James McKay Sr.

James McKay Sr. (May 17, 1808 – November 11, 1876) was a cattleman, ship captain, and the sixth mayor of Tampa, Florida. McKay is memorialized with a bronze bust on the Tampa Riverwalk, along with other historical figures prominent in the History of Tampa.[1]

James McKay Sr.
6th Mayor of Tampa
In office
February 12, 1859 – February 1, 1860
Preceded byMadison Post
Succeeded byJohn P. Crichton
Personal details
Born(1808-05-17)May 17, 1808
Thurso, Scotland
DiedNovember 11, 1876(1876-11-11) (aged 68)
Tampa, Florida
Political partyDemocratic
RelationsJames McKay Jr. (son),
Donald Brenham McKay (grandson)
OccupationCattleman, ship captain


James McKay was born on May 17, 1808 in Thurso, Caithness, Scotland. He left to become a mariner and spent many years at sea, returning home for brief family visits.[2]

He came to America in 1836 and located in St. Louis, Missouri, where in 1837 he met Matilda Alexander Cail, a native of Scotland, born in Edinburgh, May 19, 1816, the daughter of widowed Sarah Alexander.[3] Some historians claim that James met Matilda in Scotland but her mother refused the marriage due to her young age, so she left with Matilda to St. Louis, Only to have James pursue her there. Two notable Tampa historians specifically state they never met before St. Louis.

Matilda’s mother, a wealthy widow, disapproved at first of the match because of McKay’s hazardous occupation and because Matilda was young of age. In St. Louis, Sarah Alexander married a Mr. Cail, an Englishman who had large investments in western lands. Mr. Cail disappeared while exploring the western wilderness, and left Madam Sarah Alexander Cail a widow once again, but much richer.

In St. Louis, the over 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and persuasive young Scot continued his courtship of Matilda.[2] Finally, the mother consented to their marriage. McKay was 27 years old and the bride 17.

In 1838 James and Matilda, along with her mother, moved to Mobile, Alabama, where the couple had their first four children: George, Sarah I., James Jr. and John Angus.

In Mobile, Captain McKay met the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the Baptist minister who had established a mission in Hillsborough County in 1828 and had lived there until the Seminole War started, when he went to Alabama. Reverend Simmons was an ardent Florida booster and never ceased singing the praises of the Tampa Bay region. Captain McKay did not need much selling on the future prospects of the bay section. He knew that because of its geographical location, Tampa Bay was destined to become one of the leading ports of the nation. So in the early fall of 1846 he decided to go to Tampa.

Chartering a schooner, Captain McKay left Mobile with his family in September, 1846. Reverend and Mrs. Simmons went with him, and so did Madame Cail and Mitchell McCarty and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of the Simmonses.

The schooner never reached Tampa. As the McKay schooner sailed south along the Florida coast, a violent storm drove the vessel upon a reef near the mouth of the Chassahowitzka River. Captain McKay, a brawny man, repeatedly swam through the rough surf to carry his wife, the children, and Madam Cail ashore. The slaves also survived the shipwreck, but the entire cargo was lost. They tarried at Chassahowitzka for a time where Donald S., their fourth son, was born August 8, 1846. The Simmons and McCarty families went on to Brooksville but the McKays soon afterward made their way to Tampa, arriving in November. Madame Cail came with them.[4]


On Oct. 13, 1846, the McKays entered the little village of Tampa which numbered less than two hundred inhabitants, exclusive of the soldiers in Fort Brooke. The village consisted of a few crude log huts thatched with palmetto fronds, with wooden shutters to keep out the cold and rain. The cottages were scattered over a sea of white sand. Cattle and pigs roamed at will.[5][6]

Upon moving to Tampa, McKay opened a general store on Franklin Street (Tampa), invested in real estate, and operated a sawmill on the Hillsborough River. He also owned and operated two schooners for cargo transport cargo from Tampa to Cuba, Central America and South America. From 1858 McKay built a successful business purchasing and transporting large herds of cattle. [7] He and his wife had five more children in Tampa (Donald, Marion, Almeria, Matilda and Charles).[8]


McKay was elected mayor on February 12, 1859, serving until February 1, 1860.[9] His accomplishments include the establishment of standard procedures and forms for licenses, ordinances and legal notices; regulation of the Jackson Street ferry service, and a rental agreement for the Fort Brooke military reservation after purchase attempts failed. The rental deal lasted 18 months until April 1861 when Confederate troops occupied the fort and declared martial law.

