in the Winter 2004, Vol. 20, No. 4, issue of South Carolina Historical
Society’s Magazine quarterly Carologue
To mention a 250 year old grave in Charleston, South Carolina in the same breath with one of America’s most popular skin diving, snorkeling, fishing, and boating spots seems incongruous, to say the least. Yet, the remains lying six feet deep in plot W-0775 of historical St. Philips Episcopal Church’s west cemetery have everything to do with the enticing remains lying in the depths of Florida’s Looe Key. Like so many stories of derring-do of the Colonial era, this one of how the Florida key got its name was set in motion by the cutting off of an ear.
In April, 1731, Juan de Leon Fandino, a captain in the Spanish coast guard, boarded suspected smuggling ship Rebecca and cut off the ear of her captain, Robert Jenkins. Eight and a half years later, in October 1739, display of the ear in the British Parliament prompted Great Britain to declare against Spain the war that is popularly known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
However, war between England and Spain had been being waged undeclared for years along the southeast coast of North America. The Spanish, who had been in St. Augustine since 1565, resented the arrival a hundred years later of English settlers at Charles Town. They viewed presence of these newcomers as an infringement on territory they considered to be rightfully theirs and set out to frighten them away. Their frequent forays emanating from Castillo de San Marcos kept the infant colony in a constant state of alarm. The colony could do little more than erect a fort near its southern border, man scout boats and canoes to monitor Spanish intentions, and send two feeble expeditions against St. Augustine, one in 1702 and one in 1726.
James Oglethorpe’s arrival in 1733 along with boatload after boatload of Georgia settlers intensified Spanish resolve to drive out the intruders. To protect his fledgling colony, he built a string of forts along the coast, one as far south as the mouth of the St. Johns River. After the War of Jenkins’ Ear was declared in 1739, matters between St. Augustine and the lower colonies really heated up. In 1740 Oglethorpe cajoled South Carolina into joining with Georgia forces in an expedition against St. Augustine. He intended to rid the lower colonies of their tormenters once and for all. The expedition failed, resulting in the opposite of the desired effect. The Spanish, stirred up like a kicked hornet’s nest, immediately increased hostile activities against their unwelcome neighbors, especially on the high seas.
To counter Spanish row galleys, which were coming into South Carolina inlets and shallows to waylay provincial vessels and to abet desertion of slaves, the South Carolina House of Assembly ordered the building of two half-galleys. Both half-galleys, the Charles Town and the Beaufort, were part of the rag-tag flotilla from South Carolina that arrived too late to be of help when the Spanish invaded St. Simons in the summer of 1742.
The St. Simons invasion and testimony of swapped prisoners that the Spanish were building several large galleys at Havana prompted the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly to “consider the properest Measures for putting this Province in a proper Posture of Defence.” In addition to the House coming up with a list of ten measures, most to do with shoring up existing defenses, South Carolina’s governor petitioned the Lords of the Plantations in London to send a large warship. The secretary of the British Admiralty signed an order June 14, 1743 directing the HMS Loo, a 44 gun frigate commanded by Captain Ashby Utting, to prepare for a voyage to North America.
Detailed orders Utting received July 12th directed that he was to deliver Governor George Clinton and his family to New York then proceed to South Carolina and take command of his Majesty’s ships Rye, 24 guns, Flamborough, 24 guns, and Spy, 8 guns and 12 swivel guns. The three men-of-war were already on the Carolina station.
He received additional orders two days later:
In addition to our instructions to you dated the 12th instant, you are hereby required and directed, when the Season of the Year is not proper for your cruising on the coasts of South Carolina, and that neither the said Colony, nor that of Georgia is under any apprehension of being molested by the Enemy from Havanna or Augustin, to proceed with His Maj’s ship under your Command and Cruize between Cape Florida and the North West part of the Grand Bahama, ‘til such time as the Season will permit your return to Carolina, taking care to have a sufficient quantity of provisions on board to last you on that service.
You are diligently to look out for the Enemy’s ships passing through the Gulph of Florida for Europe, and use your utmost endeavors, to take, sink, burn or destroy them.
