Appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange Quarterly

THE NAMING OF A KEY
J. G. Braddock Sr.

Many descendants of David Cutler Braddock are aware that the southern tip of resort island Hilton Head in South Carolina, where the provincial galley Beaufort he commanded was stationed, is named Braddock Point in his honor. Some may also be aware that the western tip of the resort island of New Providence in the Bahamas is named for David’s brother-in-law William Lyford Jr., who received the land as a grant for his services as a loyalist in the American Revolution. However, few are aware that David’s father-in-law, William Lyford Sr., played a part in naming one of world’s most popular skin diving, snorkeling, fishing, and boating spots, Looe Key in the Florida Keys .

Abundant historical records leave no doubt that William Sr. 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.” A commercial mariner from Jamaica , he met and married Elizabeth Spatches of Nassau , Bahamas . Settling in Nassau , he operated a maritime shipping business, delivering goods to ports in the Caribbean , the colonies, and as far away as Europe . After Spanish privateers captured his ship and took it into Havana in 1728, he escaped and made his way in a dugout across 300 miles of open sea back to the Bahamas. Upon his wife’s death he moved with his two small children to Beaufort , South Carolina , from where he operated his maritime shipping business. In quick succession, he was appointed pilot for Port Royal harbor, then commander of Fort Frederick, South Carolina’s southernmost outpost protecting the young colony against Spanish invasions and Indian uprisings, then as commander of South Carolina’s provincial navy because of his reputation as a mariner. This newly established navy consisted of two half-galleys and two scout boats. Additionally, he commanded one of the half-galleys, the Charles Town, and was aboard her in the flotilla that went to General Oglethorpe’s aid in 1742 when the Spanish attempted to invade St. Simons. And he and the Charles Town accompanied Oglethorpe in March 1743 in the General’s second invasion attempt of St. Augustine .

While on a prisoner swapping mission to St. Augustine , he committed the indiscretion of selling goods to the Spanish. Charged with trading with the enemy, he was brought to trial. 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 stripped of his command and ordered sent to England to be tried for high treason.

The 44 gun HMS Loo, the largest British man-of-war on station in the Carolinas, had recently arrived. Her commander, Captain Ashby Utting, apparently impressed by the deft manner in which William Sr. had 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, wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor William Bull in which he made it clear that no other pilot in the province but William Sr. was capable of piloting the Loo, and without him, the frigate would have to leave. Apparently, Utting’s letter resulted in charges against William Sr. being dropped as South Carolina colonial records say nothing further on the matter.

Utting made William Sr. the Loo’s pilot, and he was aboard her when she sailed in the middle of January 1744 and headed southward along the Atlantic coast. Her destination was the Florida Straits where she would prowl for Spanish ships funneling their way through the relatively narrow passage between the Florida Keys and Cuba on their way to Spain .

A sail was spotted on the morning of February 4th while off the Cape of Florida . The Loo gave chase and captured her. Utting quickly identified the vessel as the Betty, a snow type vessel the Spanish had taken earlier off the coast of South Carolina . He began arranging to put a crew aboard her and send her to Charles Town as a prize. Seeing an Irish merchant aboard her heave a large packet overboard, he had it quickly recovered. Finding it contained French and Spanish papers, he decided the Loo would escort her back to Charles Town.

Utting had a crew aboard the prize by six in the evening and the two vessels were sailing on a northeast by north course up the Florida Straits between Cuba and the Florida Keys . This course was maintained until midnight, then changed to northeast. Depths were sounded every half-hour. The one o’clock sounding read 50 fathoms. Suddenly, around one-fifteen in the morning, breakers surrounded the Loo. In being turned away from the breakers, the frigate became locked in the wind. As the crew hoisted her main topsail to bring her on around, the Loo’s stern swung hard against the steep reef bank, breaking off her rudder. Now lying helpless against the reef, heavy breakers relentlessly pounded open her planks and filled her with five feet of water in spite of all her pumps being manned. The Betty, 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. Working through the night, they cut away masts of the two ships and removed all the Loo’s guns. Daylight revealed a nearby narrow, sandy key. Utting ordered all the men onto 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 guarantee their complete sinking.

Mid-morning a small sloop appeared off in the distance. Utting armed several men and sent them out in the two ships’ boats with orders to bring her in at all costs as she would be of help in extricating them from their predicament. Having heard too many tales of the savagery of the numerous Calusa 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 boats returned the next morning with the sloop. Her Spanish crew had deserted her upon sight of the boats. They now had four escape vessels: a long boat, a barge, a yawl, and the Spanish sloop. Utting ordered the adding of planks to the upper sides of the long boat to increase the number of men she could carry.

Around noon Wednesday, April 8, 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 a safe distance offshore, then blew up the Loo to keep the Spanish from salvaging any of her.

Satisfied he had done all he could, he boarded the sloop. She was so crammed with men, including William Sr., they feared that the slightest wind would overset her. He instructed the other boats to follow the sloop and in case they became separated to make their way as best they could to the nearest friendly civilization, New Providence Island in the Bahamas. The vessels became separated in the darkness the first night. 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. Their only choice was to let her ride the Gulf Stream northward.

The sloop, having experienced good weather all the way, limped into Port Royal on the night of the February 13, five days after departing what little remained of the Loo. After two days of much needed rest from their ordeal, Utting sent William Sr. to nearby Beaufort to give the following deposition before the justice of the peace:

“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 15, 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 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 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 and he was given command of another man-of-war.

The earliest known record using 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—William Sr.’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 chart.

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 has been on the top ten list for snorkeling adventures world-wide for many 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 an unmarked grave in St. Philips Church cemetery in Charleston, SC.

And what became of the old sea dog William Sr.? He returned to the Bahamas and became a highly successful privateer.

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