It is supposed that at least 500 more have entered the port during that time, making altogether 1574.

The permanent population of the island, is slated to be not less than 200; besides which there are a great number of wreckers, fishermen, &c. who make it their principal place of residence.

Wrecks - The brig Belle Isle, Lloyd, master, from New Orleans bound to Liverpool, with a cargo of cotton, ran ashore on Carysford Reef, near where the Light Ship Caesar was formerly moored, about the 11th Feb. and, after lying in imminent danger for several days, and being very much injured, was given up to and relieved by the wreckers, and brought into Key West on the 20th inst. Cargo all saved.

The French ship Isaiah, _________, master from New Orleans, bound to Havre, with a cargo, &c. ran ashore on the most dangerous part of Crocker Reef, about 4 o'clock, A. M. on the 18th Feb. and after lying a short time, her situation being considered very perilous, she was given up, and relieved by the wreckers, and carried into Key West. She received little or no damage, and will probably proceed on her voyage as soon as the amount of salvage is sett'ed.

To see image of the original article click here

 

Key West in Audubon's Time -

The several hundred or so permanent residents of Key West during the time of Audubon's visit made their living mainly through wrecking, the salvaging of ships found aground on the nearby reef. The resident population consisted primarily of "conchs" from the Bahamas plus a few educated folk from New England, Virginia and the West Indies.

Upon anchoring at Key West , Audubon describes the site as a "beautiful harbour", and proceeds to make inquiries of resident , Dr. Benjamin Strobel. We learn from Audubon that Key West has salt ponds.

"When I reached Key West, my first inquiries, addressed to Dr. Benjamin Strobel, had reference to the Flamingoes, and I felt gratified by learning that he had killed a good number of them, and that he would assist us in procuring some. As on that Key they are fond of resorting to the shallow ponds formerly kept there as reservoirs of water, for the purpose of making salt. . ."

In a description of his search for the Key West Pigeon, Audubon gives a good account of the abundant vegetation present on the island.

"We soon reached the thickets and found it necessary to move in truth very slowly, one foot warily advanced before the other, one hand engaged in opening a passage, an presently after occupied in securing the cap o the head, in smashing some dozens of hungry musquitoes, or in drawing the sharp thorn of a cactus from a leg or foot, in securing gun-locks, or in assisting ourselves to rise after a fall occasioned by stumbling against the projecting angle of a rock. but we pushed on, squeezed ourselves between the stubborn branches . . . "

Companion Sergeant Sikes shoots a Key West pigeon and disappears. Audubon writes,

" The heat was excessive, and the brushwood here was so thick and tangled, that had not Mr. Sykes been a United States soldier, I should have looked upon him as bent on retaliating on behalf of the 'eccentric naturalist; for, although not more than ten paces distant from me, not a glimpse of him could I obtain . . . . "

After looking at it Audubon wraps the bird in paper and continues,

"We traveled in much the same manner, until we reached the opposite end of the island. . . . As we sat near the shore gazing on the curious light pea-green colour of the sea, I unfolded my prize account . . . . We returned along the shore of this curious island to the garrison, after which Major Glassel's barge conveyed me on board the Marion."

A further description Audubon's of excitement on examining the Key West Pigeon can be read at Key West Quail Dove.

 

Audubon also describes extensively the wrecking and turtle industries of Key West in his Ornithological Biography. His description is not presented in this website, but a 1842 news account from the New York Herald Tribune is provided below along with old sketches and a mix of comments by authors, past and present.  

 

Sketch of Key West 1838

Reduced from a sketch of the business district by William Whitehead, taken from the Cupola of a warehouse looking north, June 1838. Visible are wharfs and warehouse with Front Street and Duval Streets, a Naval anchorage in the upper left. In the lower left is a turtle crawl . Click on image for larger representation.

image of Key West 1838 
 

News account from the 1830s about a report in the Naval and Military Magazine

"condition of the island is dreary in the extreme", "want of water",

"entirely unsuited" as a Naval base "as the existence of insects of all kinds and some of dangerous character, require the utmost caution to guard against insects, which in many instances have disabled individuals for life."