But before you proceed on this Service, you are to communicate your design to the Governor of Carolina, and not to go thereupon, if you find any reasonable objections thereto.
This would not be Utting’s first tour of duty on the Carolina station. He served as a lieutenant aboard the 10 gun HMS Happy part of the time she was in the area on a surveying mission from November 29, 1728 to May 12, 1735. And he was a lieutenant under the command of Captain George Anson on the 20 gun HMS Squirrel, which served on the Carolina station from June 18, 1732 to May 17, 1735.
The Loo sailed in early August and disembarked Governor Clinton and his family in New York September 22nd. She sailed southward for Charles Town October 6th. That same day, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly—
Resolved that this House will make Provisions for defraying the necessary Expences of assisting the Loo Man of War in getting into Port Royal Harbor.
Resolved that his Honour the Lieutenant Governour be desired to order the Galleys and Scout Boats to attend his Majesty's said Ship Loo on her Arrival for that Service. . . .
In Answer to your Message of the 5th of October, we beg you Leave to acquaint you that, as this House are exceeding desirous to give all necessary Assistance to the 40 Gun Ship which his Majesty has been graciously pleased to order to be stationed at Port Royal for the defence of the province, we have resolved to make sufficient Provision for the necessary Charges that may attend the same. And we humbly beg Leave to recommend to your Honour that Captain William Lyford , who is esteemed the best pilot for the Harbor of Port Royal , and who is employed by the Public, may be ordered to attend that service, with the Galleys and Scout Boats.
The galleys ordered to Charles Town to attend the Loo were the two provincial half-galleys completed in 1742, the Charles Town and the Beaufort.
Captain William Lyford, Senior, who was ordered to pilot the Loo, was one of the old sea dogs who lent truth to the first half of the aphorism, “In the olden days, they had wooden ships and iron men, today we have wooden men and iron ships.” His son, William Junior, was as much a sea dog as his father. A commercial mariner from Jamaica, Lyford Senior had met and married the daughter of William Spatches, a well-to-do ship owner who at one time was president of the Bahamas, and had settled on New Providence Island. Captured by Spanish privateers in 1726 and taken into Havana, Lyford escaped and made his way back to the Bahamas in a dugout. After his wife’s death in 1728, the Governor’s Council ran him out of the Bahamas for reneging on a large debt. Moving with his two small children to Beaufort, South Carolina, he became pilot for Port Royal harbor and later commanded Fort Frederick, South Carolina’s southernmost outpost protecting the young colony against Spanish invasions and Indian uprisings. At the time of the Loo’s arrival he served as commander of South Carolina’s provincial navy, which consisted of the two new galleys and two scout boats. Additionally, he commanded the half-galley Charles Town and was aboard her in the flotilla that went to General Oglethorpe’s aid in 1742. He had a face to face confrontation with the General when his vessel was delayed in returning home after the danger had passed.
It is surprising that Lyford was chosen to serve as the Loo’s pilot. He had hanging over his head the charge of trading with the enemy while at St. Augustine on a prisoner swapping mission. Based on the damning testimony of some of his crewmen that “. . . on their return trip to Charles Town the said Galley touched again at Port Royal and that the deponent together with Edward Hilton carried on shore to Captain Lyford 's house in Beaufort Town a chest in which he had seen a great quantity of silver and that the said chest was as heavy as they could manage. . . .,” he was ordered sent to England to be tried for high treason.
In the meantime, misspelling Utting’s name, the South Carolina Gazette reported:
C H A R L E S - T O W N, October 17,
On Monday last arrived off our Bar his Majesty's Ship the Loo , of 40 Guns, commanded by Capt. Hutting, having landed his Excellency George Clinton , Esq. at his Government in New York , where, we are assured, that the Gentleman was received with all possible Demonstrations of Joy. . . .
Two days later Lieutenant Governor William Bull sent instructions to John MacKay, who had replaced Lyford as commander of the Charles Town, and David Cutler Braddock, commander of the Beaufort, who was Lyford’s son-in-law. The instructions read:
Whereas his Majesty has been genuinely pleased for the protection of this Province to send the Loo man of War of 40 Guns Captain Ashby Utting Commander to be stationed in Port Royal .
