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The Salt Ponds of Duck Key and Charles Howe Senior

Postcards from the British West Indies showing the raking of salt.

Contents of page
Salt Uses
Duck Key's Salt Ponds and Charles Howe

Salt Uses

The chemical compound Sodium Chloride (NaCl) is more commonly referred to as salt. Salt is an essential element because, although it is necessary for both the human and animal diet, the human body does not have the ability to produce salt on its own. Other uses for salt include food processing, food preservation, chemical production and deicing on highways and roadways.

Necessary as a preservative in the days before refrigeration, salt was a highly prized commodity. In the early 1800s there was no canning industry, and no chemical preservatives to help keep food fresh and edible. Food was preserved either by smoking, pickling, drying, packing in sugar syrup, and salting. Salt was used to pickle vegetables and cure hams. About 40 pounds of salt per person per year was needed for preserving food.

In Roman times, soldiers were paid their wages in salt which they called salarium. Thus the English work for pay became salary. In the Middle Ages salt was such as precious commodity that one's status was denoted by his position at the dining table in relation to the location of the salt. The salt was always placed close to the king and important nobility. To be "beneath the salt" meant you were not seated close to the king and were therefore, of lesser stature.

Salt played a featured role in the settlement of the country. Early settlers in the Keys, surrounded by seawater, believed that the manufacture of salt through the collection and evaporation of seawater was the best means of making the Keys known to the commercial world.

Duck Keys Salt Ponds

Historic documents indicate that two large salt ponds existed on the island of Duck Key during the late 1820's through 1840's. The Duck Key salt ponds which predate salt ponds later to be established in Key West, were the first venture of this type in the Keys. It is not known who first built Duck Key's salt ponds, but records do indicate that a Charles Howe moved from Key West to Duck Key in 1828 with his wife, Anne Cole, his one year old son, Charles Jr. and three year old daughter, Sarah Ann.

It is thought that Charles Howe operated the salt ponds with the help of several slaves. An 1830 Key's census shows Howe owning three male and several female slaves. High temperatures, and standing barefooted in brine all day made the work laborious. The bright sun reflecting off the sea water and salt crystals contributed to the beginning of blindness. Boils developed on skin constantly exposed to brine and cuts failed to heal.

In June of 1831 Anne Howe gave birth to Edward Cole Howe, the first child to be born on Duck Key. In 1833 Howe's wife died in childbirth at the age of 32. Later the infant girl, Ann, died in Key West at the age of 18 months. Later records from 1836 show Howe supervising Duck Key salt production, but living in Indian Key where he was Post Master and Customs agent. Howe is again mentioned in the literature as having an interest in Duck Key's salt ponds and buying a controlling interest in the Key West Ponds in 1843.

A reference to Howe was made John Lee Williams in his 1837 Territory of Florida. Williams wrote that Howe had died: "Duck Key is a narrow rocky islet, containing some fine salt ponds. Mr. Howe, from Charleston, made a considerable establishment on the island for the purpose of making salt, but having died since, the project has been abandoned. It is about two miles long."

It is likely that Williams was mistaken about Howe's death, because all other references of Howe seem to suggest that he lived on and died many years later in Massachusetts in 1873.

Marriage record show that Howe married three more times. His second wife was Abigail Fletcher Talber. Wives 3 and 4 were Eliza Brightman, and Julia A. Blodget.

There is a historic record of Howe's son, Charles Jr. marrying a Mary Ann Johnson of Duck Key in 1852.
     

The process by which salt was made on Duck Key is not recorded, but a system similar to that of Key West's salt pond harvesters probably was used. Duck Key may have been selected because it had several natural, shallow, inland depressions which filled with salt water directly from the sea providing conditions perfect for saltmaking.

Duck Key's salt ponds most likely were improved with the construction of earthen or rock bordered walls and small wooden flood gates which could open to capture the flow of seawater.

Picture showing small wooden flood gate of a salt pond.

