The Bahamas and Bimini were populated by Lucayan Indians when the Spanish arrived. They soon enslaved them to work in the mines of Hispaniola, today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti, exterminating the population. Bimini was northwest of the route first taken by Columbus in 1492 but was likely visited by Ponce de León during his first expedition to Florida in 1513. While de Leon was given credit for discovering Florida in 1513 he did not, a number of earlier maps clearly show the Florida peninsula. He did however name it “La Florida.” Reports of him looking for the Fountain of Youth in Bimini are not supported by the historical record.
Pirates were very real in the Bahamas and in the early 1700s a large community of them took over Nassau from the British. They attacked ships of any nation, but the biggest prize was Spanish galleons using the Gulf Stream off Bimini to return to Spain, laden with treasure from the New World. Pirates no doubt used the shallow waters around Bimini to lie in wait for passing ships.
Wreckers made their living salvaging cargo from ships that sank on the reefs surrounding Bimini. The five founding families of Bimini were licensed wreckers in 1834. This date coincides with British emancipation of slaves in the Bahamas; their descendants make up most of today’s population. Early residents eventually became known as Conchs, making their living off the sea by fishing, sponging, and wrecking. For generations wrecking was one of the few profitable endeavors in The Bahamas but lighthouses soon made wrecks less common. Gun Cay Light was built in 1836 south of Bimini, and Great Isaac Lighthouse in 1859 on a little island twenty miles north of Bimini, which stands more than 150 feet tall, making it one of the tallest in The Bahamas.
The country struggled financially but during the American Civil War the south used the “neutral” British Bahamas to trade cotton for European guns and supplies, which were run past the Union blockade into southern ports. This provided some prosperity. Good times returned during American Prohibition (1920–1933) when liquor was legal in the Bahamas. Bimini and nearby Gun Cay and Cat Cay were waypoints where schooners laden with liquor would anchor, acting as open warehouses for the American rum-runners. The concrete shipwreck seen today south of Bimini, the Sapona, was used to store liquor but was wrecked by a hurricane in 1926 along with the original Bimini Bay Rod and Gun Club which included a large hotel and casino.
Chalk’s Flying Service began flying the Bimini route from Miami in 1919, and service continued until a tragic crash in 2005 killed a number of Bimini residents and doomed what was the world’s oldest airline of the time. Just a year later in 2006 the ‘Compleat’ Angler Hotel burned down, an iconic Bimini landmark that had hosted Ernest Hemingway as he fished for huge Blue Fin tuna that were once abundant.
Today’s Bimini is still host to fisherman and gamblers alike!
To learn more about history of Bimini and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book can be purchased online at this website. For all questions, please call us at 239-963-3497.
People ask how I do it with a busy career in Ocean Engineering and the answer is two fold. First is perseverance; I often write between 4 and 8 AM before interruptions start, it's when I do my best work. Second is help; Keys co-authors Brian Schmitt and archaeologist Bob Carr are world experts on the chapters they wrote, I couldn't have done it without them. Finally my experienced staff who turn my ideas into exhibits and my writing into pleasant narrative, it's not easy to make history fun for most people to read.
I also get asked why we do it, that answer varies. My first book Naples Waterfront – Changes in Time was inspired by older clients who built the waterfront communities near my home. They were dying out and over time came to trust me with their old stories, maps and photographs. One old fella had shared rare historical insight with me and the next time I saw him he asked "how's your book coming?" I was embarrassed with little progress to show but when he later died there was no longer a choice. Seven years later the book was published, yep, 7!
The Naples book was more successful than I could have imagined and a Bahamian friend asked if I could do one for his country. I'd worked there for many years and had read every history book I could get my hands on. We'd also made popular maps of the Bahamas, one hangs in U.S. Customs. Five years later A History of The Bahamas Through Maps was born, yep, 5.