McKay was a citizen of the United Kingdom throughout his life and is the only non-U.S. citizen to serve as Mayor of Tampa.

Captain McKayEdit

In 1858 McKay made a contract with the Morgan Line allowing him to use USS Magnolia (1854) twice a month at a price of $1,500 each run in order to ship cattle to Cuba. This established the Magnolia as the first of many ships to be used in the same way, and the introduction of Spanish doubloons to Florida can be traced back to the trading trips made by Magnolia.

Civil WarEdit

During the Civil War McKay used his ships to run the Union naval blockade and brought guns, ammunition, foodstuffs and other merchandise for the Confederate army and civilians.

McKay Bay

In late 1861, the Union navy set up a blockade near the mouth of Tampa Bay as part of the overall Anaconda Plan, which sought to squeeze the Confederacy off from outside sources of money and supplies. Local blockade runners continued to slip out undetected to the Gulf of Mexico. Most notable (though not most successful) among these was McKay who delivered Florida cattle and citrus to Spanish Cuba in exchange for gold and supplies before being captured and imprisoned by Union forces.[10] McKay Bay, the portion of Tampa Bay adjoining the port, is named in his honor.

On October 14, 1861, McKay was caught. He and his and vessel were seized and he was imprisoned in Key West until March 1862 when he took an oath of allegiance to the United States.

In 1863, McKay was appointed Commissary Agent for the 5th District of Florida by Confederate Major Pleasant W. White. He stymied Confederate army attempts to ship beef, employing a series of excuses.

End of lifeEdit

After the Civil War, McKay resumed his cattle and shipping business. He is buried in Tampa's Oaklawn Cemetery.[11] James McKay Jr. was the 34th Mayor of Tampa from June, 1902 – June, 1904. McKay Sr.'s grandson, Donald Brenhan McKay, was also a Mayor of Tampa. He served 3 terms from June 1910 to Jun 1920 and a 4th term from January 1928 to October 1931 [12]


  1. ^ Riverwalk honors history Archived 2011-05-07 at the Wayback Machine March 7, 2012 Tampa Bay Times
  2. ^ a b "James McKay, Sr. The Scottish Chief Sixth Mayor of Tampa" at www.tampapix.com/mckay.htm
  3. ^ Genealogical records of the pioneers, etc., by Charles E. Harrison, pub. 1915
  4. ^ Tampa-A history of the city and the Tampa Bay region of Florida, by Grismer, Karl H, edited by Mckay, D. B, 1950 p. 109-110
  6. ^ James McKay Jr. in "Reminiscences - History of Tampa in the Olden Days" Dec. 18, 1923
  7. ^ History of Florida: Past and Present, Historical and Biographical, Volume 2, pub. 1923 By Harry Gardner Cutler. Text version available at USGenWeb Archives.
  8. ^ http://www.tampapix.com/mckayfamily.htm
  9. ^ James McKay Sr. Archived 2011-05-07 at the Wayback Machine previous mayors Tampa City Clerk Department
  10. ^ "James McKay Sr. – 6th Mayor of Tampa". Tampagov.net. Archived from the original on 2011-05-07. Retrieved 2010-05-16. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ James McKay Sr. Archived 2008-12-04 at the Wayback Machine Walking tour Oaklawn Cemetery Parks and Recreation Department, City of Tampa.
  12. ^ Donald Brenhan McKay Archived 2012-05-16 at the Wayback Machine City Clerk, City of Tampa