Tales of Yesterday’s Florida Keys

I bought Tales of Yesterday’s Florida Keys by John Viele during my first visit to the Keys in 2019. The main reason for the keys’ settlement was the establishment of the wrecking business, which means the organized salvaging of ships that foundered on the treacherous reefs of south Florida. Settlements grew along the keys where crews were always ready to sail out to a ship in distress. Key West was founded in 1822 for this purpose. Viele wrote eleven chapters about early keys history, yet devoted the longest chapters to wrecking. Wrecking was a legitimate business often misinterpreted as American pirating, but there were protocols in place for wreckers to access ships in distress, and a system in the courts to rule over property that was rescued. Viele told numerous stories about ships and the court cases that followed. I found these stories to be boring after a while, as they were all the same with just a difference in ship name and captain.

Aside from wrecking, Viele also wrote about the native peoples who inhabited the islands before European settlement; the lives of the first European settlers; island infrastructure; the Seminole wars; the myth of piracy and ended with local black history.

The first settlements were few–only three among the entire keys–and sparsely populated. Only Key West had more than one hundred people. The reasons that settlers, even the native populations, did not establish themselves in the keys were threefold: lack of fresh water, the swarms of mosquitoes (Viele does go on about the madness of these swarms); and the frequent storms and hurricanes. All too often communities would be uprooted by hurricanes and Viele used census reports to track the people who lived there and moved away.

The text didn’t lend itself to any laugh-out-loud passages, and I found the read quite dry overall, with the one exception below, which recalled the antics some early settlers got themselves into for a little fun:

“In the afternoon, Maloney and Blodgett returned to their former pursuits, while Davis and the Pattersons amused themselves by wandering around the island and setting fire to the grass and dry palmetto leaves just to hear them burst into flame with loud cracking noises.”

It was a miracle that they didn’t set themselves–and innocent others–on fire as well.

Viele dispelled the rumours that Key West was a hotbed of piracy:

“It would seem that the Keys were once overrun with bloodthirsty cutthroats of the sea, but is this fact or fiction? The truth is that extensive research by Keys historians has failed to reveal a single documented record of a pirate base or den in the Keys. In his book, In Pirate Waters, Richard Wheeler says, ‘Actual records of Keys piracies are rare.’ In fact, I have been able to find only two.”

Piracy was virtually absent from the keys for the same reasons that settlements, even indigenous ones, were sparse. Add to that the risks of navigation and the fear of ships being grounded, and you can be sure that even pirates themselves wouldn’t want to risk it. Thus pirates kept more to the south and the larger islands of the Caribbean.

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