In 1859, U.S. Government ships were ordered to enforce the laws against the slave trade.  In that campaign, three ships with 1,432 enslaved Africans aboard were brought into Key West in May 1860.

Imagine the day Indian Key’s tiny population of 13 saw the U.S. sail assisted steamship Mohawk arrive off the island with one of those captured slavers in tow, the Massachusetts-built Wildfire, her 500+ Africans probably on deck.  Warren S. Howard in his book American Slavers and the Federal Law 1837-1862 (1963) writes what had happened just days before off Cuba, based on an account published in 1860 in The Boston Post.

The Wildfire looked innocent…She made  no suspicious movements…her crew hoisted American colors (flags) promptly upon request and in a remarkable display of “coolness”, went about their duties as if they had nothing to fear from the most painstaking  search.  As the Mohawk pulled alongside, seamen were visible at work in the bark’s rigging, while her officers leaned calmly on their rail and placidly gazed at their visitor.  However, Lieutenant T.A. Craven, commanding the Mohawk with the persistence that had become habit, ordered away a boat, and the boarding lieutenant scrambled up the side of the Wildfire and saw the telltale sign of gratings over her hatches.  He waved his sword as a signal, his boat’s crew let out a whoop and the Africans, realizing what was happening, joyfully started singing and clapping their hands.  They had been rescued from intended slavery in Cuba.”

The following is from the log of U.S.S. Mohawk, April 18, 1860.  A microfilmed copy is at the Key West library.

“…  (slaver) barque in tow standing in for Indian Key.  Hoisted the Jack (signal flag) and fired a gun for a pilot (to sail into Key West).  At 4:30 came to off Indian Key.  Hoisted Jack and fired again for a pilot.  At 5 the pilot came aboard.”

The Africans’ ordeal was not over for 294 from the ship died at Key West from sickness.  Buried  in trenches on the beach (now the County Beach) west of the White Street pier and east of the Casa Marina their deaths have become forgotten Key West history.  No marker has ever been erected to acknowledge the site.

UPDATE: On August 22 (2010) a memorial marker and perimeter fence was dedicated in Key West in recognition of the 294 Africans who were laid to rest there. The author, Gail Swanson, discovered the connection between the story of the Wildfire and Mohawk and a receipt for the burial of 294 slaves in Key West.  Due in part to her advocacy, this final resting place is now publicly recognized and has returned to Key West maritime history.

Image from Harper’s Weeklyarticle from June 2, 1860 titled, “THE AFRICANS OF THE SLAVE BARK “WILDFIRE,”–[FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.], pp.344-345