The Keys book began when my friend Brian Schmitt half jokingly suggested my next should be on the Keys, he liked the Bahamas. I said sure, also in jest, knowing what a gargantuan task that would be. Brian and I both collect antique maps and his famous 1591 version of Florida is on the Naples book cover. His map collection is much better than mine, world class in fact. When he agreed to do the mapping chapter our jokes became reality and yet another book was born, but this time not without drama.
While we worked on the Keys I was asked to speak at the annual Miami Map Fair, the largest antique map show in the world. Since the Keys book was due out about the same time as the Fair I suggested we announce something featured in the book, that Ponce de Leon did not discover Florida in 1513 as is written. There are Ponce de Leon streets, monuments and school book references, so we were being bold to challenge Florida history. Our proof lies in the fact a half dozen maps pre-dating 1513 show the Florida peninsula. Some of these are featured in the Keys book so we needed it for back up at the Map Fair if I was to make the statement.
The drama to deliver the book on time started when our printer suddenly passed away over Christmas in Canada. His widow said they couldn't honor the deadline, the book wouldn't be done on schedule.
Soon I was in Toronto working with the widow to help get it done since hints of our revisionary history statement had already been released to the press. I visited the giant printing press and met the employees who were already working on the book, they were great. First lesson, if the factory is behind schedule, go there. The possibility of meeting the deadline emerged but there was another critical step.
Nashville has one of the few facilities in America that can produce a binding that allows a book to lay flat when opened. This was needed for our map overlays, a first for the Keys.
Suddenly I was in Nashville meeting the employees of the bindery. They had just started working on our piece, of course, refer to First lesson. Spending a few days there moved the process along since I could answer questions quickly, but the due date was fast approaching with an outcome still uncertain. Only after a second trip to Nashville a couple weeks later did I finally hold copies of the book in hand for the Miami press conference. The second trip took driving 2,000 miles in four days, a feat I hadn't done since my 20s. My reward was falling in love with Nashville's incredible music scene with one too many Titos & Tonics. My punishment was driving home the next day.
That's the story of how we made the Keys book, it arrived just in time for COVID-19 to shut down of the Map Fair. We still had the press conference which was attended by a single Miami Herald reporter and photographer. They did a really nice article, but our book launch didn’t get the momentum we hoped for due to a worldwide struggle with the pandemic.
The Keys History book is our best work yet and word is slowly getting out with good reviews. It will, however, likely be my last non-fiction since taking years to produce them sucks the life right out of you. I'm now working on a historical fiction now with wild stories to tell, we'll see how that goes.
You can find more information about the Keys book on this website.
First inhabited by Lucayan Indians, Spanish explorers came upon the island in the late 1400s and by the early 1500s had enslaved them to perish in the silver and gold mines of Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
In 1648 colonization of The Bahamas began on the north shore of Eleuthera where the “Eleutheran Adventurers” came from Bermuda with religious freedom as the driving force. They named the island “Eleutheria” after the Greek word for Freedom. The colonists survived on fish, turtle, conch and trade goods they collected from the sea including dye woods, ambergris from whales and items salvaged from wrecks along the coast. They soon spread out to start today’s settlements in Spanish Wells and Harbour Island.
The late 1700s saw an influx of British Loyalists who were fleeing the new United States of America after losing the Revolutionary War where they had remained loyal to King George. The Loyalists started plantations with the slaves they brought but failed to recreate the wealth they had in America and most eventually left, leaving their slaves behind. Eventually pineapples became the top crop of Eleuthera and by the mid-1800s exports to England and the United States soared. More than 200 sloops and schooners would sail every morning from Harbour Island to north Eleuthera where plantations of pineapples fed the international market. In 1872, 1.5 million pineapples were shipped from Harbour Island alone.