You are therefore to be in readiness with the Galleys under your command together with all the hands belonging to them to attend the said Ship and receive your orders accordingly from Capt. Utting.
The South Carolina Gazette’s October 24th issue reported the Loo, accompanied by the Spy man-of-war and the two galleys, had sailed for Beaufort/Port Royal. The November 14th issue reported their arrival at their destination.
Utting apparently developed a sincere appreciation of the deft manner in which Captain Lyford piloted the large frigate across the treacherous Charles Town bar, down along the coast, through turbulent Port Royal Sound, and up the shallows strewn Beaufort River. He wrote the following to Lieutenant Governor William Bull:
Sir Loo Port Royal Harbour
Dec 10, 1743
Being informed by Mr. Lyford Pilot of his Majesty's Ship Loo, under my command, your Honour has granted a warrant for apprehending him, for trading with the Spaniards, I think it a duty incumbent on me, as it is for his Majesty's Service, to acquaint your Honour and His Majesty's Council, that he is actually Pilot of His Majesty's Ship Loo, and that there is no man in the Country that knows anything of the Bar or Harbour of Port Royal , and His Majesty's Ship Loo under my command is fit for Sea, and am well assured that there will be a 40 or 50 Gun ship from England for that place very soon, that cannot properly get in without some able Pilot, to carry her, & also to carry the Loo out, and to be continued at that Port, for want of which His Majesty's Service, and also the Service of this Province must greatly suffer, there being no other person in the Province capable of taking charge of any of His Majesty's Ships of that rate for that Port for which reason I, in duty to His Majesty's Service must beg your Honour & His Majesty's Council will be pleased to take it into consideration, and if his Crime is not so bad but if on his proper conceptions and his going bail for his future Conduct, your Honour & his Majesty's honourable Council will be pleased to release him, it being intirely for his Majesty's Service in this Province.
I am &c Ashby Utting
Utting’s letter placed Bull and the Governor’s Council in the dilemmatic position of choosing between adherence to the law and protection of the province:
His Honour the Lt. Govr . having asked the advice and opinion of the Board though it was the opinion of his Majesty's Council that a legal warrant having gone out, in due manner against the said Lyford for high Treason, the Law should take its course, But lest his Majesty's Service suffer, as represented by Capt. Utting , and as this was the first accusation of any being committed by the said Lyford , and as the general tension of his Life and Conversation in this Province hath been a good and faithful Subject to his Majesty, ought to be, and in particular in giving information, in the beginning of the year 1738, of a Spanish Squadron off St. Augustine , intended as it was supposed against this Province, or the colony of Georgia, it was the advice of his Majesty's Council to his Honour the Lt. Govr. to represent the case of the said Lyford to his Majesty's Secretary of State together with the said letter of Capt. Utting in order to obtain his Majesty's directions thereupon.
Apparently, protection won out, for nothing further was said on the matter in South Carolina colonial records.
When the Loo first arrived at Charles Town, Utting had directed the Rye to cruise the South Carolina coast, the Flamborough to cruise the coast of North Carolina, and the Spy to cruise with the Loo. However, as the Loo lay at anchor off Charleston bar after her arrival, a gale inflicted serious damage to her masts and rigging. Consequently, instead of leaving immediately on her planned cruise southward, she was laid up for over a month at Port Royal getting her damages repaired.
In mid-December, Utting ordered the Spy to pick up from the Flamborough 30 seamen who were among prisoners exchanged at Havana and were being impressed to serve on the Loo.
Her repairs completed, the Loo sailed out of Port Royal Sound into the Atlantic the middle of January. Utting ordered her course set southward. The HMS Flamborough, returning to South Carolina from a five week cruise along the Florida coast as far south as Cape Canaveral, reported seeing the Loo the last day of December at latitude 29:10, off present day Daytona. She reached the Florida Straits shortly afterward and began her assigned task of prowling for Spanish ships funneling their way through the relatively narrow passage between the Florida Keys and Cuba on their way to Spain.
