This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Biscayne National Park
For centuries, the rocky shorelines of the Florida Keys were often littered with the sight of bloated corpses, splintered masts, and jettisoned cargoes brutally cast ashore after meeting their fate on the treacherous reefs lying just offshore. While foundering upon the high seas meant imminent death, the prospect of wrecking upon the shore equally held little hope for any assistance (Marano 2012,1). Since vessels first explored the area, the approximate route of the Gulf Stream between the Florida Keys and Bahamas, often simply referred to as “the Straits,” have been identified as a dangerous passage. The unpredictable nature of the Gulf Stream combined with a limited knowledge of the area culminated in a disastrous combination as the reefs along the southeastern coastline of Florida became the final resting place for hundreds vessels. As such, the rocky reefs and isolated islets of the Florida Keys exemplify the risks associated with navigating near a desolate and dangerous shoreline.
One of the primary goals of maritime archeology is to identify convincing linkages between the physical associations represented by shipwrecks and the social institutions that helped create them (Gould 2011, 24). As such, this proposed study will utilize the National Park Service’s (NPS) Revised Thematic Framework to examine the role of salvage in the development of a unique maritime cultural landscape throughout the Florida Keys. While the thematic framework has been utilized to provide a means to identify and nominate landmarks through a comparative analysis of similar properties associated within a specific epoch of American history, the framework does not provide an effective means to easily analyze maritime cultural landscapes. While not necessarily a new concept, the effective application of a maritime cultural landscapes approach in the management of submerged cultural heritage within the United States has been difficult. This is particularly true in regards to effective identification, documentation, and analysis of maritime cultural landscapes through preexisting management doctrines such as the National Historic Landmark Program (NHLP) and the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). While otherwise ubiquitous institutions within the cultural resource management practices of the United States, the terminology, theory, and approaches utilized in the study of maritime cultural landscapes does not currently exist in either these or any other resource management regimes utilized today.
As such, the theoretical foundations of this work will utilize maritime cultural landscape approaches developed and successfully tested in Australia that have only recently been introduced into the United States. These approaches acknowledge the difficulties in conducting the systematic and scientific study of less tangible ideals associated with human agency and cognition in a variety of applications (Duncan 2000, 2004; Richards 2008; Marano 2012; Duncan and Gibbs 2015). Utilizing the methodologies advocated in these approaches, this work will identify several contexts that begin to shed light on local and regional differences in the perceptions and responses to risk in the maritime environment. This approach can provide invaluable insight into the cultural values of a local community that would not otherwise be apparent through more traditional historic, ethnographic, or archeological research efforts. This study will, therefore, attempt to analyze and explain the development of what could be called a “maritime salvage landscape” through the application of socio-cultural theories to highlight cultural motivators contributing to this landscape. While the development of maritime salvage throughout the Florida Keys represents only one of a number of factors contributing to the area’s overall cultural landscape, studying the establishment and subsequent evolution of wrecking and salvage practices thematically can significantly contribute to the understanding of both the area’s physical and cultural landscapes. Establishing this connection not only helps resource managers locate, identify, and interpret thematically related cultural sites, but by understanding cultural factors contributing to their deposition, value, and use over time, the application of these theoretical paradigms can help explain contemporary perceptions of similar resources.
The Florida Reef, the Concept of Place, and the Identification of a Submerged Maritime Cultural Landscape
While many wrecks undoubtedly occurred offshore, the vast majority occurred within sight of land, often only a few miles from the beach. Those unfortunate enough to survive the initial wrecking event were cast ashore onto isolated, lawless, and mosquito-infested islands, many of which lacked access to fresh water. While occasionally uninhabited, many of these islands were home to native populations that were often hostile towards the poor souls seeking refuge after wrecking on the perilous reefs. Survivors of wrecks were often captured, enslaved, or killed upon discovery by local natives. Tales of torture, abuse, and violence permeated many of the survivor’s accounts of their captivity. Possibly due to the indistinguishable physical characteristics of the islands, or the fear of the natives who resided there, historical accounts emphasizing the physical characteristics of the terrestrial landscape of the Florida Keys are lacking. While detailed historical descriptions of the islands forming the Florida Keys are scarce, most sources denoting the locations for obtaining fresh water, safe harbor, and obvious dangers are vaguely described and are apparent in the region’s topography. As the area was further developed, major settlements in Key West and Indian Key, fortifications at the Dry Tortugas and Key West, and shore based aids to navigation all contributed to the maritime cultural landscape.