In the 1950s an auxiliary U.S. Air Force base and missile tracking station opened on Eleuthera, part of several such bases in the Bahamas. The 1960s and ‘70s were grand days with Hatchet Bay Farm producing milk and eggs while second homes were being built on Harbour Island, Windermere and in other areas. The Cotton Bay Club had a golf course, as did Cape Eleuthera, with movie stars and celebrities flown in to entertain. The French Leave Club (later renamed Club Med) and a large Italian resort attracted French and Italian tourists along with the English and a growing American crowd. Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am Airlines, expanded Rock Sound’s airport to accommodate jets from New York and Miami. Planes from England, France and Italy could also come directly into Eleuthera. Princess Diana and Prince Charles vacationed on Windermere with other royalty and celebrities, playboys and jet setters. Eleuthera was the place to be.
Unfortunately, things began to decline, and by the early 1970s many of clubs closed. By late ‘70s drug smuggling had become a problem because of the Bahamas close proximity to the U.S. Today smuggling in the Bahamas has largely subsided and Eleuthera is a safe place to be.
There are any small resorts and guest houses in Eleuthera to choose from, endless miles of white and pink beaches to walk upon, and plenty of kind natives to help you enjoy the endless activities on the island and around the sea.
To learn more about history of Eleuthera and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of Eleuthera can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.
Harbour Island is known as Briland by the residents who treasure the island as a place of peace and tranquility. The island is three miles long with a protected harbour to the west and a famous pink sand beach on its eastern side. The pink color comes from a calcareous foraminifera, a marine organism with a red shell which mixes with the white sand to form a pink hue after it dies.
Harbour Island occupies a strategic position in The Bahamas between the islands of Eleuthera and Abaco. This puts it at the eastern entrance of the New Providence Channel, a prominent shipping route from Europe to the Americas. This channel first attracted the ships of Spain on a course plotted north of Harbour Island, making it a convenient first stop in the New World.
Lucayan Indians were the first human inhabitants, initially canoeing up from South America a thousand years before the Spanish landed on San Salvador in 1492. Harbour Island was north of Columbus’ route, but it didn’t take long for Spanish slavers to decimate the population. Afterwards since there were no more slaves to capture and no gold, silver or gems to gather from the limestone of The Bahamas, the Spaniards lost interest and the island remained largely uninhabited for over 100 years.
“The Great Harbour of Harbour Island” lies to the west of the island, between it and Eleuthera. It was this harbour, with its easily defended approaches, that made it an ideal place to settle and indeed the island became inhabited early on in Bahamian history.
In 1648 religious refugees from Bermuda landed then subsequently shipwrecked not far away on mainland Eleuthera. While they established small settlements there, it wasn’t long until these early settlers found their way to Harbour Island. The early inhabitants had it rough, surviving on home farming plots for produce and fish, sea turtles and conch plus whatever the islands in the area could offer (like bird eggs). They gathered what they could to swap for household supplies with vessels that called on their small community (some 60 souls by 1700). Trade goods included woods used to make dyes and in ship building, ambergris (a secretion from whales found on the beach and valued for is scent), items salvaged from wrecks and seal oil harvested from colonies of native monk seals, who were quickly driven to extinction.
As the settlers struggled they also had to endure attacks by the Spanish, who would regularly sack Nassau and plunder Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Even French vessels would come through the area stealing goods and supplies, not to mention pirates.
By the early 1700s the residents were working farms on mainland Eleuthera, sailing to and from Harbour Island daily. In 1718 the colony had grown to 60 families and soon boat building was added to the economy. Many fine sloops and schooners were built there. Cargos were traded with American Colonies like Carolina and islands to the south such as Jamaica and Barbados. American goods and building supplies, along with island rum were exchanged for what the island could offer.
Pirates are not just of lore, they were indeed prevalent in the late 1600s and early 1700s. They preyed on ships in the Northeast Providence Channel, using shallow harbours in the area to avoid larger vessels. While the main base for pirates was Nassau, one of their outposts was on Harbour Island. The pirates were actually welcomed for some years by the government in Nassau to help protect Harbour Island from the Spanish. The pirates provided security and lived amongst the settlers sharing plunder that helped sustain the small population. Batteries at the north and south ends of the island were at times tended by them, protecting the harbour and dissuading would-be raiders.