At eight in the morning of February 4, 1744, while 8 leagues (about 24 miles) off the Cape of Florida, a sail was spotted. The Loo gave chase, and by noon she was in speaking distance of what had all appearances of being an English snow. However, two of the Loo’s crew, men who had been among the impressed sailors recently received from Havana in the prisoner exchange, recognized the ship. It was the bilander Betty, on which they had been captured almost a year earlier off South Carolina by a Spanish vessel and taken into Havana. The Spaniards had converted her into a snow. Because the vessel had only a simple receipt of sale to show as proof of ownership, Utting began arranging to put a crew aboard her and send her to Charles Town as a prize. His plans were changed, however, when he saw an Irish merchant aboard her heave a large packet overboard. Quickly recovering the packet, he found it contained French and Spanish papers. He then decided the Loo would escort her back to Charles Town.
By the time he had a crew aboard the prize and the two vessels were underway, it was six in the evening and they were off the coast of Cuba within sighting distance of the Pan of Matanzas, a flat-topped hill inland from Matanzas Bay. Mariners used it in taking their bearings when sailing up the Florida Straits. Utting set their course northeast by north. The course was maintained until midnight, then changed to northeast. A lead line was cast every half-hour to sound the depth. The one o’clock sounding read 50 fathoms. Suddenly, around one-fifteen, breakers surrounded the Loo. Utting was immediately awakened and informed. By the time he reached the deck, the Loo, in being turned alee away from the breakers, had become caught in stays. Just as the crew hoisted her main top sail to bring her on around, the Loo’s stern swung hard against the steep reef bank, breaking off her tiller. Her stern then paid out so far that her head sails swung across the wind causing her to slam broadside repeatedly against the reef, taking off her rudder. Now lying helpless against the reef, several heavy breakers pounded open her planks and immediately filled her with five feet of water in spite of all her pumps being manned. The prize snow, following directly behind, suffered the Loo’s fate.
Seeing the ships were beyond saving, Utting quickly set about the task of saving his men and himself. He ordered the crew to lower the ships’ boats and salvage all the bread and gunpowder they could before rising water got to them. They managed to save only 20 bags of bread and six barrels of gunpowder.
Utting ordered the masts of both ships cut away and all upper deck guns and anchors thrown overboard. This was done to settle movement of the two vessels to make easier removing all the men from them. All through the night as they worked, Utting assumed they had run onto the Double Headed Shot Cays, a line of high craggy reefs in the outer southwestern reaches of the Bahamas. He was greatly surprised when daylight revealed a narrow, sandy key in the chain of small islands Ponce de Leon had named the Martyrs in 1513, some 16 leagues northwest across the Gulf Stream.
By sunrise all the men were landed on the key except those employed in salvaging necessities of survival and cutting holes in the decks of the ships, which were now lying on their sides, to abet their sinking.
At 10 o’clock a small sloop was seen off in the distance. Utting armed several men and sent them out in two ship’s boats with orders to bring her in at all costs as she would be of help in extricating themselves by sea from their predicament. Having heard too many tales of the savagery of the numerous Caloosa Indians in the area, he was not about to attempt to lead his men to civilization up through the keys and mainland of Florida. The next morning, to the joy of all, the boats returned with the sloop. Her Spanish crew had deserted her upon sight of the boats.
Utting could get but few of the men to work at salvaging provisions and water. The rest, fearful of the Indians and wanting to be gone from that place, divided into rebellious and mutinous groups on the key, loudly proclaiming they were equal to everyone else and that everything was free. Utting deemed it best to ignore them and focus his attention on preparing for an early as possible departure. Finding the marines attached to the Loo extremely reliable, he had 25 of them and 25 seamen stand guard each night against the approach of Indians by canoe.
February 7th was spent in preparing their four escape vessels: a long boat, barge, yawl, and the Spanish sloop. Planks were added to the upper sides of the long boat to increase the number of men she could carry.
