Illustrated diary of an early voyage to Key West and Havana

Jacob B. Schoener, [Manuscript diary of a journey to Key West and Havana from New York.] New York, Key West, Havana and elsewhere, 1841-2.
Pocket diary of lined paper bound in tan calf, 5 7/8”h x 3 3Ž4”w). 66pp and endpapers completed in ink and pencil, usually recto and verso, with several hand-drawn illustrations in ink, pencil and watercolors. Cracking to joints, some browning.

A detailed and attractively illustrated diary recording artist Jacob B. Schoener’s journey to Key West and Havana in 1841-42. With vivid descriptions and appealing sketches of Key West, Havana, the natural history of those regions, and observations related to the ongoing Second Seminole War.

Born in 1805 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Schoener was the son of William Schoener, a prominent local official and himself “a competent artist and miniature painter.” (Albright, p. 149)  He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Philadelphia, then practiced in Boston and Providence from 1832 to 1836. It was probably during that time that he produced several portraits of New England ministers, which were lithographed by the Boston firm of Pendleton’s.  In 1836 he returned to Reading, where he maintained a studio until late 1841.  After his 1841-42 voyage to Florida and Cuba, he visited New York and then returned to Boston, where he died in 1846. (Albright, pp. 167-68)

Key West
Schoener left Reading [PA???] on December 16, 1841 and arrived at New York City on the 23rd. The next day he boarded the brig R.W. Brown, having paid 35 dollars in gold [that much??? wow] for transit to Key West. The diary’s early entries detail his observations on the voyage, the weather, and the flora and fauna, accompanied by numerous sketched illustrations, including one of Key West Lighthouse and town, which they sighted on January 9, 1842. He landed there on the 10th and took lodging at the Key West House. A self-described “lover of Nature,” over the next couple of weeks he explores the island and offers numerous observations:

“Jan. 14… Of fishes there is no end to them. Here is the delicious green turtle so much prized by the gourmand of the North some weighing upwards of  300lb…. to tell the truth the people here are just beginning to pay some attention to gardening & horticulture & there are thousands of young cocoa trees springing up round the gardens…the innards of the garden & courts are filled with topical exotics such as oleander.”

On the 26th he notes and illustrates the arrival of a U.S. government vessel “with 65 Indians, Warriors & their squaws & papooses in charge of about 100 US troops. They are a part of Sam Jones tribe and are to be landed at Tampa previous to being shipped off to the West.”  These may have been Miccosusuke, their chief known as Abiaka or Sam Jones, captured during the Second Seminole War and removed to the West.

Finding no work in Key West, Schoener soon resolved to travel on to Havana, where he arrived on January 29th.  He describes the governor’s palace, the Alameda, a bull fight, Carnival, and of course the area’s flora and fauna. Despite the area’s beauty he complains of the cost of living:

“Feb 14th Tomorrow will probably be the last day I shall pass in Havana_living is too high & [illegible] is too dirty_either for comfort or for health. Tomorrow the Hagno[?] sails for K West & Charleston…. At Key West I can live at $35.000 2 month & more decently accommodated.”

The next day, however, his passport was taken by the local authorities, and when he went to the American consul he was told that nothing could be done. Stuck in Havana, he continues his interesting observations.  For example,

“Feb 18th… I have noted the fact the first day I came here that the negroes were the most happy & most indulged of any I ever met with…voices are constantly heard in the streets shouting and laughing…speaking a most barbarous imitation of pure Castilian. They however do the drudgery and the heavy work too–apropos some shots exchanged between an English schooner & a slaver this morning, just from the coast of Africa with 500 slaves on board. The action took place in sight of the Morro, the slaver however, having the advantage of being a fast sailor made off–The British government are demanding the liberation of all slaves imported since 1828.”

On March 17th he sails for Key West, arriving on the 18th after an awful voyage in rough seas.  Much of the next section of the diary consists of mini-essays on Havana (with a watercolor illustration of El Moro, the Seminole War, and “the Fine Arts in H the Habana.”  Regarding the last of these, “There is not one respectable portrait painter…there is a Spaniard who paints a horrid looking picture for one ounce. There is an Italian (Piani) and a Jew (DeJongh) miniature painters who daub poor portraits for from 15 dollars to an ounce.”

Finally, on April 28th Schoener set sail from Key West, landed in New York on May 11, 1842, and was back in Reading by the end of May.  The final entry, for June 29th, reads simply “A very pleasant day clear flying clouds & wind N.W. 5 weeks at home since yesterday & 7 weeks in the U.S. today.”

Background on Schoener from Raymond Wolf Albright, Two Centuries of Reading, Pa. (Reading: Historical Society of Berks County, 1948).  Accessed via