Early Key West Account Found in Charleston

Page three of David Henry Mordecai’s 1849 travel diary, including his sketch of “a cocoanut tree.” From the Lowcountry Digital Library of the College of Charleston. (Click for the complete digitized version.)

One of the earliest known travelogues of the Florida Keys and Key West has been uncovered in South Carolina at the College of Charleston. It establishes, among other things, that Key West’s reputation for drunkenness and questionable behavior has done nothing to dissuade talented writers from visiting the place for 165 years.

The 1849 account is contained within the pages of a diary written by a fifteen-year-old boy named David Henry Mordecai. He was the son of Moses Cohen Mordecai, a prominent South Carolina businessman and politician whose shipping company held a contract to supply Key West with delivery of the United States Mail. Prior to the Civil War, Mordecai’s “Isabel,” a three-masted paddle steamer, represented a vital connection between Key West and the outside world, providing twice-monthly mail, cargo, and passenger service to Charleston and Havana.

Donated to the College of Charleston as part of the Thomas J. Tobias Papers in 1994 and added to their Lowcountry Digital Library in 2010, young David’s handwritten document transmits an impressive breadth of sense-impressions and acute observation. And though the section devoted to the Keys is just four pages long, its detail makes it one of the important documents of Key West’s early history.

As the diary begins, Mordecai describes his surprise at sailing through the wild and fecund waters of the Florida Straits, while acknowledging the armed conflict then underway between the U.S. government and Florida’s native population:

About noon we passed a part of the gulf stream, this is a great natural curiosity for it is a current running north I believe about 60 miles broad and its waters are of a different color than the ocean and they do not mingle with it. I am ignorant of the cause. In the stream we saw turtles, sharks, flying fish & some dolphins. During all this day we sailed along the Florida Coast and passed two keys belonging to Father one called Indian Key and the other Salt Key. Indian Key has some houses of fishermen upon it. We also passed Cape Florida and the place where stood the light house in which the keeper was smoked by the Indians in the Seminole War.

Upon arriving in Key West, Mordecai conducts a survey of the island and its natural and man-made features:

About 7:00 we arrived at Key West an island and a safe place for vessels in distress. It contains about 3,000 inhabitants. We walked about the place and here I first saw a cocoanut tree. It is beautiful from 50 – 60 – 70 feet high and no leaves except at the top… All the tropical fruits grow in Key West except the Orange which does not thrive on account of the Salt air. The houses are some wood and some stone all with piazzas and no chimneys except in some kitchens or placed for ornament for they never need fires there.

Finally, Mordecai turns to the inhabitants, describing the human character of the frontier island, whose remoteness from the rest of the world his father’s shipping company had just begun to lessen:

We strolled along the different places and found in almost every place men as drunk as they could be. The population is composed of but few really respectable persons, a great many wreckers, sailors and negroes who when they get a chance generally take more than their fill in intoxicating drinks.

Mordecai left for Cuba the next day and filled the remaining 150 pages of his diary with vivid and arresting descriptions whose sound composition belies his young age. The precocious youth would soon go off to Harvard, where he presumably met some “really respectable persons,” and travel widely throughout Europe and North Africa. He died, tragically, at 25.

Mordecai & Co.'s three-masted paddle steamer, the "Isabel," provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War.
Mordecai & Co.’s three-masted paddle steamer, the “Isabel,” provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War. From the Monroe County Public Library in Key West.

One thought on “Early Key West Account Found in Charleston

  1. One of my relatives. My mothers maiden name is Mordecai. The steamship was most likely named after Elizabeth Whitlock, or Isabel, who was married to the families founder here in the new world who was one Moses Mordecai from Bonn, Germany. They settled in Philadelphia. After Moses died she married a Cohen. I think that is where David’s middle name came from. Much of the family migrated out of Pennsylvania into South Carolina.

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