Part I: Boats of Florida’s History

Seminole family in a dugout canoe near Miami, Florida, ca. 1910. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By James A. Padgett

Florida’s identity is obviously connected to the water, whether seas, lakes, or streams. So it is no surprise that boating has an integral role in the culture of the Sunshine State, whose 1,350 mile coastline is the longest within the contiguous United States.

Today, thousands of Floridians and tourists alike fish, sight-see, and/or cruise through the state’s interior waterways, the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Straits, and the Atlantic Ocean. For many Floridians, boating means using recreational vessels such as jet skis, speed boats, yachts, and the occasional rental pontoon boat beached by an inexperience snowbird. For others it means taking a cruise from one of Florida’s ports, which are ranked among the nation’s busiest.

Florida has a very long history with recreational boating, but the state’s many waters are more than just a source of fun. They’ve also been an essential source of food and livelihood for many generations, going back centuries in history. And boats were the means to access the bounty of these waters. Here are some boats that have helped make Florida what it is today; a land characterized by mankind’s many relationships with this planet’s waters.

Florida’s First Boats: Canoes

Humans’ connections with Florida’s waters go back thousands of years. Some artifacts have been dated to show that humans first inhabited Florida between 13,000 and 20,000 years ago. Some surviving landmarks show that many of those inhabitants relied on the sea’s bounty to survive. Shell middens have been found and excavated throughout the state, ancient trash heaps included the remains of the oysters, snails, whelks, and other shellfish eaten by indigenous people. Numerous dugout canoes have also been found throughout Florida, sometimes more than 100 at one settlement site. These primitive crafts were the first proper boats to grace the peninsula’s waters.

Dugout canoes are exactly what their name suggests. They are made from dug-out tree trunks. Without the use of metal blades, Native Americans throughout pre-colonial Florida fashioned these canoes by first removing the bark, then burning out the heart and using stone tools to shape the wood. Most of these canoes were made of pine; the pines’ large amount of pitch aided in the burning, and the straight close-grain of pine wood ensured a more even shape for each canoe’s hull. Typical dugout canoes were about 15 feet long and no more than two feet wide.

Most if not all tribes used such canoes for fishing and transportation. Tribes such as the Timucua (originally in Northeast Florida, Jacksonville-area), the Tequesta (originally around Miami), and the Calusa (once inhabitants of Southwest Florida) utilized canoes extensively. Particularly for the Calusa, dugouts were components essential to their survival. With seafood being a staple of their diets, the Calusa used canoes to cast nets and to check their large earthwork fish-traps called weirs. They carried hundreds of pounds of goods on these canoes, poling or paddling the freight at a walking pace.


A dugout canoe in the Florida Everglades, ca. 1930s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

View of Seminole dugout canoes, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Canoes allowed the Calusa to move men and supplies over great distances more quickly than on the land, much of which was heavily wooded in the pre-colonial era. To take full advantage of their canoes’ capabilities, the Calusa widened creeks and dug canals, some of them measuring 30 feet wide and six to eight feet deep. They built such waterways across southwest Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and in the region’s interior to make trade and transportation across territory easier. Such developments made the Calusa a powerful tribe by the time Juan Ponce de Leon first contacted them in 1513.

Besides these smaller dugout canoes, the Calusa also built larger ocean-going canoes measuring 20 to 30 feet long and five to six feet wide.  These bigger canoes carried goods and people for trading and raiding to places far away, possibly even to Cuba, the Bahamas, and up and down the coasts of Florida. When Pedro Menendez de Aviles visited this tribe in 1566, Chief Calos (Carlos to the Spanish) rode to meet Menendez’s ship aboard a catamaran made from two canoes with a platform on top. Even without European contact, Florida tribes such as the Calusa were developing craft to better travel the seas.

From Caravels to Galleons: Ships in Florida during the Age of Discovery (Late 1400s-1700s)

European mariners, particularly the Portuguese and Spanish, had a jump start in seafaring technology. Preceded by single-masted sailboats such as balingers and hulks, caravels were developed in the 15th Century and improved European seafaring immensely. Small, highly-maneuverable boats, caravels were the preferred ships of explorers in the early parts of the Age of Discovery, and were used by many prominent mariners including Henry the Navigator and Bartalomeu Dias.

Measuring 40 to 60 feet in length and capable of carrying 50 to 60 tons, caravels were made of hardwood boards (like oak and elm) with carvel-built hulls, meaning the hull planks were fastened edge-to-edge to create a smooth surface that adds more support to the frame. These ships were shallow in keel, which made for easier travel through coastal waters and rivers, and they utilized lateen sails, triangular sets of sails that allowed sailors to sail windward (or where the wind is coming from) by “tacking” or “beating” their ships’ courses upwind.

