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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 than Miami.

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.


Key West Travel Guides
 Frommer's Key West
 Lonely Planet Key West
 Let's Go Key West
 Fodors Key West