"houses for service men falling fast into decay"

" instead of soldiers being able to protect others from the encroachment of the wreckers, who compose the community, and are a lawless set, they themselves most need protection from the united causes of climate and disease."

image of old news article about Key West 

 

News Account from THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE dated 1842 about Wrtecking in Key West
image of news article about Key West wrecking 1842

image wrecking article 1842

 

 

Key West Wreckers

 For those interested in reading further about wrecking a good book is The Young Wrecker on the Florida Reef or, The Trials and Adventures of Fred Ransom by Richard Meade Bache. First published in 1869 and reprinted in 1999 with an Introduction by Tom Corcoran. the book tells about a fifteen-year-old boy from New York, in 1839, who finds himself thrust into a sea-going adventure in the Florida Keys. A popular book when first published in 1869, The Young Wrecker offers a wonderful depiction of nineteenth-century life in South Florida and in Key West.

The author, Richard Mead Bache, great-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and the grand-nephew of General George Gordon Meade, describes characters, geography, natural history, weather, tough times, and humor that all ring true today.

 

 

Sketch of Key West showing Fort Zachary Taylor with Key West to the right during the Civil War period.

Click on image for larger representation.

 

image of Key West and Fort Taylor 1865

 

Comment on Key West - 1867

Mark Twain on his visit in 1867 observed that Key West's principal business seemed to be providing Fort Taylor's soldiers with liquor from the city's many gin-mills and wrote,

"If I got Key West sized up right, they would receive War, Famine, Pestilence and Death without question - call them all by some fancy name, and then rope in the survivors and sell them good cigars and brandies at easy prices and horrible dinners at infamous rates."

 

Key West in 1869

Below is a description of Key West from a later period by Daniel G. Brinton, A. M., M.D., and published in 1869 in his book, A Guide-Book of Florida and the South for Tourists, Invalids and Emigrants.

" KEY WEST -- THE FLORIDA KEYS AND THE GULF COAST.

Key West.

Hotels. -- * Russell House, George Phillips, proprietor, on Duval St.; Florida House, both $2.50 per day, $40.00 to $60.00 per month
Boarding-Houses. -- John Dixon, Whitehead Street; Mrs. E. Armbrister, Duval Street; Mrs. Clarke; from $8.00 to $15.00 per week.
Telegraph to Havana and the north; office in Naval depot building.
Post Office opposite the Russell House.
Churches.-- Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, and Methodist.
Bookseller.-- R. P. Campbell, Duval Street, (northern weeklies, Brinton's Guide-Book).
Newspaper. -- Key West Dispatch, weekly, well edited.
The Key West Literary Association has a reading-room.
Steamship Lines.-- The Baltimore, Havana, and New Orleans line, semi-monthly; to Baltimore, $50.00, to Havana $10.00, to New Orleans $40.00. The C. H. Mallory & Co., line from New York to Galveston and New Orleans $40.00. The Spofford and Tilson line from New York to Galveston and New Orleans, semi-weekly; to New York $40.00, to New Orleans $40.00. The Alliance, United States mail line to Fort Jefferson, Tampa, Cedar Keys, St. Marks, Apalachicola, Pensacola, and Mobile, the line for the west coast of Florida.

The name Key West is a corruption of the Spanish Cayo Hueso, Bone Key, the latter word being of Indian origin (Arawack, Kairi, island). Formerly it was called Thompson's island by the English. It is about six miles long and one mile wide, and is formed of an oolitic coralline limestone. It is the highest point of the Florida Keys, yet of such insignificant altitude that the most elevated point is only fifteen feet above the sea level. The soil is thin, swampy and but little cultivated. it produces, however, a thick jungle-like growth of mangroves, cacti, tamarinds, mastics, gum elemi, and similar tropical bushes from twelve to fifteen feet in height. There is no fresh water except that furnished by e-- rains. Wells are dug in different parts, and reach water at the depth of a few feet, but brackish and unpalatable. So closely, indeed, are these wells in connection with the surrounding ocean, that the water rises and falls in them as the tides do on the shore, but following after an interval of about three hours.