Their importance, however, was secondary to that of the shallow reefs lying just beneath the water’s surface. While it could be argued that the presence of more prominent, tangible physical features more traditionally considered landscape characteristics ended at the water’s edge, mariners trained by millennia of tradition actively maintained watch for physical indicators of the shallow flats, jagged patch reefs, and the wrecks of less fortunate vessels that dangerously lurked just beneath the surface as menacing threats to those unfamiliar with the minute details of the area’s unique bathymetry. While early sailing directions advocated avoidance of the dangerous area, the early need for the detailed survey of the Florida Reef, as well as the establishment of a series of lighthouses, buoys, and beacons to identify and avoid the reefs are well documented in the historic record. As knowledge of the area grew, sailing directions cautiously advised mariners to be on a constant lookout for breaking surf, contrary currents, changes in watercolor (indicating a rapid change in depth or bottom composition), aids to navigation and any other physical indicators of potential threats to their voyage. The ability to identify, analyze, and mitigate the dangers of navigating in an area are considered a staple of good seamanship and remains a vital skill in navigating the treacherous near shore waterways of the Florida Keys.
While the tiny islets briefly mentioned in early sailing instructions have now been developed beyond recognition, the shoals, rocks, and reefs that form the Florida Reef tract have not appreciably changed throughout the historic period and remain similar to those encountered by mariners throughout antiquity. As such, the study of the discovery, documentation, utilization, and avoidance of many of the unique physical characteristics that remain prominent features in the landscape embody both the historical and contemporary difficulties in utilizing the area and therefore provide insight into an element of a unique cognitive landscape of the area. This insight is vital in developing an understanding of the complex role the exploration, documentation, and utilization of the region’s unique landscape plays in the cultural ideals emphasized in the identification and mitigation of risk in the maritime environment.
Introduction to Maritime Salvage in the Florida Keys
For those in peril along the coast of the Florida Keys, the icy grip of death often consumed sailors with little hope of rescue. Prior to the establishment of a systematic salvage system, their only chance of surviving a wreck or disaster lay with the solemn duty of his fellow seafarers to provide assistance. As was often the case, the isolation of the Florida Keys combined with an early lack of vessel traffic, often left little hope of discovery or rescue and nearly ensured shipwrecked mariners along the coast were doomed to their fates. The loss of life and of both raw and manufactured material on what was considered the edge of the modern world led to the development of an informal salvage network, first amongst local native inhabitants and subsequently followed by more formal attempts by the maritime empires sustaining the losses and members of their colonial communities.
While not initially meant to serve as a means to reduce the risk of navigating near the reef, the abundance and constant presence of opportunistic Bahamian wreckers found cruising the Florida Reef soon became so ubiquitous that wrecked mariners began to depend upon their presence for their salvation and agonizingly prayed for their speedy arrival in the event of disaster. Their exploits, both negative and positive, were often recounted as the only means of survival in an otherwise perilous situation. The reputations of the wreckers and the informal salvage network they created developed the preliminary foundations of a cognitive landscape in which help in the event of a disaster was available and, as such, was considered when discussing the risk of operating in the Florida Keys.
While this activity aided in establishing a foundation of a cognitive landscape of risk in the Florida Keys, it was not until the annexation of the state by the United States that this development begin in earnest. Spurred by economic development and drastic increases in shipping traffic and prevalence of illegal activity throughout the region led to the establishment of a port of entry at Key West in 1828 and the development of a salvage system unique to the area and heavily influenced by the area’s physical landscape. The subsequent survey, documentation, and establishment of an aid to navigation system in the area by the United States Coast Survey provided some of the first detailed maps of the area and reflected attempts to modify and utilize the area’s unique physical landscape.
