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Dade County Birthplace Now A Keys 'Ghost Town'

Nancy Klingener
A new 3-D model of Indian Key at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center aims to bring more attention to the island. It's now a state park.

  Indian Key at first appears like a typical South Florida island — mangroves on the shore, buttonwoods inland.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Historian Brad Bertelli leads tours of the island, which includes ruins of structures from Jacob Housman's days.

  But Brad Bertelli sees a different place. He sees Indian Key from almost two centuries back.

"In its heyday, the island was home to as many as 150 people," Bertelli said. "There were 45 buildings. There was a hotel with a nine-pin bowling alley. Billiards tables, restaurant, saloon."

Bertelli is a local historian. He leads tours of Indian Key and he's the curator at the Florida Keys History and Discovery Centerin Islamorada.

Indian Key is a tranquil state park now. But once it played a pivotal role in South Florida history.

Bertelli hopes to bring new attention to the island with a new exhibit at the center, which is on the grounds of the Islander Resort. That exhibit includes a 3-D model that portrays Indian Key from its 19th century heyday.

Much of the island's role in history is due to one man, Jacob Housman. He showed up in Key West from Staten Island in 1820s.

In Key West, he saw how the young community was getting rich fast from salvaging ships that wrecked along the treacherous Florida reef tract. Key West was home to salvage captains and merchants like Asa Tift, whose 19th century warehouse is recreated at the Key West Shipwreck Museum on Mallory Square.

Housman worked out of Key West for a few years but he wasn't satisfied there, Bertelli said.

"He didn't want their rules, their laws. He wanted to have his own empire," he said. "He wanted to have his own monopoly."

He found his own empire on Indian Key, midway along the reef tract. The island had long been a favorite station for salvagers. It had a deep harbor (which has filled in since Henry Flagler created the causeway to link the Matecumbe keys) and a nearby source of freshwater. And it was blessedly mosquito-free, compared to most of the islands.

Indian Key was also a source of valuable export — cochineal insects. They grow on prickly pear cactus. When crushed, they produce a crimson red dye that was used to color the British military red coats, among other products.

Housman bought up as much property as he could, including the island's general store, and started building warehouses. Bertelli said he would extend credit to Indian Key householders — and then take the deed to their homes if they couldn't pay.

"It's a company town," Bertelli said. "And he's the company man."

In 1836, Housman further established his independence from Key West. At that time, there were few European settlers in mainland South Florida and Monroe County extended all the way to Lake Okeechobee.

Housman got a friendly lawmaker to persuade the territorial Legislature to divide the county. The new county was named for an Army major who had been recently killed in a battle with Seminole Indians. His name was Francis Langhorne Dade.

Indian Key became one of the two seats of the new Dade County. The other was at Key Biscayne.

But Housman's empire didn't last long. Four years later, a group of native Americans paddled their canoes to Indian Key at 2 in the morning. There were about 50 people on the island. Seven people were killed, including horticulturalist Henry Perrine. The island was ransacked and burned.

Credit Monroe County Public Library
Henry Perrine's son survived the Seminole attack on the island. Decades later, he drew this map of how he remembered the island from its heyday.

Housman had to go back to Key West. The next year, he was working on a wreck when he was crushed between two ships in rough seas.

His body was buried on Indian Key. A replica of the tombstone lies there today; the original, broken in pieces, is at Lignumvitae Key, also a state park.

People still lived on Indian Key for decades after the attack. But it never regained its status and the Dade County line moved north.

In 1970, the state bought it and made it a state park. It's not connected to the Overseas Highway so it's still a true island, only accessible by boat.

Bertelli says he hopes the new exhibit will bring more visitors to the island, as well as bring Indian Key to those who can't make the mile crossing.

"You can actually step back and walk around and see the Florida Keys' only real ghost town," he said. "Upper Keys history begins on Indian Key."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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