The Davis family, a white family, purchased the island of Key Biscayne and later sold a few acres on the southern tip of the island to the U.S. government for a lighthouse to be built. The purpose was to prevent shipwrecks on the Great Florida Reef.
Shipwrecks were so common that local settlers and “wreckers”, mainly from key West, collected what could be salvaged to keep or sell developing the wrecking industry in Key West.
[ * The Cape Florida Lighthouse and keeper’s house were built in 1825.]
By the mid-1830s, the lighthouse keeper was Joe Thompson who had a black slave named Arron Carter as his helper. After the Second Seminole War broke out in December 1835, the lighthouse was a refuge for white settlers. On July 23, 1836, Seminoles arrived to attack the lighthouse.
Carter and Thompson moved to the relative safety at the top of the lighthouse.
Frustrated, that night the Indians set fires to doors and windows at the base of the lighthouse destroying the wooden stairs leading to the top and trapping the two men. The fire ignited oil cans at the base of the lighthouse. Thompson fired back at the Indians and ultimately threw gun powder down into the rising flames. The explosion killed Carter.
The Indians thought the explosion killed both men. They burned down the keeper’s home and took off in his boat. But the explosion actually put out the fire!
Thompson had no way to get down. He was alive but in bad shape with one of his feet almost severed. Carter was lying dead next to him for twelve hours until help arrived from a passing ship that heard the explosion some 12 miles away. The Carter’s body was buried near the lighthouse.
The structure was rebuilt in 1846 but put out of commission again by a Confederate raiding party in 1861. The light was extinguished in 1878 when it was replaced by the more powerful Fowey Rocks Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was relit in 1978 and is the centerpiece of the 406-acre Bill Baggs Cape Florida Recreation Area. The lighthouse is the oldest standing structure in South Florida.