These systems were in a state of constant development throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries during which time more than 640 vessels came to grief upon the Florida Reefs, the peak of which was observed during the 1850s when vessels piled up on the coasts at a rate of one per week (Viele 2001, xiv). After the turn of the century, advances in shipboard technology, the introduction and utilization of steam, and the continual advancement of survey operations greatly reduced the number of vessels wrecking along the reef. The settlement and development of large portions of the Florida Keys brought unprecedented amounts of people and goods into the area, reducing the need for the salvage of mundane goods now more easily obtainable through other means on shore. As such, the focus on maritime salvage narrowed to include only valuable, desirable, or illicit goods.
This preferential treatment is particularly meaningful as it represents one of the first major shifts how local mariners perceived and reacted risk in the maritime domain. Focus moved from the systematic salvage of all vessels in peril along the Florida Reef to only those that the salvage of which stood to provide a considerable financial gain. As commercial vessel traffic decreased throughout the area, systematic salvage opportunities likewise diminished as the Admiralty Courts at Key West closed in 1911. While the wrecking courts had closed, wrecks and vessel mishaps continued to occur, though to a lesser extent than before. Lacking the valuable cargoes of their predecessors, many of the utilitarian vessels coming to grief in the area including barges, commercial fishing vessels, and recreational craft, most often lacked the economic incentive for individuals to salvage their remains.
Despite this perceived lack of interest, advancing technologies soon offered new opportunities to exploit shipwrecks along the Florida Reef for financial gain. Coinciding with the advent of recreational SCUBA gear following the Second World War, the concept of salvage in the Florida Keys would be resurrected and reinvented, this time focusing on the recovery of the valuable cargoes of historic shipwrecks. Considered long lost to the ravages of the deep the concept of maritime salvage, both legally and cognitively, was molded to include the recovery of historic cargoes. Early successes in these ventures throughout the 1950s and 1960s energized the populace. While tantalizing fictional tales of treasures hidden amongst the isolated islands and “lost” amongst the dangerous coral reefs throughout the Florida Keys were prevalent throughout popular culture throughout the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the romanticized descriptions of finding lost treasures of centuries past aided in creating a treasure hunting culture that captured the imagination of millions. Fueled by the increasing number of major finds located throughout the Florida Keys, the treasure hunting culture developed an insatiable lust for the gold, silver, and jewels once thought forever lost to the abyss now once again within reach.
Unfortunately, the methods utilized by those seeking to salvage historic shipwrecks for the sole purpose of capitalizing upon the economic value of their former cargoes were particularly detrimental to both the historic fabric of shipwrecks themselves and to the natural environment around them, both of which were increasingly considered sensitive resources worthy of protection. Meanwhile, development of the Florida Keys region was progressing at an alarming rate. Following the physical connection of all but the northernmost Florida Keys to the mainland, first by Flagler’s railroad in 1912 and later by the completion of a series of roads in the 1920s, the settlement and development of the once desolate island chain progressed at a fever pitch. The construction of new homes, marinas, roads, resorts, and other “improvements” led to a radical transformation of the physical landscape making many of islands readily distinguishable from the sea and grossly altering the area’s viewscape. Following the successful development of the areas along the Miami River and Miami Beach throughout the twentieth century, developers sought to expand construction into the keys, rapidly buying land and making preliminary improvements to islands that had previously escaped development. Land was so scarce, that developers even planned to create artificial islands and build structures and roads directly onto the substrate.
