The Florida Keys
Virtual Traveler

Your On-Line Guide To The Fabulous Florida Keys
Keys Historical Highlights

Written by Kay Maughan


In April, 1982, the Reagan administration's war against drugs and illegal aliens thought up a great idea. They set up roadblocks to search and question everyone leaving the Keys. The independent island people were outraged -- at the intrusion and the long delays. When their letters to the governor failed, they banded together in a mock public protest. At high noon on April 23, secession ceremonies were held in Mallory Square, Key West. Hoisting the new Conch Republic flag, adorned with a conch shell, the island rebels tossed a loaf of stale Cuban bread into the air, their token shot declaring war against the United States. They handed out passports to the citizens of the Conch Republic and promptly surrendered, making them eligible for foreign aid. Then, in true island spirit, they partied. The celebration lasted a week and has since become an annual event.

Roadblocks to check for illegal aliens and drugs are no longer set up in the Florida Keys.


The history of the Florida Keys is colorful and diverse. Keys' residents range from Indians following bison and elephants south after the Ice Age, to pirates on the open seas, to sturdy farmers and fishermen building houses from coral rock and driftwood, to Ernest Hemingway, to Jimmy Buffett. Each age, each group has left a mark on the land and the people, making the Conch Republic interesting and unique place it is today.


Thousands of years ago, Indians inhabited the mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys. The earliest Indians, thought to have followed large game south at the end of the Ice Age, probably hunted elephant and bison. When the big game became extinct, they satisfied themselves with staples, which remain today: possum, raccoon, deer, turkey and shellfish. By 1000 years ago, the native Caloosa Indians began to cultivate the soil, supplements their diet with a vast array of fruits and vegetables. From the huge burial mounds, archaeologists have found evidence of a sophisticated culture which made pottery from red clay and fashioned tools from the clam, oyster and conch shells. The Indians traveled extensively, reaching as far north as the Ohio Valley.

The first native Floridians did not meet their first International visitors with open arms; they met the Spanish conquistadors with shell-tipped arrows. Ponce de Leon, who "discovered" Florida in 1513, was the first of many explorers to the Keys. He mapped and named them as an aid to Spanish ships, which used the Florida Straits as a route from the New World back to Spain. Ponce de Leon christened the Florida Keys "Los Martires" (the martyrs), because they reminded him of twisted and tortured martyred Christians. He dubbed Key West, "Cayo Hueso," island of bones, for the piles of human bones left there by the Indians. Luckily, these names are no longer used, but his names for the Tortugas (turtle) and the state of Florida (flowers) remain. Ponce de Leon's forces, and the Spanish explorers, Narvaez and De Soto, who followed, were indifferent to colonization of the rocky, mosquito-infested islands. There was no gold, no fresh water, just mangrove swamps full of insects and heat. Although they killed or enslaved many of the Indians, they left most of Florida untouched and moved north to build their chain of forts and missions from St. Augustine to Pensacola.

For the next 300 years, Florida had no real value to Spain, France and England, except that each feared the other would find one. After years of raiding each other's settlements, they began trading Florida back and forth. Spain swapped it to England for Havana in 1763 and England swapped it back, in 1783, for the Bahamas and Gibraltar. In 1821, Spain gave in to pressure from the new United States and gave up her troublesome colony. During this 300 years, the native Indian tribes vanished, wiped out by changes in culture and the diseases of the white man. The only Indians left were the Creeks who came from Georgia, swelled in numbers by escaping slaves who joined them. They were called Seminoles, The Wild Ones or Runaways.


In 1822, the United States established in Key West the first Navy Pirate Fleet. The same year saw the Keys' first permanent settlers, a group of Bahamian "Conchs" -- British Loyalists who had fled to the Bahamas during the American Revolution. They were an independent and resourceful people who took their name from the large sea snail so plentiful in the Keys. Key West was, and in many ways still is, more aligned with Nassau and Havana than with the rest of the United States. The Conchs fished the fertile waters of the Keys, dodging the pirates who sailed offshore in their routes from Havana to Tampa, New Orleans and Galveston. The English "fishermen" began to grow wealthy from salvaging wrecked ships. Soon, some of the shadier characters were helping the salvage business along by stringing lanterns from palm trees, tricking captains into the shallow water reefs. Not until the mid-1980s were lighthouses and reef warning buoys erected offshore to put an end to the first Conch enterprise. Cigar-making and sponging replaced the wrecking business, and by 1890, Key West was the largest city in Florida and the richest, per capita, in the United States.

Florida had become a state in 1845, but 20 years later, joined the other Southern states in seceding from the Union. During the Civil War, the Keys sided with the South, but were occupied by Union troops stationed at Fort Zachary Taylor. The middle and upper Keys were settled after the US government surveyed and plotted the land in 1874. The early homes were primitive, built with coral rock and driftwood which had washed up from shipwrecks. Compared to the flamboyant life in the Key West, life in the "outside Keys" was drab and hard. They fished and grew fruits and vegetables in the rocky soil. Transportation between the scattered farm houses was by boat. Their boats also took the produce out to deeper waters, where schooners picked it up for delivery to Key West and northern ports.

Before 1900, the only link the Keys had to the mainland was by boat, but in 1905, railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, began building an extension of his Florida East Coast Railroad south through the Everglades to the southern most point in the United States. He recognized the advantage of the deep water port in Key West. It cost $50 million and took 700 laborers seven years of brutally hard work, to build the bridges and lay the tracks over 106 miles over 31 island. In 1912, the first shipment of fresh Caribbean produce made its way up from Key West to the United States mainland. The glory of the railroad was short-lived, though. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 hit the Upper Keys with 200 mph winds and an 18-foot tidal wave. It killed over 800 people and ripped the Florida East Coast Railroad to shreds. For the next three years, Keys' transportation was again limited to boats. Flagler's amazing engineering feat was not to abandoned, however. In 1938, the Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened. Built over the railroad's old tracks and bridges, the highway is still the mainline to the mainland.