The town is in latitude 24 degrees 33'. It was incorporated in 1829. The present population is 4,800, of which 1500 are colored. It is situated on the northern part of the western end of the island, and has an excellent harbor. Duval is the principal street. Rows of cocoanut palms line some of the principal avenues, presenting a very picturesque appearance. A fine view of the harbor and town can be had from the cupola of Mr. Charles Tilt, agent of the Baltimore line of steamers.

Many of the residences are neat and attractive. The lower part of the town is known as Conch town. Its inhabitants are called Conches, and are principally engaged in "wrecking," that is, relieving and rescuing the numerous vessels which are annually cast away or driven ashore on the treacherous Florida reef. The Conches are of English descent, their fathers having migrated from the Bahamas. In spite of the dubious reputation which they have acquired, they are a hard working and sufficiently honest set, and carry on their perilous occupation if not quite for the sake of humanity, yet content with a just salvage. Their favorite vessels are sloops of ten to forty tons, which they manage with extra-ordinary skill.

Quite a number of Spaniards are domesticated in Key West. The dark eyes, rich tresses, graceful forms, and delicate feet of the ladies frequently greet the eye. Havana is only eighty-four miles distant, with almost daily communication.

Fine oranges, coacoanuts, alligator pears, cigars and other good things for which the Pearl of the Antilles is famous can readily be obtained. The favorite social drink is camperou, a compound of caracoa, eggs, Jamaica spirits and other ingredients. Fish are abundant and finely flavored. A variety of sardine has been found in the waters near, and has been used commercially to a limited extent.

The principal industries are "sponging" and "turtling." The sponges are collected along the reef and shores of the peninsula. From December, 1868, to March 1869, 14,000 pounds were received by one merchant. They are all, however of inferior quality.

The turtles are of four varieties. The green turtle is the most highly prized a food. They are sometimes enormous in size, weighing many hundred pounds. The hawks-bill turtle is the variety from which "tortouse shell" for combs, etc., is obtained. The logger-head and duck bill are less esteemed.

Extensive salt works have long been in operation here. They produce annually about 30,000 bushels of salt by solar evaporation. Corals and shells of unusual beauty are found among the keys, and can be bought for a trifling amount.

Handsome canes made of the Florida crab-tree, are also to be purchased.

Key West is a U.S. naval station for supplying vessels with coal, provisions, etc. There is a Naval Hospital near the town, 100 feet in length, and several other extensive public buildings. As in a military point of view the point is deemed of great importance in protecting our gulf coast, the general government has gone to large expense in fortifying it. Fort Taylor , at the entrance of the harbor, is still in process of construction. When completed, it will mount 200 heavy guns. Besides it there are two large batteries,one on the extreme north part of the island, and one midway between it and Fort Taylor. The Barracks are usually occupied by a company of the 5th U.S. Artillery.

The climate of Key West is the warmest and most equable in the United States. Even in winter the south winds are frequently oppressive and debilitating. From five to ten "northers" occur every winter, and though they are not agreeable on account of the violence of the wind, they do not reduce the temperature below 40 degrees Fahr.

Though the proximity of the Gulf Stream renders the air very moist, mists and fogs are extremely rare, owing to the equability of the temperature, and though the hygrometer shows that the air is constantly loaded with moisture, this same equability allows the moon and stars to shine with a rare and glorious brilliancy, such as we see elsewhere on dry and elevated plateau.

Another effect of the Gulf Steam may also be noted. Every evening, shortly after sunset, a cloud-bank rises along the southern horizon in massive, irregular fleeces, dark below and silver gilt above by the rays of the departing sun. This is the cloud-bank over the Gulf Stream, whose vast current of heated waters is rushing silently along, some twelve miles off."

 

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