A collage of various types of caravels from The Century Magazine in May 1892. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nascent exploration in mid-15th Century, combined with mariners’ guesswork of the Atlantic Ocean’s westerlies and trade winds, led to more ship-building ingenuity. Developed from single-masted cogs, three to four-masted ships called carracks were developed by the late 1400s. Carracks, also known as naus, were more fit for ocean-going voyages than caravels, averaging over 100 feet in length with capacities exceeding 100 tons. Their larger capacity enabled them to carry the provisions and cargo necessary for long expeditions. Initially, carracks boosted trade with Africa and began establishing spice trade routes through the Indian Ocean. They were later fitted with cannons for defense and utilized square-rigged sails in the front and lateen-rigged sails in the rear to optimize sea-faring capabilities.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus famously sailed west aboard a carrack, the Santa Maria, until he reached the Caribbean islands that he mistakenly believed were off the coast of Asia. The fact these islands are still collectively known as the West Indies is a relic of Columbus’s initial report that he’d reached the East Indies.

Although the Santa Maria was a carrack, the Nina and Pinta were caravels. Later, Juan Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida in 1513 was made possible by a carrack, a caravel, and a single-masted bergantina, respectively the Santa Maria de la Consolacion, the Santiago, and the San Cristobal. When the English and French joined the competition for land and trade in the Americas, European empires began clashing constantly throughout North America’s nautical frontiers.

A replica of the Santa Maria, ca. 1904. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

European mariners adapted to the piracy and intermittent warfare characteristic of the New World’s waters by developing galleons: the big, multi-decked, and heavily-armed sailing ships commonly depicted in Hollywood’s depictions of pirates. With tall masts made from pine and hulls made from oak and other hardwoods, galleons were longer, lower, and narrower than older ship designs. By lowering the forecastle (front deck) and elongating the hull, ship-builders redesigned the carrack into the faster, more maneuverable galleon. Though they were used by the Portuguese and Dutch strictly as warships, other empires such as Spain and England used the ships for both trade and warfare. Convoys were created of these armed ships to carry precious cargo and protect merchant ships from pirates and privateers in Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean waters.

Florida’s surrounding depths are littered in the wrecks of Spanish naus and galleons once part of the conveys or flotas that carried precious metals and gems across the Atlantic to treasuries in Spain from a far-flung empire ranging from Mexico to Peru. These fleets were headed by a flagship galleon called Capitana and ended by a rearmost galleon called an Almiranta. Between them, those ships typically carried the bulk of the king’s treasure. Supply ships called refuerzos and smaller boats called pataches completed these fleets.  Though flotas usually succeeded in repelling pirates, these convoys could not protect fleets from natural challenges like reefs, shoals, and adverse weather conditions, including hurricanes.

A diver examines the Capitana wreck site. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Because of weather delays and bureaucratic ineptitude, ships would sometimes sail during hurricane season and become victims of these storms. One such hurricane destroyed a Spanish convoy leaving Havana, Cuba, for Spain in July 1733. Out of the 22 vessels in this convoy, only one survived the storm and floated back to Havana to tell of the catastrophe. Though the Spanish returned to the wreck sites to save survivors and salvage cargo, divers today can still visit the ballast stones and other remnants of these long-lost ships. Now mostly integrated into the marine environment in protected sites off the Florida Keys, wrecks of galleons such as the San Pedro and San Felipe off Islamorada and Plantation Key are underwater reminders of Spain’s once expansive and lucrative empire.

From Brigantines to Schooners: Ships in Florida during the Age of Sail (Mid 1500s-Mid 1800s)

For a century or more after Spanish galleons carried New World treasures to Europe, square-rigged sailing vessels remained the dominant method of transportation for cargo and passengers across oceans and along coastlines. As Spain (1513), Great Britain (1763), Spain again (1783), and the United States (1820) took control of Florida, these powers relied on sail-powered ships to travel and settle the territory’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Brigantines, sloops, brigs, and schooners also helped connect Florida’s ports to locations around the globe.

Brigantines were initially the name for two-masted, lateen-rigged ships with oars in the 13th-Century Mediterranean, but by the 1600s, brigantines were identified as ships with square-rigged foremasts and main masts utilizing square topsails and gaff-rigged mainsails. The term “gaff-rigged” means that the mainsail is controlled at its top by a pole or “gaff,” which is fore-and-aft rigged so that the sail ran along with the length of the ship rather than perpendicular to it. A brigantine with two or more headsails (sails situated in front of the masts) is considered a “cutter,” due to the headsails increasing the ship’s speed and maneuverability.

