|Birth: ||Dec. 11, 1809, Bahamas|
William Henry Bethel was born in the Bahamas, one of two sons of Catherine Thompson and William Bethel. His mother died when he was barely two years old and his brother died a few months later. When William was seven, his father married Mary Cleare from Harbour Island.
When he was 15, William left the Bahamas and sailed to the Florida Keys with his father. His father took an oath of citizenship in 1827, indicating that they intended to stay. He and his father were both mariners, working out of Key West and Indian Key. Within the next five years, William became a successful sea captain, and by 1832, when he married Caroline Matilda Mott, he had a large crew of workers who took care of his farming acreage and crewed his ships.
He continued working wrecks in the Florida Keys over the next 40 years. He first owned a small schooner, the Charlotte. He also captained the 51 foot schooner Single Sailor and owned the Mary. From 1836-1839, he owned and captained the Ludlow. In 1839, he took command of the Texas and captained her for sixteen years, the longest single command of any Captain before the Civil War. He gave up command of the Texas in 1856 and subsequently commanded and/or owned the Lavinia, the Manatee, and the Indian Hunter.
William Henry Bethel was one of the most successful wreckers of the era, as acknowledged by John Viele in The Florida Keys, Volume3: The Wreckers, 2001, Pineapple Press. Viele said that William Bethel was one of three pre-Civil War captains who stand out above all the other 368 captains whose names appear in wrecking court records, who spent more years as wreckers and salvaged more wrecks than any other captains.
For most of their married lives, the Bethels lived in the Keys eastward of Key West, such as Indian Key and Key Vaca. Due to Indian hostilities in the Keys and following particular incidents in 1836, 1837, 1840, and 1856, the settlers on those islands had to abandon their homes and flee to Key West. William's father and step mother remained on the outer keys during those years, probably never living in Key West. In 1850, the elder Bethels were living on Fish Not Key in Dade County.
In the mid 1850s, William's family was living in Key West but he was living alone on Indian Key, acting as agent for Charleston interests who claimed ownership of the Island. In 1856, he wrote the Charleston owners telling them that there was still danger from the Indians and asking that troops be sent, promising that if that happened, he would move his family back to Indian Key from Key West. The Charleston owners immediately wrote Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War in Washington, DC, telling him what William Bethel had said and asking for troops to protect Indian Key and the surrounding islands.
By 1860, trouble with the Indians had subsided and William had moved his family back to Indian Key, where he served as U. S. Customs Inspector and Postmaster. There were only two families on the Island at that time, the Bethel family and John Curry with his wife and three sons. The Bethel family included William, Caroline, four of their children, and Caroline's brother William Mott. There were less than a dozen families in all of Dade County in 1860. On nearby Key Vaca (Marathon), there were 6 families and a ship carpenter from New York. At Fort Dallas (Miami), there were 28 people, including Henry Cold, but only a few families. Years earlier, Henry Cold had married William Bethel's wife's sister Charlotte Mott.
By 1870, William and Caroline were still living on Indian Key with two of their sons, William Alexander and James Franklin. At that time, there were eight other families, 47 people, living on Indian Key. These were all families originally from the Bahamas, who were cultivating what soil they could on the surrounding islands, growing such things as bananas and pineapples, which they would ship south and north, as far as New York. At that time, William owned real estate valued at $2,500.
In 1885, Henry Perrine Jr. wrote of his 1876 visit to Indian Key: "We did not remain long as the captain (William Bethel) wanted me to go over to Lignum Vitae Key… to show me his watermelon patch and his pineapples." By 1880, William and Caroline were still living in the same area, but living alone as all of their children had married and left. William was the last postmaster of Indian Key. In 1881, he obtained the deed for land on Lignum Vitae Key. John Lee Williams wrote about Lignum Vitae Key in his 1839 edition of the Territory of Florida: "It contains more good land than any other island in this part of the group: part of it is under cultivation, the rest is covered with hard timber."
William Henry Bethel probably died and was buried there by 1888 when his son William Alexander sold the property. After William died, Caroline went to live with their daughter Mary Adora Bethel Fogarty in Bradenton, Manatee County, Florida. ©2010 by Claudia Naugle. All rights reserved. No part of this biography may be used without permission.
Caroline Matilda Mott Bethel (1811 - 1901)*
Charles Walter Bethel (1835 - 1901)*
Susan Eliza Bethel Watson (1838 - 1865)*
Mary Adora Bethel Fogarty (1843 - 1929)*
James Franklin Bethel (1849 - 1939)*
Created by: Claudia L Naugle
Record added: Mar 26, 2010
Find A Grave Memorial# 50225068