Key West History
||Key West has a long history of
autonomy and a lack of formal government, which may account
for its sometimes feisty attitudes. In pre-Columbian times,
Key West was inhabited by the Calusa people. The first known
European to make a visit was Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521. As
Florida became a Spanish colony, a fishing and salvage village
with a small garrison was established here. Key West acquired
its name from an Anglicization of the Spanish language
name of the island, Cayo Hueso, which means “Bone Island.
Great Britain took control of the island in 1763. Native Spaniards
and Indians were moved to Havana, only 90 miles away and closer
Florida returned to Spanish control two decades later. There was
no official resettlement of the island but it was used by fishermen
from Cuba and the Bahamas. The island was claimed by Spain, but
there was no official government. The Spanish governor in Havana
in 1815 deeded the island to Juan Pablo Salas. He sold Key West
to an early American entrepreneur in 1821. The price: $2,000. Businessman
John Simonton divided the island into plots and sold them. There
was a small town in Key West but the inhabitants recognized the
authority of no nation. Simonton persuaded the US government to
establish a naval base on the island, both to take advantage of
its strategic location and to maintain law and order. Commodore
David Porter of the US Navy in 1823 took charge of Key West. He
ruled as a military dictator under martial law.
Major industries in Key West in the early 19th century included
fishing, salt production and perhaps the most romantic of all, salvaging.
The occupation was so lucrative that by 1860, Key West was the wealthiest
town per capita in the country. Key West became noted for its high
concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers, which the locals
used in their own homes after salvaging them from wrecks.
During the Civil War, while Florida joined the Confederate States,
Key West remained in union hands because of its naval base. Fort
Zachary Taylor built in 1845 was an important Key West outpost during
the Civil War. Another key contribution to history from Key West
was its Fort Jefferson, about 68 miles from the city on Garden Key
in the Dry Tortugas. The outpost was the prison where Dr. Samuel
A. Mudd served his sentence for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes
Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Mudd’s sentence
was commuted after he served heroically during a Yellow Fever epidemic.
The fort remains a popular tourist attraction.
In the late 19th century, salt and salvage declined as industries,
but Key West got a reputation for its cigar making industry. When
Cuba’s unsuccessful war for independence raged in the 1860s
and 70s, many Cubans moved to Key West. Key West was the last of
the series of keys connected to the Florida mainland by a series
of railroad bridges completed in 1912 as the Overseas Railway extension
of legendary Henry M. Flagler. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed
the bridges, killing hundreds of residents, including about 400
World War I veterans living in camps.
In modern times, perhaps the best known resident of Key West was
Ernest Hemingway. In 1982, Key West and the rest of the Florida
Keys briefly declared their independence as the Conch Republic.
The reason: a protest over a US Border Patrol blockade, a response
to the Mariel boatlift. Flags, T-shirts and other merchandise depicting
the Conch Republic remain popular souvenirs.