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William Frederick Keeler 

William Frederick Keeler (1821-1886) – dry goods merchant, watch maker, machinist, iron founder, inventor, Navy paymaster, customs agent, orange grower, newspaper correspondent.

 

The eldest of five children of Roswell and Mary (Plant) Keeler, William Keeler was born on June 9, 1821 above his father’s dry goods store on Pearl Street in New York City. He spent his childhood in Brooklyn where he received his schooling, and his teenage years in Auburn, Michigan where he honed his skills as a store keeper helping at his father’s store.

 

In the early 1840s William set out on his own and headed to Bridgeport, Connecticut where he went into the dry goods business. His first store was destroyed by fire in 1845; his second by another fire that swept through the city’s downtown six months later. By 1847 he had had enough and dissolved his dry goods partnership.

 

Although he was unlucky in business, he had the great fortune of meeting Anna Eliza Dutton, the eldest daughter of Henry Dutton, whom he later described as “one of the most amiable and best of wives.” They were married in Bridgeport on October 5, 1846. The following year their first child Henry Dutton Keeler was born.

 

With little hope of business success in Bridgeport William decided to try his luck and head to California in search of gold which had been discovered there in 1848. Together with his brothers James and Edward, William and 48 other men from Connecticut formed the New Haven and California Joint Stock Company. They purchased an old sailing bark, hired an old sea captain to sail her, and set sail from New Haven in March 1849. They arrived in San Francisco in November 1849 after a long and tedious journey of 256 days. The venture, however, was a personal tragedy for William for his two brothers both died there: 18-year old Edward at their camp along the Sacramento River in January 1850 and 26-year old James at sea on his voyage home with William in June 1850. His voyage home alone took him by way of Singapore and Hong Kong where they stopped for three months, and finally to New York City where they arrived in January 1851, a trip of more than seven months. He returned to Bridgeport and reunited with Anna and his young son after an absence of nearly two years. Although he appears to have made some money on his California adventure, the riches he had undoubtedly hoped for eluded him. 

Not long after returning home, William Keeler got itchy feet again. This time he set his sights on northern Illinois where New Englanders had been settling since the 1820s. Business opportunities arising from the development of canals and railways were probably what attracted him. In 1853 he and his family headed to La Salle, a recently incorporated city of several thousand on the Illinois River at the terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. William opened a watch and jewelry store at the corner of First and Wright Streets. Four years later he sold that business and opened the La Salle Iron Works, a foundry and machinist operation on the steamboat basin.

 

Their house was located at the corner of Seventh and Gooding Streets, just north of downtown. They were moderately self-sufficient, for out back was a barn with a milk cow, a hen roost, and an extensive garden containing vegetables, strawberries, grapes, cherry and plumb trees. Anna stayed at home and raised the children, which by the eve of the Civil War numbered three: 13-year-old Henry, 3-year-old James Edward, and 9-month-old Elizabeth Eliot. They had a fourth child, Mary Ann, who died at the age of three in 1857. Anna joined the First Congregational Church. Present at the church’s first sermon in June 1854, and taking an active part, was Reverend Owen Lovejoy, who had organized dozens of anti-slavery Congregational churches across northern Illinois in the 1850s.

 

William had more than watchmaking and iron founding to keep him busy in La Salle. Although his formal education did not extend beyond grade school, he was well read and an excellent writer as his Civil War letters attest. He was also mechanically gifted and had a deep and abiding interest in science and the natural world, which he passed on to his two sons, one of whom became one of America’s leading astrophysicists. His work as a machinist led him to devise an improvement to the device that regulated the speed of a steam engine, which he patented in 1865.

 

As it was in Bridgeport, business success eluded him once again: this time not by fire but by the financial crisis of 1857. In 1859 one of his business partners at the La Salle Iron Works sold out and a commercial reporting agency rated the business as doubtful. The bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861 provided the change he needed. Viewing Confederates as traitors and slavery as a “hideous deformity,” he saw the war as an opportunity to put down treason and end slavery. And so, with the aid of Congregational-minister-turned Radical-Republican-Congressman Owen Lovejoy, he obtained a commission in the United States Navy and on December 17, 1861 was appointed Acting Assistant Paymaster and Clerk. Three weeks later he was ordered to the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn to await assignment.

