Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 16 (October 1994)
"PRACTICAL SALT-MAKERS": THE BAHAMIAN INFLUENCE
ON THE KEY WEST, FLORIDA, SALT INDUSTRY IN THE 1820s AND 1830s
For centuries, Bahamians have interacted with and influenced the inhabitants of the Florida Keys. This paper briefly explores some of the early connections between The Bahamas and the keys and describes Bahamian contributions to the beginning of the salt industry in Key West. In the 1820s and 1830s American businessmen interested in developing natural salt ponds recognized the importance of Bahamian expertise. They visited the Bahamas, studied the salt industry there, and imported Bahamian knowledge and technology to begin their own enterprise. Appended to the paper is an anonymous newspaper account1 of a visit to the Bahamas in 1829 that provides excellent information about the Bahamian solar evaporation system used on Rum Key and by extension, Exuma, Long Island, and Rose Island.2 It also offers some comparative notes on the salt industry in Massachusetts.
New England entrepreneurs who fished the Keys constantly looked for new sources of income. For example, fishing vessels from Southern Connecticut often supplemented their regular work by wrecking. An extract from the journal of the sloop Gallant about a wrecked vessel is revelatory:
She proved to be the Schooner Ceres of Norfolk Capt Brown loaded with flour and hams. We carried out anchors and tried to get her off when we could not and went to onloading of her and landing the cargo we soon found she had bilged and began to throw overboard but it all drove on shore. At 5 pm we had landed all her cargo and took everything out of her and part of the smacks crews staid [sic] on shore all night.3
Some such as the Mallory family of Mystic, Connecticut opened a commercial branch in Key West and became prominent merchants there. Others from Massachusetts, investigated the potential of salt production,4 possibly because of that product's success in their home state or in the neighboring Bahamas. Griffith Roberts, a Key West store owner in the 1820s, explained:
While he resided on said island, many persons visited it from the Bahamas islands, and elsewhere, who were said to be practical salt-makers, who frequently said, that the salt ponds were of the same character of those of the Bahamas, and that there was no doubt very large quantities of salt could be made from them.5
The natural advantages of Key West - access to salt water, a dry climate with plenty of sunshine -increased speculation about the birth of a salt industry. A visitor described what he found: "In the course of our walk, we observed a number of cavities in the rocks along the shore bordering on salt ponds, filled with salt. These cavities have been overflown by high tides, and the water remaining, has been evaporated."6 Another observed noted that the salt water ponds were especially saline: "Here where the water contains 1/3 more salt - the evaporation is at least twice as rapid and the season comprises nearly the whole year.7
One of earliest businessmen, William Adee Whitehead, sought to capitalize on the situation. He spoke of potential production levels of 60,000 bushels.8 Whitehead never entered production, but set the stage for later development. As it was, he faced enough difficulty raising money for the project:.