511 Caroline St., Key West -- was built in the Victorian style in 1899 as a gift for the son of William Curry, Florida's first millionaire. The house features original paintings by John Audubon, Tiffany glass and period furnishings. A widow's walk overlooks the grounds. Daily 10-5. Admission $5; under 12, $1. 305/294-5349


613 Eaton St., Key West -- The restored 1860s home sits on the alley where donkeys once pulled milk delivery carts. It features Spanish tile floors, painted ceilings and various displays of period antiques, including Bokhara and Kazak rugs and Oakville, royal Doulton and Wedgewood china. Daily 10-5. Admission $5, over 60, $4. Children 5-12, $1.


907 Whitehead St., Key West. Ernest Hemingway bought this 1851 Spanish colonial-style mansion in 1931. It was here he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. Daily 9-5. Admission $6.50, ages 6-12, $2.


At the end of Southard St., Key West -- Built in 1845-1866 as part of Florida's coastal defense system. It served as a base for the Union blockade of Confederate shipping during the Civil War. The cannons within the walls constitute one of the largest collections of Civil War armaments. A museum of artifacts and models of original facilities weapons tell the fort's history. There is a 1903 Gatling gun. Daily 8-dusk. Tours daily at noon and 2. Admission $3.25 per private vehicle plus 50 cents per person (maximum 8) $1.50 per person by bicycle, bus or foot. Free 50-minute tours of the fort are offered daily at noon and 2.


938 Whitehead St., Key West. Built in 1847, the lighthouse stands 92'. The museum, located in the keeper's quarters, an adjacent 1887 clapboard house, features historical items, including a complete light assembly. You may climb the 98-steps of the spiral staircase the top of the lighthouse for magnificent views. Daily 9:30-4:30. Admission $5; ages 7-12, $1.


Whitehead St., in Old Mallory Square, Key West. This is a reproduction of the wreckers warehouse which originally stood on the site. Costumed actors interact with visitors and recreate the events of the wreck and salvage of the "Isaac Allerton," which sank in 1856. See artifacts from and video of the shipwreck. A 65-foot observation tower offers view of the Atlantic and the Gulf. Daily 9:45-4:45. Admission $7; ages 4-12, $3.50.


111 Front Street in the Truman annex, Key West. The vacation retreat of President Harry S. Truman has been restored to its 1948 appearance. The tour emphasizes his experiences in The Keys and his presidency. Daily 9-5. Admission $6.50; ages 2-12, $3.50.


On the south side of the island, via A1A (S. Roosevelt Blvd.), Key West. These two brick fortifications were begun in 1858 by Union engineers to protect the defenses east of Fort Zachary Taylor.


Greene and Front Streets, Key West. Gold and silver bars, jewelry, and coins are among the artifacts displayed here. They were recovered from the wreckage of two Spanish galleons which sank 40 miles of Key West in a hurricane on Sept. 6, 1622. You can lift a gold bar, see a 77.76-carat emerald crystal, and learn about underwater archeology. Daily 9:30-5. Admission $6; ages 6-12, $2.


322 Duval St., Key West. The house, built in 1829 for a sea captain and wrecker, this may be the oldest house in Key West. It sports a ship's hatch in the roof and a "landlubber's tilt" in the office Learn about 19th-century ship wrecking with documents, ship models and undersea artifacts. Daily 10-4. Admission $3; ages 3-12, 50 cents.


Located at 14 stops around Key West. This 1 1/2 hour tour of the island tells you history, legends and geography of Key West. Daily 8:55-4:30. Fare $16; ages 4-12, $6.


102670 US 1 (MM 102 - across from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park), Key Largo. See objects recovered from sunken wrecks from the 17th Century, including one of the oldest pieces ever found, the Haskins Capitana Medallion. A reconstructed shipwreck site shows underwater archeology and recovery techniques. Fri-Wed. 10-5. Admission $5; over 55, $4.50; ages 6-12, $3.


5 MI. S.E.. of Lower Matecumbe Key. This uninhabited 10-acre island, which belonged to the notorious wrecker, Capt. Jacob Housman, was destroyed in 1840, when the captain's misuse of power prompted an Indian uprising. The ruins of houses and cisterns are now choked by vegetation planted by physician and botanist Dr. Henry Perrine when he conducted plant experiments at the settlement in 1838. The site is accessible only by private or chartered boat. Call 305/664-5505 or 664-4815. MATHESON HOUSE, built of coral and furnished in 1930s styles is unchanged. A stone wall, possibly built by Spanish explorers as a navigation aid, extends the length of the island. Call 305/664-4815.


The Dry Tortugas, 70 mi. W of Key West. Accessible only by boat or plane. Begun in 1846 as part of the country's coastal defense, Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park is a massive, hexagonal fortress occupied during the Civil War by Federal troops. The fort saw little action in the Civil War. In fact, nothing has ever attacked Fort Jefferson. This is an excellent snorkeling, swimming, bird and loggerhead turtle watching area. Be prepared. There are no amenities, except public bathrooms and snorkeling equipment. You must bring your own fresh water and food. You must also take your own trash back to the Keys. Sea plane excursions cost about $150 for the 30 minute flight. Advance reservations are required.
  • Key West Seaplane Service
  • Chalks Airlines
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