 

 salt pond partitions

Ponds were partitioned into sections or "pans" to be filled by the incoming tide. Sea water entered through sluice gates located at the shoreline. Water was concentrated by evaporation in one pond, then moved to another for additional concentration. The slushy brine was then moved into smaller drying pans to evaporate further under the sun's heat leaving salt crystals. The crystals which were an eighth to a quarter inch in size were then gathered (raked) and made ready for transport. The cycle took several months from start to finish, but " salt crops" from several sets of pans allowed for harvesting in 20 to 30 days periods.

Salt harvesting was a laborious task. Workers raked the crystalized salt into piles and shoveled it into wheelbarrows. The salt was then dumped in large heaps for storage.

 

Image below is an early aerial photo of Duck Key from around 1955. Visable are the old salt pond areas of the island from the early 1800s.

 

 

 

 

Some Chronology

Charles Howe Sr. was born on August 12, 1801.

He married Ann Cole on April 20, 1825. Charles and Ann Howe purchased the Vaca Keys (Key Vaca, Viper Key, Knights Key, Boot Key and Duck Key) from Issac Cox on December 8, 1827 for $1,500.

The Howes moved to Duck Key in 1828 and likely stayed there until 1832. They had three children:   Sarah Ann, Edward Cole and Charles Jr. Howe was active in government matters. The Key West Register reported on June 4, 1829 that Charles Howe of Duck Key has been appointed Associate Judge of Monroe County by the Governor of Florida.

Charles Howe Sr. is named in the 1830 Monroe County census as head of family is association with 13 persons. Of the 13, 6 were free white males, 2 were white females, 3 were male slaves and 2 were female slaves.

It is reported the Howe's moved to Indian Key around 1832. Charles Sr. built a home on Indian Key. Monroe County records show that on June 1, 1832 Charles and Silas Howe of Duck Key sold the Key Vacas to Charles Edmonton. A Federal Government document reports that Charles Howe represented in a petition that on "December 12, 1832 he was appointed inspector of customs to reside and perform his duties at Indian Key in Florida; that he soon after went to Indian Key with his family and continued to reside there and perform his official duties until August 7, 1840, when hostile Indians destroyed and carried off nearly all his property, which he values at $7,714 and left him in a destitute situation."

Charles Howe Sr. married Abigail Fletcher Talbert at Indian Key on December 12, 1834. This marriage produced five offspring: Albert Fletcher, Amelia, William Fletcher, Annie Marie, Henry Perrine Fletcher(1843 -1844).

Indian Key became the county seat for Dade County. The Howe's are represented in the 1840 Dade County Census. The census shows 17 persons associated with head of household Charles Howe. There were six white males, two females, seven male slaves and two female slaves enumerated on the census.

Researcher Jerry Wilkerson of keyshistory.org writes that Charles Howe lived on Indian Key until 1842. He quotes from a letter Howe wrote to William Fletcher, his brother-in-law, from Indian Key on November 8, 1840, "...We are the only family remaining on the island, and your sister is the only woman nearer than Key West. Capt. H. (Housman) has cleared out for good - took everything he had left to Key West about a fortnight since to sell at auction".

Howe moved to Key West in 1842. He is represented in the 1850 census. Historian Wilkerson believes that Howe sent three of his children, Sarah, Charles and Edward to live with the Perrine family in New York to attend school in 1841.

Charles Howe Sr. married twice more. He married his third wife, Eliza Brightman, on November 13, 1847. She died in 1853 from yellow fever. He married his fourth wife, Julia Ann Smith Blodget , on November 7, 1854. Howe was Collector of Customs in Key West from 1861 to 1869. Howe Senior died at age 71.

Son Charles Jr. on September 20, 1852 married Mary Ann Johnson of Duck Key. The son was married again August 28,186) to Julia Blogett Gates of Hadley, Mass.

Howe Letters

There is a wonderful collection of letters written by Charles Howe Sr. at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Massachusetts. The letters may be read by going to http://www.keyshistory.org/IK-civilian-letters.html



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