Cape Florida Lighthouse-The Dead Man Beside Me

February 20, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Cape Florida LightCape Florida Light

The Dead Man Beside Me

The history of the Cape Florida Lighthouse is 200 years long and protracted with such events as construction fraud, destructive hurricanes, beach erosion that threatened the tower's stability, death, struggles for survival, violent attacks by indigenous people, fires, oil lamp explosions, civil war vandalism, then reconstruction. This short blog will recap but a few events in its colorful history. Stay tuned for the Rest of the Story in a future blog. . . 

In the early 1820's, a parcel of three acres of land on Key Biscayne was sold by the Waters Davis family to the federal government. Keep in mind it was only in 1821 that the US government took control of southern Florida from Spain. Spanish Explorer Juan Ponce De León had named the southern tip of Florida as Cape of Florida in 1513.
After surveying the southern Florida coastline, the U.S. government was eager to erect a light tower that would significantly aid maritime navigation around the southern tip of Florida. Hopes were that it would also greatly reduce future ship wrecks on the Great Florida reef and minimize black pirate activity along the Florida coastline. The lighthouse was located at a slight land projection that came to be known as Cape Florida and was the closest land mass to the prevailing Gulf Stream ocean currents and trade winds. Coupled with the North Atlantic Drift further north, the Gulf Stream helps accelerate traversing the north Atlantic to Europe. 

Soon after being awarded the contract to construct the first lighthouse in southern Florida on Key Biscayne, as well as one in Key West and Dry Tortugas, Samuel Lincoln set sail from Boston to Florida in August of 1824 with plans and construction materials on board. He and his crew never arrived and were never heard from again. Assumed lost at sea, he was replaced by Noah Humphreys to build the lighthouse at Key Biscayne. The original 65 foot brick tower built with a concrete base set on a coral reef had an internal wooden staircase, and was completed by the end of 1825. ( It was later determined that the contractor had defrauded the government by making the upper brick walls of the tower hollow so as to save the cost of brick and to make the schedule.) The area of land where the lighthouse was being built was a vital sailing off point for black Seminoles escaping slavery to freedom in the Bahamas where slavery had been outlawed. Known as the Saltwater Railroad, the building of the lighthouse and the bustling activity in Key Biscayne hindered this escape route.

After being appointed as the first lighthouse keeper, Captain John Dubose, found it necessary, after a few years, to move his wife, 5 children and two former African-American slaves to safer surroundings in Key Biscayne, just north of the lighthouse. However it soon became apparent to him, this was not far enough away from the local Seminole tribes that were growing increasingly hostile. He then moved them to Key West. Hostilities grew even bolder by 1830 when, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, formed in 1824, tried enforcing the Removal Act passed by Congress. By coercing the Seminole nation to relocate to the Indian Territory, established in what today is known as Oklahoma, they outraged them even further and began the Second Seminole War. Subsequently, on July 23, 1836 a band of Seminoles attacked the lighthouse compound in their growing hostility to the US government. 
When in early July, Dubose decided to visit his family in Key West, he left only assistant keeper John W.B. Thompson in charge at the compound along with Aaron Carter, an older African-American handyman. The Seminoles aggressively attacked with muskets in hand. Seeing the attackers coming, the two men escaped from the keepers' quarters and made it to the top of the lighthouse tower with their own muskets and keg of gunpowder. The wooden staircase and wooden windows were set aflame by the attackers. Fires were heightened by the leaking 225 gallon lamp oil tank at the base of the tower which had suffered musket ball holes. The heat from the burning staircase and the subsequent breaking glass lenses and window panes in the lantern room forced the two men out onto the two foot wide open grate metal balcony. Now being targets of the Seminoles from below, Aaron Carter succumbed to a total of 7 musket ball wounds. It is recorded that the elder Carter, with tears in his eyes said to Thompson, ". . . I am wounded, save yourself " and took his last breath. Thompson, laying beside Carter, was not much better off having endured repeated musket fire from below and suffered life-
threatening wounds to his feet and legs. He laid there on the balcony grating in a semiconscious state for almost 12 hours enduring thirst, hunger, musket ball wounds and fire burns all the while with attackers continued their rampage below.

With his clothes now on fire, Thompson, stood up to the railing and was considering jumping to his death after recommending his soul to God as he later stated. But rather, he managed to hurl the remaining gun powder keg down to the bottom of the fully inflamed wooden staircase hoping to end his misery by toppling the entire tower in an explosion. The result however was that only the staircase collapsed and the fire extinguished. The explosion and resulting pillar of fire was seen by the U.S. Naval schooner Motto, some 12 miles away. By morning, when they reached the Lighthouse, the seamen from the ship found Thompson barely alive at the top of the tower, and the attackers temporarily gone. Thompson was unable to get down due to the staircase's destruction and his serious injuries. With a series of ropes and pulleys, and some ingenuity, two naval seamen from the Motto were able to reach the top of the tower and rescue Thompson.

Thompson was sent to a military hospital in Key West and later to Charleston, South Carolina to recover. Though severely handicapped by his injuries for the remainder of his life, he continued to live out his days. 

In light of the ongoing hostilities with the native Seminole nation, the island of Key Biscayne was uninhabitable for settlers and the lighthouse lantern went dark from 1836 until 1846. But in 1847. . . .

 


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