Travel Series: A Short Version of the History of Key West
A Short Version of the History of Key West
Part of appreciating Key West is to understand its colorful history. The history of Key West is one of boom or bust cycles, with hurricanes, military, and dreamers trying to take charge only to give way to some inevitable human or natural event.
Key West is also called Bone Island because the earliest Europeans found a beach full of human bones. Some say that Key West is anglicized version of Cayo Hueso, but since Key West is the most western of the keys, it is just as likely that it got its name for its location. On March 25, 1822, Lt. Commander, Matthew C. Perry, planted the US flag, and claimed the Keys as United States property.
In 1823, Juan Pablo Salas, who had been granted Key West in 1815 by the Spanish Governor of Florida, saw the writing on the wall and sold it…but as a prelude to what would be Key West, he sold it to two buyers, neglecting to tell the second one about the prior sale. The first buyer, John Strong, got Key West for a boat. John Simonton later paid $2,000 for the same island. When the first owner, John Strong, got into financial difficulties he asked George Murray to “hold” it for him. But, after Strong was able to maneuver out of his difficulties, Murray refused to relinquish ownership, so Strong sold it to John Geddes, the hapless former governor of South Carolina. There were now three claimants to Key West, Murray, Geddes, and Simonton. However, John Simonton had the political connections and in a special congressional act in 1828, he was recognized as the legitimate owner of the island.
Key West began as a haven for salvage as its numerous sandbars and storms created valuable wrecks. When a wreck appeared on the horizon the cry of “salvage” went out and everyone rushed to claim its bounty. To provide order, the US government passed laws in 1828 ending the free-for-all. So, Key West found other industries, in the 1800s, Key West was a major center of salt production, sponging, fishing, and turtling.
After an unsuccessful attempt in the late 1820s to claim Key West, the military reappeared to build Fort Zachary in 1845 (named after President Zachary Taylor) as a protection against the growing hostilities with the Mexican government. This is one of many incidents where the military believed, incorrectly, that Key West would play a major role in a conflict due to its location and deep harbor (it never did).
In 1846, a hurricane blasted through Key West and damaged all but 6 of Key West’s buildings, but the citizens of Key West quickly rebuilt. When the Civil War arrived 15 years later, Key West went union due to the quick action of Capt. John Brannan. Thinking that the location of Key West would be very important in the Civil War, a number of forts were built (East and West Martello) in anticipation of another war that never came to the island. After the War, Key Westers quickly accepted both union and confederate sympathizers and started to gain a reputation as a town that loves to “party.” Visitors marveled at the acceptance. “Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, Cubans, Bahamians, Italians and negroes” mixed freely, said James Henshaw in 1880. “Here may be seen every shade of complexion from white to yellow, brown to black.”
During the unsuccessful Cuban war for independence in the 1860s and 1870s (called the Ten Years War), many Cubans sought refuge in Key West and brought their skills with them. Key West became the wealthiest American city in large part due to the thriving cigar making community. However, the cigar industry could not overcome labor disputes by the undisciplined Key West residents and the cigar makers moved their business to the mainland. Enter the railroads.
Henry Flagler had a dream, to build a railroad all the way to Key West and make tourism the primary industry in Key West; in 1912 he did just that. But, by the mid 1930s the depression and absence of industry conspired to create the worst bust cycle in Key West’s history. The “New Deal” saved Key West by building highways and tourist attractions (e.g., the Key West Aquarium) to build the tourism industry.
During this time, the hurricane of 1935 (with the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the US) arrived, with a great loss of life and property; it took years for Key West to recover. But it did recover and remained a haven for grumpy writers and artists, Grant Wood, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, are some of the better known writers. The Conchs began to appreciate the art painted on the side of buildings; thanks to the New Deal artists, art and literature remain a permanent fixture in Key West.
World War II brought the Navy back in full force with submarines, destroyers and even an air station to attack the anticipated U Boats, which didn’t quite make it. But gambling, drinking, fighting and partying did. Key West became known as an eccentric, artistic community that was always willing to drop everything to have a good time.
After the war, Key West became a tourist destination, the Casa Marina hotel (still thriving today) was the destination of the rich and famous. Gambling and drinking were the number one pastimes of the tourists. The 60s brought the hippies, who brought drugs, which brought the drug lords. In the 70s Key West was discovered by the gay and lesbian population, who loved Key West’s eccentricity and acceptance. To show their gratitude they renovated the charming and dilapidated houses.
Now, the tourists come from all over the world. Key West expanded its airport welcoming even more people to the Conch Republic and Key West became the place for acceptance, fun, beautiful oceans and skies, a warm tropical climate and, of course, a party.
But Key West history would not be complete without the telling of one of is more colorful moments, which illustrates Key West’s view of not taking itself too seriously. This is the story about Key West got the name, the Conch Republic. In April 1982 the US Border Patrol set up a roadblock at the only highway that runs through the Florida Keys. It was the first time the US Government had set up a border checkpoint within the territory of the US and it produced massive traffic jams, crippling Key West’s tourist industry and temporarily halting crucial food deliveries (Key West soil cannot sustain agriculture).
The Key West City Council sought a court injunction to lift the roadblock, so the mayor and several officials flew to the Federal Court in Miami to make their case. When the court ruled against Key West, the mayor announced to the reporters that Key West was going to cede from the union.
The next day, April 23rd, the Key West city government gathered in front of the old customs building on with the international press in full force, and announced their secession from the United States. The mayor declared that he was the Prime Minister of the Conch Republic and raised the Conch flag—an indigo blue flag with stars and a conch shell on a tropical sun. The city council formally declared war on the United States and the citizenry “attacked” the bemused Navy and Coast guard officials by pelting them with stale Cuban bread (nothing is wasted in Key West). After a minute, Key West surrendered to the nearest Navy official and demanded $1 billion in reparations. Within days, the Border patrol lifted its roadblock.
So April 23 was declared The Conch Republic Independence Day and, of course, has become an annual celebration complete with a reenactment of the battle (in this case spraying a Coast Guard cutter with a fire hose and the Coast Guard surrendering). The Conch Republic sells its own passports and refers to the United States as "The Northern Territories.” Their motto: "We seceded where others failed." The Conch Republic Navy, which includes any boat who wishes to participate in the “battle,” uses the slogan “A Farce to be Reckoned With.” The Conch flag can be seen on more houses than the American flag, and on local institutions (e.g., Department of Motor Vehicles, City Government) mine is my front license plate.
And that really happened. After all, “It’s Key West.”
Learn more about Key West in these posts from Angela:
A Short Version of the History of Key West (this post)
The People of Key West
My Favorite Inhabitants
My Second Favorite Inhabitants -- Flora
Key West Quirkiness
Key West's Spirituality