The History of Key West it’s thoroughly unusual and captivating. The Conch Republic was nothing but a burial ground when Ponce De Leon arrived in 1521. There the name Cayo Hueso “Island of the Bones” came about, and even till this days some Spanish countries know the island for “Cayo Hueso”
The first inhabitants of these tropical islands during the Pre-Columbian times were the Calusa people, a Native American population who lived on the coasts and wetlands of Southwest Florida, and that for some reason they use Key West as their burial ground.
There are no bones scattered over Key West now and when people died they are taken to the local cemetery to rest. The island had gone through the evolution and transformation of modern times to become what is known now as the Conch Republic.
The arrival of Ponce de Leon.
During the times in which the first Spanish Europeans headed by Ponce De Leon got to Florida there was not much to explode in the Florida Keys but because Key West had a reliable supply of fresh water they decided to stay here.Juan Ponce De Leon was in search of the mystical “Fountain of Youth” when he arrived to the Florida territory in April of 1513. He name it La Florida in recognition to the Easter Season and the flowered and green landscape.
Juan Ponce De Leon. (Spaniard)1474-1521. *Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Public Domain.
Being Key West a large island located on the westernmost end of the US, in the busy shipping lane of the Straits of Florida between the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic, close to the Caribbean and only 90 miles from Havana made Key West and important point consequently.
History of Key West as a US Territory.
There were some ownership disputes of Key West during the 1800’s during the times in which Florida was transferred to the United States. Later the Island was sold to John Simonton a US business man for $ 2000 pesos, later sold to General John Geddes, previous governor of South Florida.
During this period in which the Florida Keys were claimed as a US territory and the US flag was planted for posterity the Navy took interest in using the island as a base to fight piracy and slave trade.
It was in March of 1822 when Lt Commander Matthew C Perry arrived to Key West on the US Navy schooner “USS Shark” and planted the US flag here, declaring these islands a property of the US. Thomson then renamed the island now Key West to “Thomson Island “in honor to the chief of the Navy Smith Thomson.
The earlier developers and the most influential people in Key West History.
After purchasing Key West, Simonton sold the now subdivided territory of the island to other business men and developers. These entrepreneurs started to build the city that we now know, and as you discover Key West, you’ll find their names scattered here and there, since some of the important streets and places had been named after all these famous historical figures.
The four most important developers of Key West’s earlier years:
*John Whitehead. “Whitehead Street” A business partner of Pardon C. Greene and developers of PC Greene and Co. Died shortly after the Civil War.
*Pardon C Greene. “Greene Street “He was the head and founder of PC Greene Co. He later became the mayor of the city for a brief period. Died in 1838.
*John Simonton “Simonton Street “He helped to establish the naval base in the island. He resided in the island only during the winter months and in Washington during the summers. Died in 1854.
*John W.C. Fleming. “Fleming Street “A good friend of John Simonton, spend only a short time in Key West and died shortly after his return to the island.
*The most famous street in Key West “Duval Street “running north and south of the island is named after William P Duval, the first governor of the state of Florida. Duval Street Guide.
The Conchs, the wrecking and the islands economic development, and some very important points on the Old Town Key West.
Now days the residents of our city are very proud to be called Conchs, but many people don’t know that the first Conchs to arrive were people with European ancestry who transmigrated here from the Bahamas after 1830.
*Conch. “A resident of Key West”
*Salt Water Conch. “Person born in Key West”
*Fresh Water Conch. “Person who had lives in Key West for several years but wasn’t born here”
*When a baby was born the family would place a conch on a pole in front of their home
The shipwreck salving or wrecking was the mayor industry and business during this years. “the years of the wrecking fever” made Key West the richest city in Florida.
The other two mayor industries were fishing and salt production. In the 1880’s it was the riches city in Florida. Wrecking has a very important place in the History of Key West.
The Civil War
In 1861 during the Civil War and when Florida joined the Confederate States, the island remained allied to the States of the Union because of the Naval Base and the auxiliary forces that were present here, contrary to the increasing large support and sympathy of many residents for the Confederates. Many Confederate flags were flown over the roofs of the city.
