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Indian Attack: August 7, 1840

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The attack on Indian Key had been looming for years. Attacks had already occurred in the area, first on the lighthouse keeper at Cape Florida (Key Biscayne) in 1836 and on the lightship keeper and his crew at Key Largo on June 28, 1837. The Seminole people were being hunted down and Indian campfires were often seen flickering through the branches and leaves on the Matecumbe keys.

Indian Key was a well-provisioned outpost with food, clothing, and munitions and as such, Housman petitioned the Governor for military protection, but was ignored. His petitions were also ignored by the commanding officer at Tampa Bay and the Secretary of War.

In an effort to protect his investment, Housman created Company B, 10th Regiment of the  Florida Militia and required all able-bodied men between 18-45, 38 total (including 6 slaves), to serve. The pay was 30-cents a day, plus a 50-cent per diem for rations, all of which was paid out of Housman’s pockets. Housman declared himself commander. Six cannons were placed at strategic locals around the island; like a message, one was fired every day.

Florida Delegate Colonel Charles Downing stated, “In January 1836 I was on Indian Key and found a wall around it, built of every sort of material imaginable necessity could furnish. A vessel belonging to Jacob Housman was prepared with port holes, a bulwark around the decks, and armaments, and moved a short distance from the island as a place of refuge for the men and women in the event of a successful attack.”

Company B protected Indian Key for 18 months until Captain Rudolph arrived with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Dexter and the outfit disbanded. Naval forces remained in the area and only moved after the arrival of Lt. Thomas McLaughlin who established the depot Fort Paulding on nearby Tea Table Key.

The military’s plan was to combat the Seminole threat was to recall area forces and launch a concentrated attack into the Everglades. November 6, 1840, Lt. Rodgers, in charge of the cutter Wave departed Tea Table Key with all but 5 medical personnel and 7 or 8 invalids. That night, beneath a blanket of darkness, Chief Chekika and up to 200 men paddled in canoes from the Matecumbe keys and secreted themselves on Indian Key.

During the early morning hours of August 7, 1840, James Glass was unable to sleep. The restless carpenter stepped outside of his two-room cottage for a breath of fresh air. Under the light of moon and stars Glass saw a line of Indian canoes beached along the shore. As he tried to cross the island to reach Housman chaos ensued.

The island’s residents either escaped into the water or hid among the trees and under the wharves as the Indians raided and looted the village. They loaded their canoes and several vessels stolen from members of the community with fabrics, food, guns and ammunition.

Seven of the island’s residents were reported killed and included Mr. Perrine, Mr. Motte, his wife and two children, and a young black boy identified by Lt. McLaughlin as “Lundy.”

Most of the island’s structures were set on fire. One such house not burned belonged to Charles Howe, a freemason whose apron etched with its mysterious symbols was left on the kitchen table.

Housmen was said to have spent $14, 418 on the militia out of his own pocket—monies he had hoped would be reimbursed by the government. It never was.