The imminent rapid development of the area, combined with the systematic destruction of the area’s submerged cultural resources in the insatiable search for lost treasures threatened total destruction of the area’s unique natural environment and once extensive collection of finite cultural resources. This realization coincided with the development and advancement of a period of political, environmental, and social awareness known as the conservation movement. While the initial focus of this movement centered upon the preservation of natural resources, given their similar goals of preserving resources for the betterment and enjoyment of this and future generations, efforts eventually included cultural resources. New pieces of legislation introduced during peaks within this movement throughout the latter half of the twentieth century supported the protection of both cultural and natural resources and revolutionized resource management practices throughout the United States. Renewed public interest in the preservation of resources led to a pronounced development of county and state parks, as well as the National Park System, and the National Marine Sanctuary System, which eventually extended new protections to the vast majority of the cultural and natural resources of the Florida Reef.
The success of the conservation movement, the creation of new legislation specifically protecting archeological sites, and the subsequent establishment of protected marine zones throughout the Florida Keys significantly curbed development of the area in the attempt to ensure its preservation and protection for future generations. While instituted in good faith, each proposed change was met with considerable resistance from those seeking to develop the area in order to capitalize on the regions natural and cultural resources. Of these new protections, the most important for the purposes of this study included the end of commercial salvage of historic shipwrecks and the development, application, and enforcement of legislation designed protect submerged cultural heritage for posterity signaled the beginning of the end of commercial treasure hunting in the Florida Keys and yet another shift in both the perceived role of maritime risk in salvage and the cultural versus monetary value of submerged cultural heritage within society. This discourse represents current management issues throughout the region as the integrity of finite archeological resources, while legally protected throughout the vast majority of the study area, are continually under threat due to a persistent cultural attraction of maritime salvage in the area.
Recent Research Efforts and Alternative Approaches
Given the breadth of human activity occurring in the area associated with the discovery, exploration, and utilization of the Florida Straits and its importance on the local, regional, and global scales, the area holds significant potential for future study. Unfortunately, many attempts to study archeological remains in the area have focused solely on individual wreck sites suffering recent damage from a variety of natural and human factors (Lawson and Marano 2012; Marano and Bright 2014a; Wilson 2015; Lawson and Lubkemann 2016) or are simply site specific documentation surveys (Smith et al. 2006a, 2006b; McClarnon 2007; Price et al. 2009; Shefi et al. 2009). Attempts to examine multiple sites in the area have culminated in a series of regional inventories, but have not yet ventured to tie any unifying thematic elements that expand our knowledge of local cultural elements (Fischer 1975; Wild and Brewer 1985; Murphy 1993; Hallas n.d.). As such, this study will utilize theoretical approaches that have been successfully employed to identify, delineate, and interpret maritime cultural landscapes in Australia. Specifically, this study will analyze the role of risk and frontier in the development of a maritime cultural landscape framed by the maritime salvage industry.
To most, risk is simply identified as the potential for a negative or undesirable outcome that is usually synonymous with the terms hazard or danger (Fox 1999, 1). For the purposes of this study, however, a better definition of risk may be the “systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernity [modern society] itself” (Beck 1992, 21). Beck’s definition provides a more insightful definition of the term in that it explains the actual purpose of risk in society whereas the concept of risk may be most familiar only as a factor in personal decision-making. As such, it can be much more influential in larger systems throughout society, the remnants of which may be present as tangible components of cultural landscapes (Marano 2012, 34). It has been argued that, while not the only factor involved, risk and the responses to it play a major role in defining the use of cultural seascapes (Duncan 2004, 11). For the purposes of this study it is argued that risk, and more specifically the mitigation of risk in the marine environment, could be considered a near universal trait observable throughout human existence. In order to objectively identify and measure what could otherwise be described as a feeling or an emotion, a non-traditional research strategy is required (Marano 2012, 173). Several studies conducted in Australia have developed methodologies to examine the behavioral responses to risk in the development of regional maritime cultural landscapes (Duncan 2000, 2004; Kimura 2006; Duncan and Gibbs 2015). The methods utilized in these studies have only very recently been modified and applied to similar datasets in both the United States and South Africa (Marano 2012; Borrelli 2015).
