THE KEY WEST BUBBAS AND THE GROUNDING OF HERCULES

       The ship, Hercules, Capt. Walter Seaman, left New York in September, 1825, bound to Mobile with a crew of 9.  The cargo was assorted merchandise:  tools, clothing, crockery, etc.  It was valued at $ 180,000 (in 1825 dollars), insured for $ 154,000 and the ship was insured for $ 8,000.  Within a few days sailing the ship experienced a gale so bad she was on her side for 12 hours.  The weather continued stormy, and navigation by normal means not possible.  At the time of the grounding on September 20th Capt. Seaman believed they were at the Cay Sal Bank, about 100 miles from where they actually were at, the Upper Florida Keys.

       How the ship came to be grounded is a classic case of arrogance by those in charge:  first, the mate and then, the captain.  The captain had retired for the night, with instructions to the mate, Nathaniel B. Cook, to call him if any problems.  Around 11 p.m. colored crewman August Lemonier discovered the ship going into white water and “ran and told the mate of it” who replied “There is no shoal water here.”  Seaman George Horack also told the mate, who was dozing at the time, that they were in white water; the mate said it was impossible and not to trouble him.  Upon the second warning to the mate an hour later, who was, “asleep by the hencoop, [he] swore and finally got up” and learned that his underlings were correct, and called the captain on deck.

       The captain checked his charts of the Cay Sal Bank, then ordered the ship’s course changed, which ran the ship directly for land.  August Lemonier “saw [the land] and told the captain he saw it and witness heard one of the men sing out ‘Land!’ before witness did, but the captain said there was no land – 5 to 8 minutes later she struck.”  Nathanial Cook, the mate, testified that “Everyman onboard told the captain that land was dead ahead and they would be ashore in less than 5 minutes if they did not change course.  After the ship touched the first time Cook told the captain of it, who replied ‘it is none of your business’, then she struck a second time and a third, stopping totally on a crushed coral bank.   They were aground on Carysfort Reef, about 6 miles off Key Largo.

       The day before, wrecker Charles M. Johnson, 52, had seen the Hercules.  According to his crewmember, Herman Rich, Johnson told the men and his son, John W. Johnson, “that brig thinks she is going fast through the water, but she will find herself mistaken.  I think she will be ashore before tomorrow morning – we will go into Black Caesar’s Creek and anchor because if she does go ashore it will go on somewhere thereabouts.”

       What followed was the basis of Charles Johnson’s arrest at New York, where he resided part-time, in January, 1826, under a warrant charging “civil and maritime trespass.”  It was a charge brought by ten New York insurance companies that had insured the Hercules and her cargo. The libel stated Johnson had acted “in collusion with the territorial officers of the Territory of Florida,” and the insurance companies were referring to people at Key West, a place where greed prevailed over all.

       All that follows is from depositions given for Johnson’s trial: of those aboard the Hercules or aboard the two wrecking ships, and of some “founding fathers” of Key West that happened to be in New York at the time. Or were they all there to defend their corrupt system?

       The morning of the grounding the captain sounded around the ship and determined she could not be gotten off.  At 5 a.m. wrecker John W. Johnson arrived in the aptly-named  Surprize and asked if he wanted assistance.  Capt. Seaman had already decided to abandon ship because of the weather, and a boat was alongside being prepared with supplies.

       John Johnson conferred with Capt. Seaman out of hearing of the crew and then the men of the Hercules took cargo out and put it on his sloop by the instructions of Capt. Seaman.  Later Charles M. Johnson arrived in the Florida and the Eclipse, Capt. Easton, as well, although Easton was told not to assist unless the Johnsons’ attempt to save the ship failed. Then Seaman’s crew retired and Johnsons’ crews (a total of 19 men) started to pull the ship off the reef with anchors.  At about 1:00 in the afternoon the vessel was freed.

       After she got off, according to Herman Rich, a Surprize crewmember, “Capt. Easton advised Capt. Seaman of the Hercules to go to Mobile as he was bound there.  The respondent [Charles Johnson] turned round to Capt. Easton and said, ‘Capt. Easton, I don’t thank you for any of your advice.  The brig shall not go to Mobile, for she is my property’, or, ‘my prize’, but which, the witness cannot recollect.  ‘I have offered Capt. Seaman to go either to Savannah or Charleston or to Key West’.  That Capt. Seaman was onboard the sloop at the time this conversation took place.  The respondent turned to Capt. Seaman and asked him if this was not the fact.  Capt. Seaman was within hearing, but made no reply.  That Capt. Seaman did not, in the presence of witness, at any time urge respondent to go to Mobile.  That witness heard respondent [Johnson] says he would blow up the vessel before she should go to Mobile.”