 

In early January 1862 the 39-year-old father of three packed his bags and headed East to an uncertain future. He was assigned to the USS Monitor in the latter part of January and served on the ironclad until it sank off Cape Hatteras eleven months later. From March 1863 to November 1865, he served on the wooden sidewheel steamer USS Florida in the blockade of the Confederate port city Wilmington, North Carolina. With no active role in the operation of the vessels or a station in battle, he had ample opportunity to keenly observe and meticulously record his wartime experiences in his letters home to Anna and his children.

 

While on the Monitor William Keeler vividly described the ironclad’s nearly disastrous trip from New York to Hampton Roads and the ensuing epic battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862, naval expeditions up the James and Appomattox Rivers during Union general George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, and the sinking of the vessel on New Years’ Eve 1862. Although his days on the Florida were less glamorous, he nevertheless described in colorful detail life on the Union blockade, including the thrill of chasing blockade runners, the dangers of nighttime on the blockade, and the tedium of day-to-day existence. When nothing “turned up” he would often write about memorable characters he encountered. These included navy and army officers, poor white Southerners, and the Lincoln assassination conspirators whom they transported to prison at the Dry Tortugas off the southern tip of Florida. It was also while serving on the Florida that he was seriously injured by a Confederate shell fired from a battery a mile away on shore. His last letter from the Florida was dated November 12, 1865 after which he was detached and returned home to La Salle. He was granted four months leave of absence and honorably discharged on April 25, 1866.

 

The Keelers remained in La Salle for five years after the end of the Civil War. By 1870 William’s business ventures were doing poorly. His iron works had long since closed, and he was a partner in his brother-in-law’s tea business. The 1870 census lists his occupation as “miscellaneous dealer.” In November 1870 he uprooted his family one last time and moved to Mayport, Florida, a tiny village at the mouth of the St. John’s River thirty-five miles downstream of Jacksonville. It is unknown what attracted him to this backwater, which U.S. Naval Academy professor Robert Daly described in a letter to my grandmother as “a dot on the map, sand, swamp and mosquitoes predominating.”

 

William built a two-story house a mile east of Mayport on the old road to St. Augustine, and named it Thalassa after the Greek goddess of the sea. He served as the deputy collector of customs from 1871 to 1880 and on occasion inspector of elections. He referred to himself by the military honorific, Major, preferring to keep his naval background secret. Commencing in 1883 he was the Mayport correspondent for the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville. His short, offbeat weekly column entitled “Mayport Mention,” written under a variety of different pseudonyms (Leslie, Silex, Monitor and K) reported on ship arrivals and other happenings in Mayport. Most of his time, however, was spent working around the house, in his shop, and tending his orange groves, the latter being his primary occupation.

 

As a result of his wartime injury, William received a Navy pension of $10 per month commencing June 1875. According to the physician’s report, his back was so weakened by the injury that he was unable to perform any hard work. For the last two years of his life he suffered from heart disease and other issues relating to his injury. In April 1885 he applied for an increase in his Navy pension on account of increased disability and in June was declared totally unfit for manual labor.

 

In late September 1885 he commenced a short-lived correspondence with a Connecticut collector named Frank H. Pierce who was gathering information about the Monitor. He penned two letters to Pierce before sickness prevailed, and Anna took over the writing. Realizing that the end was near, he decided to send Pierce a box of artifacts that he had collected after the Battle of Hampton Roads. In Anna’s last letter to Pierce, dated a month after her husband’s death, she stated that “the packing of the box was the last work Mr. Keeler ever did. The letter announcing its safe arrival reached him a day or two before his death and I told him of its contents.” William Keeler died on February 27, 1886 at their home in Mayport. His remains were later reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery along with those of Anna who died in 1901.

Notes on sources:

  1. “one of the most amiable” (E.E. Dutton to H.M. Dutton, 13 January 1862): Henry Dutton Family Papers, MS 2094, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

  2. “hideous deformity” (W.F. Keeler to A.E. Keeler, 26 March 1862): Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor, ed. Charles W. McLandress, Seal River Publishing, 2023.

  3. “a dot on the map” (R.W. Daly to C.K. Moore, 19 November 1962, in possession of Charles W. McLandress.

  4. “the packing of the box” (A.E. Keeler to F.H. Pierce, 23 March 1886): Frank H. Pierce papers relating to the USS Monitor. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library, New York, New York,

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