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Key West Florida History

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History of Key West Florida: A Journey Through Time

Key West, a tropical paradise nestled at the southernmost tip of the United States. Steeped in a rich tapestry of history, Key West has evolved from its early days as a haven for pirates and shipwreck salvagers to become a vibrant cultural hub. Discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, this island city has witnessed the flags of various nations flying over its shores, leaving an indelible mark on its unique character. From the literary escapades of Ernest Hemingway to the historic milestones of President Harry S. Truman, History of Key West Florida is a captivating blend of maritime heritage, literary legacy, and a laid-back island spirit that continues to enchant visitors from around the world. Join us on a journey through time as we unravel the colorful history that has shaped Key West into the charming and eclectic destination it is today.

History of Key West Florida

Key West, known as Cayo Hueso in Spanish, has a rich history that dates back to precolonial times. Before the 19th century, the island was inhabited by people related to the Calusa and Tequesta tribes. However, the last Native American residents were Calusa refugees who were taken to Cuba in 1763 when Florida was transferred from Spain to Great Britain.

The name Cayo Hueso translates to “bone cay” in English, referring to the island being littered with the remains of previous native inhabitants. It is believed that the island served as a communal graveyard.

History of Key West Florida

Between 1763 and 1821, there were few permanent inhabitants in the Florida Keys. Cubans and Bahamians frequently visited the area for fishing, turtle catching, timber cutting, and salvage operations. Smugglers and Pirates also used the Keys for hiding their activities. However, no nation had de facto control over the Keys during this period.

In 1812, fishermen from New England began visiting the Keys, and there are rumors of brief settlements on Key Vaca in 1818. The exact locations of these settlements are unknown.

Overall, History of Key West is deeply intertwined with the diverse groups of people who have called it home over the centuries, from Native Americans to European colonizers and fishermen from various backgrounds.

The Ownership Claims of Key West

Simonton’s Acquisition

In 1815, the Spanish governor of Cuba in Havana granted ownership of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas, an officer of the Royal Spanish Navy Artillery. However, after Florida was transferred to the United States in 1821, Salas sold the island twice. First, he sold it to General John Geddes for a sloop valued at $575, and then he sold it to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton for $2,000 in pesos. Simonton, with the help of influential friends in Washington, was able to secure clear title to the island.

U.S. Claim and Key West Development

Simonton was initially drawn to Key West due to its strategic location and potential for business opportunities. In 1822, Lt. Commander Matthew C. Perry sailed the USS Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, officially claiming the Keys as United States property. This claim was not met with any protests, and as a result, the Florida Keys became the de facto property of the United States.

Porter’s Rule and Mission

After the American claim on Key West, Perry renamed the island Thompson’s Island, after Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson, and the harbor was named Port Rodgers, in honor of John Rodgers, a hero of the War of 1812. In 1823, Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy took charge of Key West, ruling it as a military dictator under martial law. The United States Navy tasked Porter with countering piracy and the slave trade in the area.

Initial Developers of Key West

The context is about the first developers of Key West. John Simonton purchased the island and sold portions of it to John Mountain, John Warner, Pardon C. Greene, John Whitehead, and John Fleeming. Pardon C. Greene established himself permanently on the island and became prominent in the community. John Whitehead lived on the island for eight years before leaving for good, and John Fleeming spent a few months on the island before returning and dying the same year. John Simonton lobbied for the development of the island and died in 1854.

American Civil War

american civil war
American Civil War

Key West, Florida played a significant role in the American Civil War and the late 19th century. While Florida seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, Key West remained in Union hands due to its naval base. Despite this, many locals sympathized with the Confederacy and flew Confederate flags over their homes. Key West also had a large free black population, which grew during the war as enslaved black people sought refuge with the Union garrison there. Fort Zachary Taylor, constructed during this time, was an important outpost for the Union. Two other forts, East and West Martello Towers, were also built and connected to Fort Taylor by railroad tracks. In 1864, the 2nd United States Colored Troops arrived in Key West as replacements for other regiments. They would go on to become one of the most active black regiments in Florida.

Key West in the Late 19th Century

In the late 19th century, Key West was known for its major industries such as wrecking, fishing, turtling, and salt manufacturing. The city was a major center for salt production from 1830 to 1861, harvesting salt from the sea. However, during the Civil War, the Union shut down the salt industry to prevent Confederate sympathizers from smuggling the product. Although salt production resumed after the war, it was eventually destroyed by a hurricane in 1876 and never fully recovered.

USS Maine and the Spanish–American War

During the Ten Years’ War in Cuba, many Cubans sought refuge in Key West. The city became a major producer of cigars as cigar factories relocated from Cuba. However, a fire in 1886 destroyed many cigar factories, leading some owners to move their operations to Ybor City in Tampa. Despite this setback, Key West remained the largest and wealthiest city in Florida at the end of the 1880s.

USS Maine sailed from Key West on her fateful visit to Havana, where she blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, igniting the Spanish–American War. Crewmen from the ship are buried in Key West, and the Navy investigation into the blast occurred at the Key West Customs House.

