Wreckers were some of the wealthier citizens in the Florida Keys during the Pirate heydays!
Wreckers refers to the people who would go out and salvage the crew, ship and cargo of ships that had ran aground on the reefs of the Florida keys. Some of this happened out of heroism and some out of piracy. A reward or payment was expected. Their was a wrecking court of adjustment that would over see this payment. Their were no real laws governing salvaging. The “Common Laws at Sea” and a Bahamian Admiralty Court were the only guiding laws, the U.S. had no statutes on the books yet.
The first salvager's or wreckers were the Florida Indigenous Indians. The Spanish would get the Indians to help them recover whatever they could from the ships that ran aground or sank . Two of the most famous ships were the Margarita and Atocha . They sank off Key West during a hurricane in 1622. The Indians dove on these wrecks for eight years bringing treasures up to the Spanish.
The Early ships were square-rigged merchant ships. They were often overloaded. These ships were difficult to sail, they didn’t go into the wind very well. Many of them ran onto the rocks and ripped the hull of the ship open and sank, while others were left on the rocks. Very few charts were available. On these charts their was nothing to show where the reef and shoals were. Very little was known about the weather or hurricane season here. No lighthouses or navigational aids were maintained. NOAA weather radio was centuries away. They had no warnings about threatening weather.
It’s believed that the Bahamians turned wrecking into an industry. They organized it so that a claim could be filed in Nassau or Havana . The claim could also be settled between the owner of the shipwreck and the salvagers.
Many records exist showing that the whole ship, cargo, crew and passengers were saved from many ships.
After all was taken from the wreck, the ship would be set on fire. The wreckers didn’t want anything left that would warn other ships of the dangerous reef below the water. They would also move lights around or snuff them completely out to trick the ships into running onto the shallow reefs.
The Upper Keys had especially dangerous waters for the large overloaded ships. Many wreckers would hang out near Carysfort Reef and Tavernier while waiting on a wreck to happen.
The pineapple industry was started in the Florida keys by a wrecker while waiting on a wreck to happen. Captain Ben Baker started growing pineapples on Key Largo and Plantation Key. One record states that Capt. Baker was sitting on his front porch when he saw a ship run up onto the reef. Most wreckers had other jobs, some were spongers , others caught turtles and others were fishermen. These jobs put them in a position to watch for wrecks to happen.
In 1822 the West Indies Anti-Piracy Squadron was sent to get rid of the pirates in the Florida Keys Waters. The problem was that there were no written legal statutes concerning piracy.
The Federal Government didn’t concern themselves with this. The Territory of Florida set it’s own wrecking acts in 1823. It stated that wrecked property must be reported to the nearest justice of the peace or notary public. A jury of five was to be appointed. The jury would consist of two nominated by the salvers, two by the owners of the wreak and one by the justice or notary. Their were also court costs, advertisements, certified copy of wreck claim to be sent to the Superior Court etc. The last law concerned the making or holding of false lights, devices, or anything “with the 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...” “If convicted,... be deemed guilty of felon, and shall suffer death.”
Ships and entire cargo were sold in Key West. If the owner wasn’t present a representative would be appointed. In 1823 gross duties paid on cargo landed in Key West grew from $389 dollars to $14,108 dollars in 1824.
To keep the goods from shipwrecks in the U. S. Jurisdiction from being taken to foreign ports, Congress passed the Federal Wrecking Act in 1825. It stated that all goods shipwrecked in these waters had to be brought to a U. S. Port of entry. Key West had been declared a port of entry in 1822. John Simonton wrote that from December 1824 to December 1825, $293,353 dollars worth wrecked goods were sold in Key West.
A Superior Court was established in Key West in 1928. It had Maritime and Admiralty jurisdiction. The first case tied in Key West was from the ship the Nanna. It ran aground off Carysfort Reef at low tide. The ship was lightened off loading some of her cargo, 456 bales of cotton. The wreckers were then able to pull her off as the tide floated her. The hull had suffered no damage. The cotton was valued at $60,000 dollars, the wreckers were awarded $10,000 dollars for their efforts.
The Florida Keys had no shortage of wreckers in those days. Some more famous ones were John Lowe, Jacob Housman, Ben Baker, John Gieger, “Bull” Waterford and “Hog” Johnson.
Many people got rich during those days. Ship owners and warehouse owners were at the top. Fishermen and spongers were rewarded for reporting wrecks to the salvagers. The first one to arrive at the wreck site was the “wrecking master.” He got to pick the other salvagers to assist in the operation. The ship’s master could refuse the assistance.
One shipwreck was a beer-laden ship. During the salvage operation lots of beer was consumed by the salvagers. The court declared no additional payment was owed by the ship master. The salvagers had drunk their pay.
Lighthouses began to be placed at Cape Florida, Sand Key and Dry Tortugas in 1820. Carysfort Reef light was placed in 1852. This was the most dangerous waters for the ships. Iron day beacons were placed along the reef. Each had an alphabet letter to identify them. “A” was at Eastern Sambo off Key West and “P” was off Fowey Rocks south of Cape Florida. They were 45' high. Some appeared shorter due to the depth of water they were placed in. There’s a couple of them still around in the Upper Keys waters today.
Other lighthouses soon followed. Sombrero Reef light was lit in 1858, Alligator Reef light in 1873, Fowey light in 1878, American Shoal light in 1880 and Rebecca Shoal light in 1886.
Next came the steam powered ships. They were able to steer the ships in any direction no matter where the wind was coming from.
The last ship to run aground and be salvaged by wreckers was the Alicia of Bilbao, it was on Ajax Reef off Miami. She was on her way to Havana in 1905. Wreckers came from all parts of the Keys to help. Captain “Hog” Johnson was the first one to arrive. He was the master wrecker. Most of the cargo was off loaded and the ship was floated off. She sank the next day in a severe squall.
The Wrecking License Bureau of the Court closed in 1921.
This was the end of the colorful era of pirates and wreckers in the Florida Keys.
Here's a book I found that tells of a modern day man out salvaging for treasures.
Return from Wreckers to History of the Florida Keys
Return from Wreckers to N The Florida Keys