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Arts & Culture

Logbook documenting first official U.S. visit to Key West returns to the island after 200 years

A group of people look at the logbook from the Schooner Shark.
Nancy Klingener
From left, Monroe County Commissioner Craig Cates, Monroe Library Director Kimberly Matthews, Key West Maritime Historical Society President Corey Malcom and Monroe Historian Emeritus Tom Hambright look at the logbook from the USS Shark.

Two hundred years ago this week, the American flag was raised over the island of Key West for the first time.

The Navy sent the schooner Shark to check out Key West in 1822 after the island was bought by an American merchant.

Two hundred years later, the Shark's logbook is back in town. The Key West Maritime Historical Society recently acquired the journal and gave it to the Monroe County Library for its Florida History collection.

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Corey Malcom is the society's president and told the schooner’s story at the logbook's formal presentation to the Monroe County Library's Florida History collection on Sunday aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, a museum ship that is moored at Truman Waterfront in Key West.

Lt. Matthew Perry recorded the ship's approach to the island in the logbook. Key West was uninhabited, with the population of indigenous people waning after Spanish explorers arrived in the area in the 1500s. By the mid-1700s, the last of them had been taken to Cuba, Malcom said.

"The islands were the haunt only of itinerant fishermen and wreckers from Cuba and the Bahamas, and of course, ne'er do wells preying on ships passing through the Florida Straits," Malcolm said.

Perry recorded in the logbook that on March 22, 1822, as the Shark approached Key West, a local fisherman came on board to act as a pilot — but the schooner ran aground on a mud bank anyway.

"We got out an anchor and hove her off. Latter part of the day was pleasant. Hauled her into the inner harbor and moored the ship in five and a half fathoms," the logbook states.

Perry did not record in the log while the ship was at anchor in Key West — but an unnamed crew member sent a letter that was published in the Norwich Courier, a Connecticut newspaper, on May 1, 1822, describing the events on the island.

A 13-gun salute and 13 champagne toasts

On March 25th, the letter states, "We fired a salute of 13 guns and hoisted the American ensign for the first time. Then we partook of a sumptuous dinner prepared for the occasion by Capt. P., the purser and the doctor. It was composed of venison, and a variety of other things too tedious to mention. However, I will not forget to mention the champagne that we had. The place that we dined at was truly delightful, under two large trees shaded with the American colors. Thirteen public toasts were drunk and also a number of private toasts and a very appropriate song was sung by Mr. Fleming."

John Fleming was one of the early American investors in Key West, and had arrived there the previous day. There's no record of which "appropriate song" he sang, Malcom said.

Malcom said it's miraculous that the logbook surfaced just in time for the bicentennial of the Shark's visit.

"Where's this thing been bumbling around for 200 years? I have no clue. It simply showed up at an auction and we saw that and started going, oh my gosh. We really need to get this thing back here," he said.

The Shark left Key West on March 29, 1822, ending "perhaps the most consequential week in our island's history, a week that saw Key West formally claimed and recognized as part of the United States, which then allowed the embryonic community to flourish under the laws and protections that that status provided," Malcom said.

Monroe County Commissioner Craig Cates is the only Conch, or person born in the Keys, on the commission. He accepted the logbook on the county's behalf.

"That's the beginning of our history, right there, and documents it," he said. "It can't be any better."

Perry named the island Thompson's Island, after the secretary of the Navy, and called the harbor Port Rodgers, for the president of the Board of Navy Commissioners. Neither name stuck and when the city incorporated four years later, it was as Key West, an anglicized version of its Spanish name, Cayo Hueso.

The logbook has been transcribed and is being digitized, so it will be available for public review.

a drawing of the USS Shark, a nineteenth century Navy schooner
U.S. Navy
via Monroe County Public Library
The USS Shark only spent a week in Key West, but it was a momentous one in the island's history.

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