Around noon Wednesday the 8th, 274 men loaded into the four boats: 60 in the long boat, 20 in the barge, 10 in the yawl, 184 in the sloop. Utting sent all but the barge three to four miles offshore. He then spread some of the salvaged gunpowder in strategic places throughout the Loo, set it afire, and rowed out to the other boats. They watched her burn until sunset. Although flames engulfed all of her that lay above her waterline and several explosions had wracked what was left of her, Utting remained much concerned her guns and anchors would fall into the hands of the Spanish.
Satisfied he had done all he could he boarded the sloop. She was so crammed with men, above and below deck, that he was fearful the slightest wind would overset her. He instructed the other boats to follow the sloop and in case they got separated to make their way as best they could over to the Bahama Bank to New Providence. He carried a light on the sloop for them to follow, but they out-sailed the sloop and he lost sight of them in the darkness around midnight. By morning they were not to be seen. The breeze blowing fresh and the sloop being top heavy with men, sufficient sail to steer her on a desired course to New Providence could not be raised for fear of capsizing her. Utting had no choice but to let her ride the Gulf Stream northward.
On the night of the 13th, five days after departing what little remained of the Loo, the sloop, having experienced good weather all the way, limped into Port Royal.
After two days of much needed rest from their ordeal, Utting sent Lyford to nearby Beaufort to give a deposition before justice of the peace, Robert Thorpe:
Beaufort So. Carolina, to wit,
William Lyford, Pilot of his Majestie’s Ship Loo, Deposeth and maketh oath, that at the time of seizing the Snow Prize, the Mattancos [Mantanzas], (to the best of his judgment) bore South and by East, distance six Leagues, and that the Course steered by his Majestie’s Ship Loo was North East and by North, till twelve of the Clock, and then haul’d up North East, till such time as the Vessel was ashore. And this deponent further declares, (that to the best of his Judgment) the said course so steered was the best throh the Gulph (and is generally allowed to be) and was then of Opinion that such Course would carry the said Ship nearer the Bahama Shore than the Florida; And this Deponent sayth, that he cannot account for the said Ship being on the Florida shore, but from some very uncommon and unusual Current. And further this Deponent sayeth not.
The same day, February 15th, Utting wrote a lengthy letter informing the Admiralty in England of the Loo’s loss. In closing he wrote, “I have enclosed the deposition of Mr. Wm. Lyford, one of my pilots who has sailed the Gulph of Florida many years and beg their Lordships will be pleased to let someone enquire of General Oglethorpe for his corretor[character].” Oglethorpe was now in England, having departed Georgia for the last time the previous October.
The March 5, 1744 issue of the South Carolina Gazette reported:
Last Sunday night arrived here a Schooner from New Providence with the Officers and that part of the Crew lately belonging to his Majesty’s Ship Loo, which saved themselves in the said Ship’s Barge. They reached that Island with the greatest Difficulty and Fatigue, after a week’s passage from the Wreck; but the remainder of the Loo’s Crew that were in the Yawl were worse off, being obliged, after enduring the great Hardships from bad Weather and the want of Provisions to steer for Havanna; unless they reach which place, they must be totally lost.
The following week’s issue, reporting on the return of Captain Thomas Frankland on the HMS Rose from a cruise on which he took three prizes, the particulars of which the newspaper said it could not give account, added the following:
But one particular of his Cruize we cannot justly omit in this, is his having the good Fortune to meet with and take up His Majesty’s Ship Loo’s Yawl, with the men therein but 10 Leagues from Havanna, in a starving condition.
Loss of one of His Majesty’s ships automatically mandated a court-martial for her commander. Captain Ashby Utting arrived in England May 24, 1744, and his trial began the 31st. After hearing the testimonies and depositions of Utting and his officers, who almost to the man testified and disposed that the course steered when the Loo met her doom was the best course and that the loss was not through any neglect of duty, the Admiralty Court unanimously voted to acquit him. A letter from South Carolina’s Governor James Glen heaping praise on Utting and his character did not hurt Utting’s cause.