King George of England offered a pardon to the pirates if they ceased their debaucherous ways prior to September of 1718. Successful pirate John Cockram was married into an old Harbour Island family and took the pardon. As an excellent navigator, he created a map of the island and “The Great Harbour of Harbour Island” while Woodes Rogers was Governor.
The island played a central role in recapturing Nassau from the Spanish in 1783. Colonel Andrew Deveaux, a British Loyalist living in St. Augustine after the American Revolution, sailed to Harbour Island on his way to retake Nassau from the Spanish. Over a hundred men and 50 small fishing boats from Harbour Island, Spanish Wells and Eleuthera joined the successful expedition, taking the Nassau garrison of over 600 Spanish soldiers with less than 300 men. For their efforts, Harbour Islanders and men from Spanish Wells were awarded 6,000 acres on north Eleuthera, lands which they had cultivated for years but now took as their own. The land was granted on behalf of the Crown by Lord Dunmore, who had a summer home on Harbour Island and for which “Dunmore Town” is named. During the period, a Reverend Moss described the island as “a tight and orderly community of sixty families, living mainly a maritime life, building their own ships, and growing subsistence crops and raking salt on the nearby mainland of Eleuthera.”
Loyalists integrated into the Harbour Island population, some of whom were from Abaco which was settled in 1783. Prior to that the coast of Abaco and wrecks on the reefs there were worked by Harbour Islanders. British Emancipation occurred in 1834 setting the slaves free, but many of the Loyalists had already left The Bahamas as their plantations had failed. A new crop later arose that sustained the colony for years, the pineapple, grown on Eleuthera and shipped in large quantities from Harbour Island.
The Civil War brought blockade running into America and the fine vessels built on Harbour Island no doubt played a role as they did with rum running during American Prohibition, but by the 1930s boat building on the island was in decline and eventually disappeared entirely.
Harbour Island today has transitioned into a tourism based economy, superimposed on the beautiful second homes of wealthy Bahamians, English, Americans and those from other countries. The island gained a celebrity status going back to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who visited the island regularly while the Duke served as governor of The Bahamas during the Second World War. Now it’s not uncommon to see movie stars, famous athletes, billionaires and super models riding around in golf carts. How times have changed.To learn more about history of Harbour Island and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of Harbour Island can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.
In 1492 Columbus made his first landfall in The Bahamas on the island he named San Salvador. That and the other islands he visited are 200 miles southeast of Abaco, shown on a Spanish map from 1500 as “Habacoa,” an Indian word.
The Spanish enslaved the Lucayan Indians in the early 1500s, and the rest likely died from disease. Many artifacts have been found on Abaco, both on land and underwater in blue holes that dot the landscape. The island was said to have had a large Indian population, numbering in the thousands.
After the Indians, the island remained unpopulated for over 150 years except for a short lived French settlement that “may” have been located on southern Abaco and a legendary Portuguese whaling station. Ruins located there were originally attributed to the French, but are now believed to be from the Loyalist period. During that time the Spanish plied the waters around Abaco salvaging ships that had sunk along the ragged ocean reefs and scavenging anything they could find or kill on shore (native monk seals were common and could render oil). In the mid-1600s sailing vessels from Eleuthera and Harbour Island worked the wrecks along the coast, but Abaco wasn’t settled by British Loyalists until after the American Revolutionary War.
The first European settlement on Abaco was a group of some 1,000 Loyalists from New York. “Loyalists” were families that remained faithful to King George III during the American Revolution, suffering the social consequences when England lost to the new Americans who were happy to run them out of their new nation. The settlement they began was named “Carleton” after Sir Guy Carleton, the British Commander in New York City before it was turned over to the Americans. They soon established “Marsh’s Harbour,” today the main town and only traffic light in Abaco.