Artist’s depiction of the brigantine, USS Niagra, during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before 1775, brigantines were the second most popular form of sailboat used in the British colonies. The most popular was the sloop, a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged sailboat. Because the British armed sloops with cannons in 1795, the term “sloop” became synonymous with warships in the Royal Navy, even though these “sloops-of-war” were really cutters or brigs. Such sloops helped protect British vessels from French privateers and acted as advice vessels that carried communications and performed reconnaissance on other fleets. Sloops also helped the British survey, attack, and lay siege to cities in 18th Century Spanish Florida, particularly St. Augustine in 1702 and 1733.

Though the term originally was a shorthand for brigantines, brigs developed into a separate kind of sailing ship in the 18th Century. While brigantines have gaff-rigged mainsails, brigs have two square-rigged masts with a gaff-rigged spanker (a fore-and-aft sail behind the mainsail). Between 75 to more than 165 feet in length with 480 tons of capacity, brigs were the standard cargo ship in North America by the early 19th Century, transporting goods to and from Florida’s early seaports such as Pensacola and Apalachicola.

Schooners were the most common sailing vessel used off Florida. In the 18th and 19th centuries, schooners were America’s archetypal small merchant sailing vessel. First used supposedly by the Dutch in the 17th Century, schooners were utilized extensively in the North American colonies. They were further developed into various types of pilot and fishing schooners in New England and Chesapeake Bay by the mid-1800s.

Though they can have many masts, most schooners have fore-and-aft sails on two masts, with the foremast being shorter than the main mast. They were popular in trades requiring windward ability, speed, and traveling through shallower coastal waters. The preferred coasting vessels of American mariners, their rigging required fewer sailors to handle the vessel and eased movement in and out of harbors and rivers. Schooners were handy, economical, and easily built from accessible materials. Sometimes used for slaving and blockade-running, they were the freighters, passenger buses, and errand boys of Florida’s coastal communities from the 1800s to the outbreak of WW II.

Schooners were among the first ships armed and intended for naval warfare by the United States/ They fired the first shots of the First Barbary War in 1801 and fought against the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. They were used in 1839 by a joint U.S. Army-Navy task force dubbed the “Mosquito Fleet,” which searched for Seminoles in the Everglades during the Second Seminole War. One U.S. Navy schooner, the USS Alligator (the third ship with this name), was an anti-slavery ship operating off the West African coast and was an anti-piracy ship operating off the Florida Keys by 1822, where its wreck sits today. It ran aground on a reef and was subsequently set on fire to avoid salvage by pirates in November 1822.

The USS Alligator. Courtesy of Florida Memory

One intact historic schooner in Florida, the Governor Stone, epitomizes the versatility with these vessels. Built in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1877 by Charles Anthorn Greiner, the Governor Stone is the last Gulf-built schooner, the only surviving example of the thousands of schooners that fished and traded in the Gulf of Mexico. Named after Mississippi Governor John Marshall Stone, this schooner first carried materials from its owner’s ship chandlery and sawmill to deep-water sailing ships anchored off shore. In 1880, the boat was sold and used by its new owners as a “buy boat” and transporter for harvested oysters.

The Governor Stone at St. Andrews Marina in Panama City, Florida. Courtesy of Flickr/JasonMitchell.

Amazingly, the Governor Stone survived a hurricane in 1906 that crashed the vessel 300 yards inland. It was later used as a “rum-runner” during Prohibition, carrying whiskey and liquor offloaded at sea into Mobile, Alabama, twice a month for $500 a run. Sinking in 1939, the schooner was raised and used as a dayboat for a hotel and then a sail training vessel for the Merchant Marine Academy. It was later sold to five different owners, going through four name changes before the last owner renamed it Governor Stone and restored the vessel in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the Governor Stone is docked at St. Andrews Marina in Panama City, Florida, where visitors can see and appreciate this remarkable boat.

Even decades after the Age of Sail, schooners and other sailing vessels were still used. Indeed, they were often still integral components of many coastal Floridians’ lives well into the 20th Century. However, the advent of the steam engine would began permanently changing travel by water. Though initially unreliable, steamships would supersede sailing vessels as the most dependable and economical means of transport and travel in both saltwater and freshwater. Steamships were not dependent on the vagaries of the unpredictable wind or subject to the need for a large crew of sailors to operate effectively. By the mid-19th Century, steamships were the dominant boats of Florida, a history that will be examined in Boats of Florida History: Part II.

Nonetheless, the multitude sailboats seen among Florida’s bays, inlets, and docks, along with the canoes used by both natives and tourists to sightsee the state’s waterways, can thank these antecedents for inspiring the continued use of these crafts for recreation. Whether it is the middle-aged business person in a sailing yacht gliding over the emerald waters of Florida’s coasts or the Seminole Indian still using dugout canoes to navigate the Everglades’ labyrinthian passages, these watercrafts remain key contributors to Florida’s maritime past, present, and future.

Coast traders in Key West, Florida, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Library of Congress.