Utting desperately wanted command of another ship on the Carolina station. His wife still resided in Port Royal, and he feared for her safety. The Admiralty had other ideas. The South Carolina Gazette received a letter dated July 20, 1744 from a source in London stating that Utting had been placed in command of the man-of-war Gosport and his station would probably be Newfoundland. However, he and the Gosport were assigned to convoying merchant ships in the Baltic. In November he was given command of the 24-gun HMS Aldborough and returned to the Carolina station. The Aldborough arrived at Charles Town in late March. In company with her was the large French schooner Les Deux Amis she had captured along the way. In almost a repeat of his arrival on station with the Loo in 1743, Utting had to intercede for James Martin, a local who had been assigned as the Aldborough’s pilot. Martin had been charged with killing one of his slaves.
In addition to unsuccessfully pursuing enemy privateers off the coast and transporting visiting Cherokee Indian chiefs on a public relations tour of Fort Johnson, the Aldborough, with Utting in command, made two cruises down the coast. She departed on the first cruise June 1, 1745 and on the second December 1st. Captain Ashby Utting died aboard her January 7, 1746 while she lay at anchor at Rebellion Roads in Charles Town harbor shortly after returning from her second cruise. He was buried January 9th.
The earliest known existing
record of use of HMS Loo’s name to identify the key on
which it ran aground was a chart of the Florida Keys made by—of all
people—Lyford’s son-in-law, Captain David Cutler Braddock. Captain
Braddock commanded the South Carolina provincial galley Beaufort
from 1742-46 before relocating to the Savannah area and becoming a
successful privateer. He made the chart in 1756 while lying in wait for
treasure-laden Spanish ships threading through the Florida Straits. He
identified the key as “Key Loo” on the chart. On the reverse side of
the chart he listed watering places to be found in the Keys and the
meanings of each Key’s name. The several words following his comment
“Loo where one of our men of war” are obscured by a crease in the
Naturalist and explorer Bernard Romans also identified the key as “Key Loo” on a chart he made in 1774. It is highly likely that Romans got the name from Braddock’s 1756 chart. The two men were acquaintances in Savannah in the 1750s when Romans worked for John G. William DeBrahm, who was then Surveyor General of Georgia. In writing about Tampa Bay in his book, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, Romans says, “…Captain Braddock was generally acknowledged the first Englishman who explored this bay. I have seen his original draught which (considering the circumstances under which it was taken) was pretty exact.” Romans had seen Braddock’s Tampa Bay chart; it is likely he also saw his Keys chart.
Braddock’s Keys chart probably was not the first to use the man-of-war’s name to identify the key. Within two years of surviving the wreck William Lyford was making forays through the same waters in command of a Bahamas privateer. It’s a safe bet he marked well the spot on his charts. And he more than likely shared how he marked them with his son-in-law. And one could assume commanders of British men-of-war on stations in America marked their charts accordingly after learning of Utting’s misfortune, especially those who cruised southeastern waters.
At some point early in the history of the United States, spelling of the key’s name changed from “Loo” to “Looe.” When the HMS Loo was built early in the 18th century, she was named for a town in England along the coast of Cornwall. Although the town’s name in earlier times was alternately spelled “Loo” and “Looe,” every known record mentioning the frigate Captain Ashby Utting commanded used the “Loo” spelling—save one. The lone exception, an entry on a casualty list of Royal Navy ships, reads: “1744 Looe 44 guns, Capt. Ashby Utting, Lost in America.” A book published in 1823 by Charles Blacker Vignoles may have prompted the change in spelling. In Observations Upon The Floridas he wrote, “Beyond these is Newfound Harbor, due south from which, and four miles off is key Looe, a little sandy bar or island which takes its name from the British ship of war Looe having been lost there,” Vignoles, a British subject, may have gotten his spelling from the casualty list record.
Regardless of how and when the “e” became affixed to its name, Looe Key, with its 100 types of coral, 200 species of colorful tropical fish, and its primary attraction, the coral-encrusted remains of the Loo’s demise, has been on the top ten list for snorkeling adventures world-wide 15 consecutive years since being designated as a National Marine Sanctuary in 1981. Meanwhile, the remains of the hero of her demise, Captain Ashby Utting, whose determination and abilities as commander of a man-of-war got his crew home without a man lost, languishes in a grave marked only by an entry on a page of church records.