Fort Zachary Taylor was an important military base during the Civil War. Later the West and the East Martello Towers were built and were connected by railroad tracks for the movement of ammunition and artillery from one fort to the other.
The Overseas Railroad marks a key point on the
History of Key West.
With the Henry Flagler’s construction of the Overseas Railroad Extension from Miami to Key West the isolation from the main land ended. From 1912 until the 1935’s Labor Day Hurricane that destroyed the bridges and railways, the railroad was the main transportation system of the Florida Keys.
After the construction of the railroad the Florida Keys became more accessible and popular, more and more business men, politicians, presidents, artists, writers, army retires and high ranking officers, labor workers, common people and some outlaws and crooks, became interested in visiting or residing in the island either permanently or temporarily.
Famous personalities who had visited or lived in Key West.
*Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer’s wife Pauline’s rich uncle purchased this house 1931 as a wedding present for Hemingway. The Hemingway’s House & Museum, 907 Whitehead St, is open to the public and a is famous tourist attraction.
*Jimmy Buffett, the acclaimed “island escapism” musician had made recent history in Key West. His famous song Margaritaville was riten here. Owner of the Margaritaville Bar and Restaurant, 200 Duval St.
*Tennessee Williams, the writer of “A Street Car Named Desire “stayed at the Concha Hotel in 1947 and bought this house here in 1949, located at 1431 Duncan Street, but the house is not open to the public.
*Harry Truman the 33rd president of the US visited the island an stayed here for long periods. His Winter White House in Truman Annex is open to the public.
*Franklin Roosevelt 32nd president of the US visited Key West in 1939.
*Dwight D “Ike”Eisenhower 34th president of the US stayed fallowing a heart attack.
*John F Kennedy was here shortly after the conclusion of Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War in 1962
Other important historic events.
*The Cuban immigration to Key West begun as early as 1860 during the Cuban War of Independence from Spain when some politically persecuted Cubans sought refuge in the island.
Being so close to Havana, at only 90 miles, made the island of Key West a point of interest to Cuban immigrants and after a while more than 10 000 Cubans were living, visiting, working or doing business in Key West. Some of the Mayor of Key West had been Cuban descendants.So that’s how Cubans had an role in the History of Key West.
*The United States Navy’s Battleship USS Maine departed from Key West to Havana, Cuba to serve during the Spanish American War in 1898, and it was sunk by a sudden mysterious explosion while anchored in the Havana Harbor. The US press blamed Spain for the mysterious sinking that until this days it remains unsolved and open to speculation. The bodies of many of the battleship sailors and crewmen were buried at the city’s Cemetery.
*The Mariel’s Boatlift. Later during the 1980’s Cuban Mariel Boatlift many more refuges came to the island and even some Cuban airplanes were hijacked and forced to land at the city’s international Airport.
*The Conch Republic. The city declared its independence and officially named as theConch Republic as a protest for the blockade of US 1 (main road connection the island to South Florida and the rest of the Keys) The blockade came after the Mariel Boatlift as a way to try to stop the trafficking of drugs. The blockade caused big traffic jams and delays on the motorists traveling on the highly used highway.
*The “Sunward” was the first passenger cruise ship to dock in the islands Navy’s pier, at the Truman Annex. Now they dock at the Mallory Square’s where the sunset celebration takes place every evening.
The Military and the Naval Air Stations.
Due to the strategic location of Key West located near the deep navigation channel connecting the Atlantic with the Gulf of Mexico the military had kept its interest and presence here over the years,
The first military keystone was Fort Zachary Taylor, fallow by the East and West Martello Forts. Then during War World II the Navy took more interest and invested more in the areas of the island.
Conclusion to the History of Key West.
I think that for now you will have better understanding of how the Conch Republic became what is now one of the most visited attraction of South Florida and the reason for Key West having so many historic sites and historical monuments.