Early settlers had it tough. Farming in The Bahamas is difficult on the rocky terrain with thin topsoil that is easily depleted of nutrients. It was not what they were accustomed to in America and eventually Carleton was abandoned as many of the early settlers turned to the sea for their livelihoods. This led many to settle the barrier islands on the north side of Abaco Sound where fishing, boat building and wreck salvaging became more important than farming.
The Sea of Abaco and the barrier reefs were full of fish, turtles, conch and crawfish (lobster), which provided the protein base for the settlers supplemented by vegetables grown in home gardens on the islands. However, there was little to export since cotton, tobacco and other crops failed on mainland Abaco as they did all over The Bahamas in the 1800s. British Emancipation occurred in 1834 which freed the Loyalist’s slaves, some of whom left to start their own settlements on Abaco. This didn’t help matters as the traditional plantation model slipped away.
Part of living off the sea meant “wrecking,” which meant salvaging cargo from vessels that wrecked on the reefs off the northern and eastern shores. Wrecks were profitable and there is a story about a preacher who set his congregation up with their backs to the sea so he’d be the first notice if a ship grounded on the reef beyond. Whether true or not, it illustrates the importance wrecking once had.
There are also nefarious stories of false lights being set at night to lure ships onto the reefs so they could “save” the crew and salvage the cargo. Shipwrecks were common and there were objections to the lighthouse that was eventually built in Hopetown by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service in 1864. It must have been frustrating to see all the precious cargo pass by your struggling town on ships offshore, why not lure a few onto the reef!
There was a brief period of prosperity in The Bahamas during the Civil War, but most of that occurred in Nassau as cotton and other goods from the American South were traded for European munitions and supplies needed to sustain the Confederacy. A few ship wrecks during that period occurred on the Abaco reef, including the Adirondack and San Jacinto, both Union ships whose remains can still be seen snorkeling today.
Sponging, pineapples and citrus were important industries in the 1800s and sisal (used for making rope and less dependent on good soil) was added to the mix, but life was still tough on Abaco. Boat building continued through the tough times and many fine ships were launched in Abaco built from hardwoods that could be found around the islands like lignum vitae, horseflesh, mahogany and Abaco pine. Many smaller Abaco skiffs were built to run about the sound and Abaco designs endure to this day.
The pine forests of Abaco are vast, growing over a large freshwater aquifer. In 1908 the logging town of Wilson City sprang up at the east end of Abaco Sound. The city had electricity, giving Abaco that modern wonder the same time as Nassau. In 1923 regular mail boat service from Nassau came to Abaco with the diesel powered Priscilla. Telegraph service to Hopetown was added and Abaco began to open up to the world after 140 years of remote isolation since the establishment of Carleton. Prohibition and rum running brought another boom to The Bahamas but again it was relegated mainly to Nassau and the Bahamian islands closest to Florida.
Crawfish exports to America began in the mid-1930s, local boats hauling them to Florida in live wells. Today commercial crawfish boats from Abaco can be seen as far away as the Cay Sal Bank off Cuba.
Several Abaco men went to serve in World War II while German submarines cruised the international shipping lanes north of Abaco. After the war, Bahamas Airways began seaplane service to Nassau using war vintage Catalinas along with Grumman Gooses. Abaco native Leonard Thompson played a big role in this, and seaplane service continued until the airport in Marsh Harbour went into service in the early 1960s. Thompson also played a major role in the development of Treasure Cay.
Little Harbour marks the eastern end of Abaco Sound and features the Johnston Art Foundry, a bronze casting studio founded by Randolph Johnston in the 1950s where many famous works have been created.
In 1958 Marcell Albury of Man-O-War started Albury Ferry Service which now connects many of the islands to the Abaco mainland for residents and tourists. Nothing is more relaxing than climbing aboard a comfortable ferry as you make your way to beautiful, historic communities like Hope Town on Elbow Cay and New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay.To learn more about history of Abaco and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of Abaco Island can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.