If the concept of risk in the maritime environment is to be considered a universal and unifying cultural theme within maritime societies, one may question how to systematically and scientifically approach such a cognitive subject and what could be gained from its study. While the concept of risk may be present in most societies, local and regional variations in how society perceive and manage risk provides vital insight into social structures, values, and the development and modification of both cognitive and physical landscapes within local communities. As such, the study of the identification, mitigation, and management of risk within maritime communities holds considerable potential for future study. Through the utilization of broad generalist and multidisciplinary approaches, such studies could be utilized effectively identify and document maritime cultural landscapes throughout the world. This approach has been successfully utilized to identify a variety of cultural landscapes formed as a direct result of human attempts to mitigate risk within the marine environment.
The physical landscape of the Florida Keys and its associated reef tract has forced a series of unique adaptations to manage the risk of utilizing the area. Human adaptation to both the physical and cognitive landscape of the area is present throughout the historic period, though it is often only made readily apparent when studied thematically. It is argued here that the unique physical landscape present in the Florida Keys and the subsequent human adaptation to that environment has facilitated the development of a unique cognitive landscape in regards to the mitigation of risk utilizing the area. It is argued here that the development of maritime salvage throughout the Florida Keys represents a physical manifestation of risk mitigation strategies that, due to the local geophysical and environmental conditions present, developed a unique component of the area’s maritime cultural landscape. Specifically, it is argued that the thematic study of the development of marine salvage throughout the Florida Keys provides invaluable insight into the perception and management of risk in the development of an isolated island community.
It has been argued that for as long as vessels have plied the world’s waterways, there has been the risk of wreck or disaster, the occurrence of which should be seen as a mere eventuality. The saving of and property from said disaster, the concept of maritime salvage, is therefore potentially as old as the first vessels to venture from the relative safety of their moorings (Muckelroy 1978, 10). Salvage has been defined as the “rendering of assistance to vessels and their cargo in distress at sea, whether afloat, shipwrecked or sunken,” the legalities and particulars of which are defined through a series of laws as old as seafaring itself (Delgado 1997, 353-354). In his seminal work on subject, the late Keith Muckelroy describes the role historic salvage operations played in the maritime archeological site formation processes. Muckelroy specifically identifies historic salvage operations as both an extracting filter and scrambling device as well as a means to introduce additional contemporary historic material to an archeological site (Muckelroy 1978, 57; 159; 166).
While Muckelroy’s work is often considered to be one of the first attempts to develop and apply middle range theory, it has been critiqued that while he did acknowledge both natural and cultural factors in the formation of submerged archeological sites, his research primarily focused on the environmental processes associated with the site formation process (Gibbs
2006, 4). Recent studies have sought to identify cultural and behavioral elements contributing to both the wrecking of vessels (Duncan 2000, 2004; Kimura 2006; Marano 2012; Borrelli 2015), vessel reuse and abandonment (Richard 2008), as well as their effects on salvage and subsequent archeological site formation processes (Gibbs 2006; Duncan and Gibbs 2015). Variations in cultural values, perceived risk(s), societal structures, and the physical characteristics of the landscape can result in significant variations in the human response to disaster that are often specific to a particular locale. The study of the development of maritime salvage in the Florida Keys is particularly interesting due to its fluid nature over time. The development of maritime salvage throughout the Florida Keys was dynamic and varied considerably throughout history. This variation reflected changes in the perception of risk as well as the variations in both the economic and cultural value of shipwrecks over time. These changes are particularly apparent in efforts to mitigate that risk over time, tangible evidence of which is often preserved in the archeological record. While the study of the development of maritime salvage along the Florida Keys may shed light on how coastal communities throughout the isolated island chain attempted to mitigate the risk of navigating in the area, it does not necessarily explain why the unique system specifically developed and utilized in the Florida Keys. Though human utilization and adaptation to the unique physical environment combined with simple economic incentive influenced the development of maritime salvage in the Florida Keys, additional cultural motivators that influence local practices should not be discounted.
