In 1831, Jacob Housman bought Indian Key and set out to build his own wrecking empire to compete with the monopoly in Key West. At this time, wrecking or salvaging cargo from shipwrecks was both legal and extremely lucrative. Housman's empire included a store, hotel, dwellings, cisterns, warehouses and wharves. Known for his shady business practices, he constantly feuded with other salvagers. In 1836, in an effort to become independent from Key West, Housman had the Legislative Council establish Indian Key as the first county seat for Dade County. Unfortunately, Housman's fortunes began to decline. He lost numerous court battles and eventually his wrecker's license. At the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835, he also lost his Indian trade and mortgaged the island to Dr. Henry Perrine who moved to Indian Key with his family to await the end of the war. Perrine wanted to use a government grant to cultivate useful tropical plants on the mainland. In 1840, Indians attacked the island, known for its well-stocked store. Except for one building, all the structures on Indian Key were destroyed. Dr. Perrine was killed but many inhabitants, including Housman, managed to escape. Today, only stone foundations remain.
The drawing on this original Indian Key State Historic Site brochure was taken from a lithograph printed in an 1870s publication of Harper's Magazine, which highlighted Indian Key's importance to the wrecking industry. The Florida Reef was dangerous to sailing vessels and many would shipwreck there. Wreckers and their crews helped the people aboard the wrecked ships and salvaged the cargoes and vessels. In turn, they earned a percentage of the salvage value.
By the 1900s, wrecking was no longer a dominant industry in the Keys. However, the first two decades of the 20th century saw the railroad making its way into the islands with Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad. The railroad, an extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, used Indian Key for dredging operations.
This map of Indian Key was drafted in 1840. In the same year, on August 7, Seminole Indians attacked the island, killing several residents including medical doctor and botanist, Dr. Henry Perrine. This incident took place during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), in which Florida's Seminole Indians fought United States troops against the government's policy to remove the Seminoles to Indian territory in the west. The map shows the well-planned community Indian Key was at that time in its history.
Local artist Millard Wells created this rendition of Dr. Henry Perrine's home on Indian Key for an Indian Key Festival in 1996. Dr. Perrine was a medical doctor and botanist with an interest in tropical plants and the benefits of growing them in the United States. In 1838 he came to Indian Key to cultivate tropical plants, especially the Agave sisalana (sisal) which he had encountered during his service as a U.S. Consul in Mexico. He was killed in the Seminole Indian attack at Indian Key on August 7, 1840. Today, descendants of his tropical plants still grow on Indian Key.
The sailboat Micco's deck is loaded with Agave sisalana, or sisal leaves. The fiber from these leaves was used to make rope before the invention of nylon. Fiber for ropes was especially important to the shipping industry before the development of steamships. Ropes made from sisal fibers are still used today on freighters, with the fiber coming mostly from Mexico.