In 20th Century

The 20th century brought both progress and challenges to Key West. In 1912, the city was connected to the Florida mainland through the Overseas Railway, which extended Henry M. Flagler‘s Florida East Coast Railway. This connection brought new opportunities but also made Key West vulnerable to natural disasters. In 1919, the city suffered catastrophic damage from the Florida Keys hurricane, and in 1935, the Labor Day Hurricane destroyed much of the Overseas Railway.

1935 Hurricane in key west florida
Hurricane in 1935

The U.S. government rebuilt the route as an automobile highway, known as the Overseas Highway, which became an extension of U.S. Route 1. Key West played a significant role during World War II, with over 14,000 ships passing through its harbor and an influx of soldiers, sailors, laborers, and tourists. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman established a working vacation home in Key West, known as the Harry S. Truman Little White House. Overall, the 20th century saw Key West go through periods of devastation and recovery, but it also brought new opportunities and recognition as a key location for transportation and government activities.

Cuban Revolution

Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, there were regular ferry and airplane services connecting Key West and Havana. John F. Kennedy often referenced the “90 miles from Cuba” distance in his speeches against Fidel Castro. Kennedy himself visited Key West a month after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Conch Republic

In 1982, Key West briefly declared independence as the Conch Republic in protest of a U.S. Border Patrol blockade. This blockade, aimed at searching for illegal immigrants on US 1, caused a 17-mile traffic jam, disrupting tourism. Souvenirs representing the Conch Republic, such as flags and T-shirts, remain popular, and an annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration is held on April 23, featuring parades and parties.

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Timeline History of Key West:

  • 1521: Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovers Key West, names it Cayo Hueso.
  • 1763: Great Britain takes control of Florida from Spain.
  • 1766: British governor of East Florida recommends a post on Key West for better control.
  • 1815: Spanish governor of Cuba grants Key West to Juan Pablo Salas.
  • 1821: Florida transferred to the United States.
  • 1822: Salas sells Key West twice, first to General John Geddes, then to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton.
  • 1822-1832: Simonton, John Mountain, John Whitehead, and John W.C. Fleming play key roles in developing Key West.
  • 1832: Fleming returns to Key West but dies the same year.
  • Late 19th Century: Key West becomes known for wrecking, fishing, turtling, and salt manufacturing.
  • 1948: Key West suffers damage from two hurricanes.
  • 1959: Regular connections between Key West and Havana cease after the Cuban revolution.
  • 1982: Key West declares independence as the Conch Republic in protest.
  • 1822: Lt. Commander Matthew C. Perry plants the U.S. flag in Key West, claiming it for the United States, marking the Florida Keys as U.S. property.
  • 1823: Commodore David Porter takes charge, ruling Key West under martial law, tasked with countering piracy and the slave trade.
  • 1830: Key West becomes the richest city per capita in the United States.
  • 1845: Fort Zachary Taylor, active during the Civil War, houses the largest collection of Civil War cannons.
  • 1830-1861: Key West is a major center of U.S. salt production, disrupted during the Civil War, and never fully recovers after an 1876 hurricane.
  • 1860: Many Cubans seek refuge in Key West during the Ten Years’ War for Cuban independence.
  • 1886: A large fire destroys 18 cigar factories and 614 houses.
  • 1889: Key West becomes the largest and wealthiest city in Florida.
  • 1898: USS Maine sinks in Havana Harbor, contributing to the Spanish–American War. Key West hosts Navy investigation.
  • 1912: Key West connected to the Florida mainland via the Overseas Railway extension.
  • 1926: Pan American Airlines founded in Key West, connecting to Havana.
  • 1935: Labor Day Hurricane destroys much of the railroad.
  • 1938: U.S. government rebuilds the rail route as the Overseas Highway, an extension of U.S. Route 1.
  • 1928: Hemingway arrives in Key West, residing on and off for approximately 11 years.
  • 1959: Regular ferry and airplane services between Key West and Havana cease after the Cuban revolution.
  • 1961: John F. Kennedy references “90 miles from Cuba” in speeches against Fidel Castro, visiting Key West after the Cuban Missile Crisis resolution.
  • 1970: Key West emerges as an offbeat destination for those wanting to live by their own rules.
  • 1971: Jimmy Buffett arrives, and Key West is forever associated with his song “Margaritaville.”
  • 1979: Key West hosts its first Fantasy Fest, a 10-day annual tradition at the end of October.
  • 1982: Key West briefly declares independence as the Conch Republic in protest of a Border Patrol blockade during the Mariel Boatlift, causing a 17-mile traffic jam.

Location of The Paradise

I. The Island of Key West: Key West is an island in the Straits of Florida, within the U.S. state of Florida. Together with all or parts of the separate islands of Dredgers Key, Fleming Key, Sunset Key, and the northern part of Stock Island, it constitutes the City of Key West.

II. Geographical Dimensions: The island of Key West is about 4 miles (6 kilometers) long and 1 mile (2 km) wide, with a total land area of 4.2 square miles (11 km2).

III. Southern Terminus of U.S. Route 1: It lies at the southernmost end of U.S. Route 1, the longest north–south road in the United States.

IV. Proximity to Cuba: Key West is about 95 miles (153 km) north of Cuba at their closest points.

V. Connectivity: It is also 130 miles (210 km) southwest of Miami by air, about 165 miles (266 km) by road, and 106 miles (171 km) north-northeast of Havana.

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