At about the same time the dubious wrecker John Jacob Housman first made his way to the Florida Territory, another questionable captain was sailing this way, too. His name was Joshua Appelby, born Dec. 5, 1770 in Newport, Rhode Island. Like Captain Housman, he arrived in the Florida Territory circa 1822. As a point of comparison, it was March 1822 when John Fleming from Mobile, Alabama was documented as building the first house in Key West. It was also the year that the U.S. Schooner Alligator crashed into the reef that now bears its name. Unlike Captain Housman who initially established himself in Key West, Appleby and a fellow wrecker named John Fiveash settled near the western end of Vaca Key (sometimes named as Knights Key) and established a rudimentary settlement dubbed Port Monroe.
February 10, 1823 Appelby and Fiveash placed a “Notice to Mariners” in the Pensacola newspaper The Floridian announcing Port Monroe, “has 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. We are determined that nothing on our part (that attention and industry will ensure) will be neglected for the immediate relief of the unfortunate stranger… At present there are four families residing at this place; corn, potatoes, beans, onions, cotton, and all the West Indies fruit thrives rapidly and surpass our most sanguine expectations.” Another man who seems to have been living at Port Monroe or was otherwise associated with Appleby was Solomon Snyder. At some time prior to November 1824, Appelby and Snyder became partners and invested in the construction and operation of a general store. What is interesting is that Appelby and Snyder did not build the general store at Port Monroe. Rather, they hired Silas Fletcher to undergo the task on an island some 30 miles away.
A boat was loaded with supplies and Fletcher set sail from Knights Key. He arrived on Indian Key in April 1824. Silas Fletcher is considered to be Indian Key’s first white settler.Joseph Prince was likely the second. Fletcher hired Prince to help build the store and assist with daily operations. The Indian Key general store was up and running before the end of the year as notes written by Pardon C. Greene in the Monroe County Deed Book dated prior to January 1825 state: “he furnished Joseph Prince with goods for a store and that he received several letters from said Prince in the way of business and that these letters were dated Indian Key.” Also in January it is recorded that Fletcher and Prince became formal partners and bought, “the store belonging to Snyder and Appelby, and all their interest and claim in and to Indian Key.” In the meantime, Port Monroe had earned a reputation for operating beyond the scope of territorial law which seems to be largely attributed to the relationship between Joshua Appelby at Port Monroe and Charles Hopner of the Columbian privateer La Centilla. Commodore Porter, in charge of the anti-piracy unit assigned to secure the water of the West Indies, eventually got wind of the of the shenanigans afoot at Port Monroe.
In a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Porter wrote, “I am under the impression that the practice of wrecking Spanish vessels on the coast by Columbian cruisers [privateers], in order to secure their cargoes, has, for a long time past been pursued to a considerable extent, and that the establishment at Key Vacas [Port Monroe] was made with this object in view.” Appelby was subsequently arrested and taken to Rhode Island. Court proceedings apparently dragged on for years. When they were completed, Appelby returned to the Florida Territory. By this time, Port Monroe seems to have failed. In 1837 he undertook the position of keeper at the Sand Key Lighthouse where he served until the lighthouse was destroyed by the Great Havana Hurricane. The storm struck the Keys as a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane on October 11, 1846.In all, over 250 people died as a result of the fury of the storm. Included among the casualties were Appelby, 77, along with his daughter, 51, and grandson, 11, who were all washed out to sea.
Why Appleby is remembered today is largely due to the Keeper-class United States Coast Guard cutter named after him. The Joshua Appelby was the sixth of 14 Keeper-class cutters named after lighthouse keepers. The ship was commissioned August 8, 1998 and is based out of St. Petersburg. The official motto of the Joshua Appelby is “The Wrecking Keeper.”
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.