KEYS HISTORY: SURVEYOR THE FIRST TO PEN BLACK CAESAR’S NAME

De Mayne Chart of 1821 showing Black Sarah’s Creek. CONTRIBUTED

Cartographer Bernard Romans named the water feature flowing between Old Rhodes and Elliott Key Black Caesars Creek. The choice was made after the Spanish territory of La Florida was deeded to the English with the signing of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. 

The document signified the end of the French and Indian War. After taking possession, the English divided the territory into two parts. West Florida became all of the area west of the Apalachicola River. East Florida was everything east of the river and included the peninsula and the Florida Keys.

The government appointed Romans the deputy surveyor for the territory’s Southern District. Between 1770 and 1771, Romans surveyed the waters surrounding South Florida and the Florida Keys. The resulting effort, published in 1774, was called “Maps of East and West Florida.” Why did he choose the unusual name for the creek flowing between Old Rhodes and Elliott Keys? It is a really good question.

According to local legends, the creek is named after the infamous pirate rooted in Florida Keys lore who is said to have lorded over the Straits of Florida from his Elliott Key lair for a decade. After abandoning Elliott Key, the pirate joined forces with Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, and allegedly became one of his trusted lieutenants.

The big problem with this version of the Black Caesar story, and there are many stories about the pirate, is that a pirate by that name does not exist in the historical record. He certainly was never one of Blackbeard’s lieutenants, trusted or otherwise. Coincidentally, a black “pirate” named Caesar had the misfortune of being with Blackbeard the day his sloop Adventure was attacked by British Navy forces and the fearsome pirate was beheaded.

In a book published just six years after Blackbeard’s violent death, information about Caesar, who was aboard the Adventure that fateful day, was shared. The book, “A General History of the Pyrates,” written by Captain Charles Johnson (though some feel it was written by the writer Daniel Defoe of “Robinson Crusoe” fame), stated: “Teach had little or no Hopes of escaping, and therefore had posted a resolute Fellow, a Negro, whom he had bred up, with a lighted Match, in the Powder-Room, with Commands to blow up when he should give him Orders, which was as soon as the Lieutenant and his Man could have entered, that so he might have destroy’d his Conquerors: and when the Negro found how it went with Black-beard, he could hardly be perswaded from the rash Action by two Prisoners that were in the Hold of the Sloop.”

After the event aboard Blackbeard’s Adventure, British forces took Caesar into custody. According to the King’s records, the man identified as Caesar was labeled a Common Sailor and a “Common Sailor” is a term never attributed to a pirate who was, by every account, larger-than-life, Herculean in stature, and both a bloody and ruthless practitioner of his trade. 

One of the extraordinary aspects of the legendary story of Black Caesar is that his name, as it has been associated with a pirate who may or may not have ever wrought his piratical intentions from an Elliott Key lair or anywhere else in Florida for that matter, fails to be recorded in a single contemporary document prior to the publishing of Romans’ “Maps of East and West Florida” in 1774.

It could be that Romans simply misheard or miswrote another local name for the creek, which might explain why he appears to be the first person ever to put the name in print. This kind of name bastardization is frequent everywhere, probably, and certainly when it comes to the history of the names of islands and other features in the Florida Keys. 

James Grant Forbes’ “Sketches Historical and Topographical of The Floridas; more particularly of East Florida,” published by C.S. Van Winkle in 1821, identified the same feature as Black Sarah’s Creek. The De Mayne Chart, also published in 1821, identified the pass as Black Sarah’s Creek.

Some of the wreckers working the reef line in the early 19th century, too, referred to the creek as Black Sarah’s, which only adds to the conundrum involving the name. It is interesting that Black Caesar and Black Sarah practically rhyme. Maybe Bernard Romans heard the name Black Sarah when surveying the area, and he decided to jazz up the name by changing it to Black Caesar. Before he began surveying the Southern District, a little pirate blood had flowed through his veins. 

Maybe Romans just plain invented the name Black Caesar when he applied the identifier to the creek on his map. And maybe that decision gave birth to the idea of a pirate named Black Caesar and the resulting collection of legendary stories about him that have been stitched into the fabric of Florida Keys history – stories that come with no supporting documentation.

Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.