🇺🇸 Fort Jefferson – Dry Tortugas

Bird Key Anchorage @ 24° 37.3033′ N   82°52.7833′ W

 

Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson lies about 60 nm due west of Key West

In 1513, Ponce de León led the first known European expedition to La Florida, which he named during his first voyage to the area and discovered the islands in 1513 and named them for the tortoises (Spanish tortugas) that abounded there.

In 1521, Ponce de León returned to southwest Florida with the first large-scale attempt to establish a Spanish colony in what is now the continental United States. However, the native Calusa people fiercely resisted the incursion, and he was seriously wounded in a skirmish. The colonization attempt was abandoned, and died from his wounds soon after returning to Cuba.

In 1821 Spain sold Florida to the United States for $5 million (Florida Purchase Treaty which remained in full effect for a whopping 183 days) and about 5 years later lighthouse was constructed on Garden Key in the dry Tortugas

During that time U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter inspected the Dry Tortugas island
s as he was on the lookout for a site for a naval station that would help suppress piracy in the Caribbean.

While Commodore Porter thought the Dry Tortugas were unfit for a naval station. He commanded a number of U.S. naval ships, including the famous USS Constitution and saw service in the First Barbary War. Porter was later court martialed and resigned and then –
joined and became commander-in-chief of the MEXICAN NAVY and inspired the songs “Hey Joe” and “I’m on the Mexican radio” (bad joke)

In 1829, under recommendations from Commodore John Rodgers, the survey ship Florida stopped at the Dry Tortugas to evaluate the anchorage. Contrary to Commodore Porter’s experience, Josiah Tattnall was delighted with what he found. It consisted of 11 small keys and surrounding reefs and banks, over which the sea broke. There was an outer and an inner harbor which afforded a safe anchorage during all seasons and was large enough to let a large number of ships ride at anchor. The Dry Tortugas would constitute the advance post for a defense of the Gulf Coast.

300 years after Ponce’s discovery it was of course prisoners, soldiers and hundreds of slaves who built the park’s centerpiece Fort Jefferson which constitues the largest all-masonry fortification in the Americas and is the largest brick masonry structure composed of over 16 million bricks. At 400 bricks per day it takes a lot of manpower ( 40,000 days to be exact ) to build as this building covers 16 acres. Among United States forts, only Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Adams in Rhode Island are larger.

Enslaved African Americans were responsible for  the most difficult tasks at Fort Jefferson. They labored ten hours a day, six days a week. Using little more than wheelbarrows they offloaded arriving ships. The 16 million bricks were used in the fort’s construction. Perhaps their most arduous task was collecting and transporting large quantities of coral rock from nearby islands. This coral material served as the main ingredient in forming coral concrete, a vital component in the fort’s construction. Several of the enslaved men were permitted to bring their wives with them. These women often served as cooks and laundresses

One amazing story is that of an escape covered in the underground railroad documentation

ESCAPING
Early on July 10, 1847, under the cover of darkness, seven freedom seekers named Jerry, Jack, John, George, Ephraim, Howard and Robert fled Garden Key. They took with them every vessel that could float, a brilliant move that greatly reduced the risk of being pursued and captured. Without being detected the seven men removed the schooners Union, Virginia, and b, and a small boat belonging to the Garden Key lighthouse keeper.

Soon after fleeing Garden Key and entering the Loggerhead Channel, they disabled and abandoned the Virginia, the Activa, and the lighthouse keeper’s boat by cutting and smashing their hulls. Their escape went completely undetected until daylight when the boats and men were reported missing. Minutes later the Union was spotted from the Garden Key Lighthouse. By 7:00 AM, the group had traveled fifteen miles, and were spotted three miles west of Loggerhead Key heading south.

 

THE PURSUIT
With Lieutenant H.G. Wright away on business in Key West, Dr. Daniel W. Whitehurst, his second in command, organized the pursuit. Because of the freedom seekers’ thoroughness, only one old condemned vessel, the Victor, remained near the island. Work on refastening and caulking the Victor began immediately, and within two hours the vessel was repaired and outfitted.

By 9:00 AM the repaired Victor started in pursuit. On board were eight men led by lighthouse keeper Captain John Thompson. Since there was no wind, oars were hastily made and the men began an exhausting chase. Four hours later they had closed to within three miles of the Union. The freedom seekers, after making several course changes, hauled down the jib of the Union, cut away both masts, and disabled the rudder. At approximately 2:00 PM they scrambled into a small boat from the Activa and began “pulling to the southward with great force.” On board they carried a compass, clothing, spyglass, axes, and a small barrel of water.

Thompson and his crew continued the pursuit for several more hours until they lost sight of the lighthouse. Concerned because of a rapidly developing storm, the crew of the Victor returned to Garden Key by midnight. As the weather continued to deteriorate, Dr. Whitehurst waited and pondered the fate of the escapees. Understandably impressed with the careful planning and execution of the escape attempt, he speculated that their destination was the Bahamas

The Capture
The seven freedom seekers survived the powerful storm, but their hazardous journey was only beginning. They traveled eastward through the Straits of Florida where they were spotted two days later by a local captain near the island of Key Vacas, nearly 120 miles east of the Dry Tortugas.
An alarm was spread on Key Vacas, and several vessels began chase. The following day the boat was discovered on the beach at Long Key several miles to the east. Coming ashore, the pursuers began firing their weapons in an effort to frighten the fleeing men. To avoid capture, the freedom seekers ran for the beach on the other side of the island, near Indian Key, and then desperately fled into the water. The chase finally came to an end as a boat from the sloop Key West picked the fleeing men from the water and took them to Key West.

After an exhausting journey, the men had ultimately failed in their quest for freedom. Two leaders in the group were returned to their owners, and the remaining five men were sent back to Fort Jefferson

By 1863, with the arrival of hundreds of military convicts (sentenced to perform hard labor), the use of enslaved peoples was discontinued at this remote outpost. African Americans returned two years later, not in bondage, but as soldiers.
No longer denied their freedom, by 1865 African Americans had become the guardians of freedom.

 

 

    

   

Although the fort was never fully completed, it remained active throughout the Civil War and later housed prisoners – mainly Union deserters until 1873 – before being turned over to the Marine Hospital Service in 1888. The area around Fort Jefferson became a National Monument in 1935, and finally a national park in 1992.

The park can be reached only by boat or seaplane. Its waters contain abundant and varied marine life, including three species of sea turtles. Thousands of migrating birds stop at or nest on the islands. For Birders of note is a large flock of sooty terns that nests on Bush Key each spring and summer.

HOW TO GET THERE 

There are two routes from Key West, one running north of the Marquesas Keys, Half-Moon Shoal and Rebecca Shoal, and the other going to the south. Both routes are about the same distance and easy to navigate with sat chartlets and provide good protection.

A shallow reef completely surrounds the southern main anchorage, protecting vessels from waves, if not the wind. The bottom is marl, so use your big-boy anchor and a lot of chain to prevent dragging during high, sustained winds.

“Public visiting hours” are a good time to stay away and wait for the ferry and seaplanes to leave an important part of your daily Dry Tortugas routine, providing a fairly high-end but nominally-priced lunch buffet, ice-cold drinks, clean heads, garbage drop-off and freshwater showers!