While the study of the development of maritime salvage in the Florida Keys may provide insight into how the local community worked to mitigate risk during maritime activities and mishaps, it does not necessarily answer why such efforts were expended. While the obvious underlying theme, particularly in its early stages, is economic in nature, it could also be argued that the extreme isolation, danger, and ruggedness of the area forced those utilizing it to develop a survival mentality similar to that developed and romanticized on the plains frontier of the American west. The concept known as the “Frontier Thesis” was presented in a paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” by historian Frederic Jackson Turner at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. In his paper, Turner argues that the settlement of the American frontier was formative to the development of American ideals and were particularly influential in the development of the country’s political, social, and cultural ideals. Turner specifically argues that the availability of free land and the process of developing the frontier created a unique set of cultural ideals that was the base for American democracy and that the American west represented the “meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Turner 1920, 6).
While many of Turner’s ideas have been justly criticized as being overly nationalistic and discounting of the roles women, minorities, and native populations in the development of the American west (Pierson 1942; Limerick 1987) researchers have also applied the Turnerianmodel in the identification of comparative frontiers across the globe (Mikesell 1960). It is argued here that the core of his frontier theory, particularly the idea that the development of the frontier was formative to the development of unique cultural ideals is just as applicable to the study of the maritime frontier as the vast expanses of the Great Plains. For those navigating in the vicinity of dangerous, isolated, and poorly documented shorelines, the idea of a maritime frontier aptly describe the dangerous and often lawless environments where help and hope in the event of disaster are just out of reach. As such, it is argued here that while Turner’s theories as a whole, are limited by the social and political climate from which they were developed, the underlying cultural theme attributed to the frontier as discussed by Turner can be identified as a cultural motivator in the development of a unique maritime cultural landscape in Florida Keys. While the identification and mitigation of risk, the development of maritime salvage, and the perception of value of submerged cultural heritage vary as the focus, nature, and extent of salvage changes
over time, the identification of underlying unifying cultural motivators help explain regional variations and evolution of salvage activity throughout history.
One of the primary goals of maritime archaeology is to identify convincing linkages between the physical association represented by shipwrecks and the social institutions that helped create them (Gould 2011, 24). This task, however, is often made difficult by the differing historical and archaeological practices utilized to identify, document, and interpret underwater and terrestrial cultural sites in coastal areas. Bass (1966, 15) argued that “archeology underwater, of course, should be called simply archeology” meaning that the theoretical approaches and overall goal to examine human culture through their tangible material remains are the same above and below the surface of the water. While this may be true, many of the differences in approaching archeology underwater, including the difficulty in accessing underwater sites, differences in nomenclature and terminology, and the theoretical foundations of the field, often prevent the effective application of traditional archeological approaches in the marine environment. As such, the development of maritime cultural landscape theory has evolved from the perceived differences in the systematic cultural study of human activity where land and sea meet. While Westerdahl’s initial ideas developed the theoretical basis for the identification and study of maritime cultural landscapes, their effective application to resource management have remained elusive. Originally utilized to describe cultural resources located somewhere between the terrestrial and underwater environments, the particulars of maritime cultural landscape theory can be as ambiguous as the areas it seeks to define.
It is argued here that many of the difficulties in identifying and defining maritime cultural landscapes stem from the broad interpretation of their individual components and the focus on geophysical rather than cultural components of the landscape. This study will utilize the National Park Service’s Revised Thematic Framework to examine the role of salvage in the development of a unique maritime cultural landscape throughout the Florida Keys. As such, this study will attempt to analyze and explain the development of what could be called a “maritime salvage landscape” through the application of socio-cultural theories to highlight cultural motivators contributing to this landscape. While the development of maritime salvage throughout the Florida Keys represents only one of a number of factors contributing to the area’s overall cultural landscape, studying the establishment and subsequent evolution of wrecking and salvage practices thematically can shed light on patterns significantly contributing to both the area’s physical and cultural landscapes. Establishing this connection not only helps resource managers locate, identify, and interpret thematically related cultural sites, but by understanding cultural factors contributing to their perception and use over time, the application of these theoretical paradigms can help explain contemporary perceptions of similar resources.
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