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Arts & Culture

Grave Marker For One Of Dade County's Founders To Get New Home In Keys Museum

a photo of Jacob Housman's grave marker, which is broken up into pieces.
Keys History & Discovery Center
Jacob Housman's original grave marker, broken into pieces by vandals, is now at Lignumvitae Key State Park.

An important artifact from the founding of what was then Dade County is headed for public display — in the Florida Keys.

The island of Indian Key, off what is now called Islamorada, was already a settlement in the 1830s. That's when shipwreck salvor Jacob Housman moved there.

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He had been working out of Key West, 80 miles away.

"His whole ambition in life was to separate from Key West," said Brad Bertelli, curator at the Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada.

In Key West, Housman "earned the reputation of being the most unprincipled, dishonest wrecking captain on the reef," according to John Viele's book "The Florida Keys: The Wreckers."

He bought property and eventually moved to Indian Key in the early 1830s. It was smaller than Key West but a relatively large settlement for South Florida, around 50 people.

And it was well situated for handling the cargos from ships that ran aground in the Middle and Upper Keys.

Housman built his own empire and, in 1835, helped lead the effort to get Florida's legislative council to carve a new county. Until then, Monroe County had stretched from Key West up to the South Florida mainland and over to the gulf.

An engraving of Indian Key from 1870.
Florida Memory
This engraving of Indian Key appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1870

His desire to get out from under Key West's thumb wasn't the only reason, Bertelli said. There was also the problem of traveling for jury duty, especially for those in the small settlements on the mainland.

"If you had great winds, it might take a couple of days to go one way," he said. "If you had bad winds, it might take a week or so."

The new Dade County started at Bahia Honda, in the Lower Keys, and went up to the mainland. Indian Key, as its largest settlement, became the county seat.

Housman died in 1841, reportedly crushed between two boats while working on a wreck. His grave, marked by an eight-by-four-foot marble slab was on Indian Key — but was vandalized and broken into 26 pieces.

Since the 1970s, it's been on Lignumvitae Key. Like Indian Key, that's now a state park but it has a house and on-site staff to keep an eye on things. A facsimile stone marks the gravesite at Indian Key.

Now the original grave marker will be moved to an island in between the two state parks and one connected to the Overseas Highway. It will remain the property of the Florida Park Service but go on display at the Keys History & Discovery Center, which already has a model of Indian Key.

Bertelli said the museum plans a new second-floor exhibit that will include Housman's marker, the Indian Key model and more information about the Upper Keys settlements, including Lignumvitae and Tea Table keys.

"It'll be kind of a more engaged, more thorough look at those state parks and the importance of the history, because all the history of the Upper Keys starts on Indian Key and kind of radiates out from there," Bertelli said. "Key West gets so much attention. And this was really, and I don't say this lightly, it was the most important island in the Florida Keys not named Key West for a good chunk of the 1800s."

The new exhibit is expected to open in September.

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