1823 was a big year for the Florida Keys. New waves of wreckers were arriving to try their luck on the Florida Reef. Two of these men were Joshua Appleby and Captain John Fiveash. They sailed into the West Indies in 1822 and established a small community at Key Vaca called Port Monroe.
The two placed a “Notice to Mariners” in the Pensacola newspaper The Floridian on February 10, 1823. The announcement touted Port Monroe as having “the advantages of a large and spacious harbor and the proprietors are furnished with experienced pilots, good vessels, boats, and provisions of all kinds to relieve those who may be so unfortunate as to get on the Florida Reef.”
The year 1823 was also when Commodore David Porter, in charge of the West Indies Squadron — created to eradicate piracy, combat the slave trade, and protect American citizens — established its base of operations on Key West. (The government name for the island was Thompson’s Island, to honor Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson.) At 8 o’clock on the morning of April 6, 17 guns were fired, and the American flag was pulled up the staff and began flapping in the Key West breezes.
Porter’s Mosquito Fleet made short work of the pirates of the West Indies. Porter also observed wreckers operating along the Florida Reef. He wrote a letter to Thompson voicing his concerns regarding the limited written statutes governing wrecking laws. He also commented on what, at times, were the astronomical salvage claims being awarded.
On July 2, Monroe County was established as the Florida Territory’s sixth county. Monroe County was a much larger slice of real estate in 1823 and stretched from Key West to the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee and west to Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf of Mexico. Two days after Monroe County was created, the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida, George Murray president, passed the Salvage Act.
Among its 14 parts were statutes requiring the salvaged property to be reported to the nearest justice-of-the-peace or notary public. Additionally, it would prove the officer’s duty to oversee the assembly of a five-member arbitration jury to decide all fees for the salvage operation. Section 14 of the act stated, “Be it further enacted, That if any person shall within this territory, make or hold out any false lights, or make any device, or do any other act or thing with intent to mislead, bewilder or decoy the mariners of any vessel on the high seas, whereby such vessel may be cast ashore, or get aground, such person or persons so offending, and every accessory thereto, shall on conviction thereof be deemed guilty of Felony, and shall suffer death.”
Tales of skullduggery and “false lights,” while pervasive in wrecker lore, were rarely documented. The inclusion of Section 14, however, indicates that the legends were rooted in some truths.
Generally speaking, wrecking was life-threatening work performed by honest, hard-working men. The primary job was to salvage as much life and property from a distressed ship as humanly possible. Often thought of as little better than pirates, while wreckers fully expected to be paid for their services, they would not hold a cutlass to your throat for the chance to make a buck.