Capt. James McKay Sr. stuck between the Union and the Rebels

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Capt. James McKay Sr. stuck between the Union and the Rebels

Sun, 07/14/2019 - 10:38
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by ROCCO MAGLIO
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Captain James McKay Sr. had numerous connections to Hernando County. He was the father of Almeria Belle Mackay Lykes “Mama Allie,” the matriarch of the prominent Hernando County Lykes Family.  

The Lykes’ home was “the original Spring Hill” and is located off of Fort Dade Ave and Citrus Way. On Capt. McKay’s first voyage to the area, he was shipwrecked on the shoals in Chassahowitzka Bay.

The Lykes Brothers, Inc. was established by Mama Allie’s seven sons which she and her husband Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes raised at their home off of Fort Dade in Hernando. The Lykes Brothers in the 1950s were the largest landholders in Florida (fifth largest landowners in the United States) and the largest shipper in the United States. The Lykes Brothers’ success was aided by the shipping and cattle business that Captain McKay had started.

The early story of Captain McKay was recounted in Karl H. Grismer’s “Tampa-A history of the city and the Tampa Bay region of Florida.” Captain McKay came to America because he was following his heart and a young lady. In Scotland, he met Matilda Cail and they fell in love. Her mother decided that since Matilda was only sixteen she would move to America to remove temptation. The Cails settled in St. Louis and Captain McKay followed and continued courting Matilda. In 1837, Captain McKay received permission from Madame Cail to marry her daughter, she was 17 he was 28. 

After marrying, the McKays moved to Mobile, Alabama where Captain McKay became a merchant and started a family. He met Reverend Daniel Simmons a Baptist minister who had established a Hillsborough County mission in 1828 and left because of the Seminole War. Reverend Simmons along with William Brinton Hooker convinced Captain McKay that he should move to Tampa. They chartered a ship and the Simmons and McKay families headed to Tampa. During a hurricane, the ship was wrecked on the shoals of Chassahowitzka Bay. The people made it to shore, but the cargo was lost.

In September 1846, the McKay family continued on to Tampa while the Simmons family stayed in Hernando. In 1848, Reverend Daniel Simmons is listed as pastor of Bethlehem in Benton County (Hernando). Reverend Simmons is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery.

The McKay family arrived in Tampa with significant financial resources. They purchased several downtown blocks and large tracts in Hillsborough. On one block they built their house and on another, a store. Near the end of 1848, Captain McKay decided to purchase a schooner Sarah Matilda which he used to trade with Mobile and New Orleans. He purchased several more ships. In 1859, Captain McKay chartered the steamer Magnolia from the Morgan Line and used it to ship Florida cattle to Cuba. Captain McKay is credited with starting the Florida cattle trade with Cuba.

In 1860, a drought killed several thousand cattle waiting to be shipped. Captain McKay moved his shipping operation to Punta Gorda creating an 800 foot loading dock. Seeing the impending Civil War, he bought a large herd in Florida and transported it to Cuba for sale. He said from November 1860 to June 1861 he was not home for more than 10 days.

The Civil War brought new challenges to Captain McKay’s shipping business. The Union asked McKay to supply beef to their fort at the Dry Tortugas. McKay struck a bargain that he would supply the beef and allow the Union to use his facilities on the Peace River, if they would not interfere with his cattle shipping. He then tried to sell his steamer to the Confederacy, but they declined because they felt it was not fast enough for running the blockade and drew too much water to be used to deliver to shore. Word of the Confederate interest reached the Union and on his next stop at Key West the steamer was ordered detained and he was ordered not to return to Tampa. McKay’s friendships with several Union officers resulted in him not only being allowed to leave, but the Union considered purchasing the steamer. When he returned to Tampa, his sailboat was seized by Captain John Lesley and the Sunny South Guards, because they believed he was a Unionist due to the dealings with the Union. When Captain McKay appealed to the Florida Governor who ordered the sailboat released, the soldiers burned it. Captain McKay was then tried for treason by the South with the penalty of death by hanging. The trial resulted in an order for a new trial in October and McKay was ordered to provide $10,000 bond. 

Through his influential friends he managed to be permitted to leave to Key West. He was able to regain custody of his steamer which he attempted to sell in Cuba. He then headed to Nassau for a possible sale. He loaded a cargo of hats, cigars and fruit, but may have had military supplies as well. When Captain McKay sailed near Florida, he was captured by the Union.He was accused of having pistols and percussion caps among his cargo. He claimed that he detoured close to Florida to drop off his son so that he could inform the Tampa officials of his inability to return home. McKay was jailed and his steamer was taken to Philadelphia. Without the evidence of the steamer and cargo the Union was unable to convict McKay. He was still held but appeals to President Lincoln and Secretary Seward resulted in his release.

He returned to Tampa and engaged in blockade running. He managed to slip through the Union blockade six times with a small boat the Scottish Chief. Before he undertook a seventh voyage, the boat was burned by a Union raiding party. The blockade running reestablished his reputation and the charges by the Confederacy against him were dropped. 

He then worked as commissary officer for the Confederacy sending beef north to the troops. Although his efforts were not very fruitful. Canter Brown Jr. in his article Tampa’s James McKay and the Frustration of Confederate Cattle-Supply Operations in South Florida expounded an interesting theory that Captain McKay may have been either working for the Union or purposely avoiding taking cattle from the herds of his associates.

After the war, Captain McKay was able to purchase a couple of surplused military steamers. He was awarded several lucrative army contracts that enabled him to prosper. He is remembered as a cattleman, ship’s captain, and the sixth mayor of Tampa. There is a bust and a plaque dedicated to Captain McKay on Riverwalk in Tampa.

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