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Key West History

Shrimp Boat off Key WestEarly Key West History

When Ponce de Leon discovered La Florida for Spain in 1513 and his expedition sailed past the southernmost islands in this new acquisition, his sailors saw the twisted, thick mangroves along their shores and named the Los Martires, or "the martyrs". On a later visit in 1521, Ponce de Leon died, along with several missionaries, after being shot with a poison arrow by an Indian from the local tribe.

The island of Key West began to appear on European maps and charts of the Caribbean about a century later, although its name was Cayo Hueso, or Bone Key. Legend tells us that the first explorers on the island discovered bones of dead Indians scattered on the beach. As Old World settlers drove indigenous peoples off land along the coast of the eastern American colonies, tribes pushed southward. The Calusas were pushed by stronger tribes from northern Florida into the Keys, and further and further south until they could go no further. On Cayo Hueso, they fought a bloody battle that left many of them dead with their sun bleached bones on the beach there. Those that survived supposedly fled to Cuba and no mention is made of them beyond that.

England took possession of the Keys for the next twenty years until the end of the Revolutionary War, after which they were returned to Spain. During this time, until the first Americans settled there, neither country maintained any effective control over the islands. Even during the English possession, the Spanish authorities in Havana called them "Norte de Havana", or North Havana and continued to issue fishing licenses for Cubans to fish the Keys and return to Cuba with their catch, after salting and drying it on shore. Bahamians were coming to the Keys to cut mahogany and other hardwoods, hunt turtles, and salvage wrecks from the reefs.

In 1815, Spain deeded the island to a loyal subject and St. Augustine native, Juan Pablo Salas. In 1819, all of Florida was ceded to the United States. Salas had made no improvements to the island of Key West and sold it to John Simonton, an American businessman, for $2,000. Simonton understood the potential of Cayo Hueso's natural deep-water harbor and divided the island into four parts, selling three of them to fellow businessmen Whitehead, Fleming and Greene, and keeping one for himself. By this time, the island had been renamed Key West, probably as a result of an English language distortion of the original Spanish name.

John Simonton's next move was to contact the United States Navy and convince them that Key West would be a great place for a base of operation in the northern Caribbean, with easy access through the Gulf of Mexico. The Navy was interested and, in 1822, sent Lt. Matthew C. Perry, aboard the USS Shark, with orders from the Secretary of the Navy to scout Key West out as a port for commerce and base of operations. Lt. Perry's report back to Washington was very favorable, but also stated that Key West, in addition to it's law abiding citizenry, had a small band of unlawful desperados. Lt. Perry claimed Key West for the United States and sailed away.

Key West was designated as a U.S. port of entry and a customs house was established. This meant that salvaged cargoes could be entered at Key West instead of further up the coast at St. Augustine. It also allowed Key West to be a transshipment port for foreign cargo, particularly from Cuba.

But, the desperado problem Lt. Perry mentioned did not leave with him and in 1823, Captain David Porter was appointed commodore of the West Indies Anti-Pirate Squadron. His job was to protect Americans and commerce from the pirates and establish a naval base on Key West. He made short work of the pirate problem, but he also had to deal with mosquitoes, yellow fever and a lack of fresh water. But the citizens of Key West had their own problems with Captain Porter. He had the idea that the island and everyone on it were second to the needs of the Navy, so he decided that he was the supreme and only ruler. He simply took firewood and killed cattle without compensating the owners for their losses. He was the only one who could approve the sale and occupation of new land. He, basically, declared martial law.

A Growing Economy

And then, there were the reefs. Long established trade routes came close to the Florida coast and the reefs just seven miles offshore of Key West. Stormy weather, or a captain's inexperience with this treacherous area, could easily cause ships with valuable cargoes to founder just off shore. As a result, wrecking and salvaging soon became the island's primary business and its citizenry became wealthy on the proceeds. Storehouses and chandleries abounded, and people came from all over to bid on the valuable salvaged items. Between 1828 and the 1850s, Key West was considered the richest city, per capita, in the United States.

Other Key West industries included fishing, turtling and salt manufacturing. From 1830 until the Civil War, Key West supplied much of the nation's salt, used largely for food preservation, which came from the surrounding salt waters. The demand for Key West salt quickly diminished when plentiful salt mines were discovered on the mainland.

The cigar trade soon found its way across the Florida Straits from Cuba. There was only one cigar factory in Key West in 1831, but it soon became big business. The Cuban Revolution caused thousands of cigar workers to emigrate to Key West and this caused the industry to grow very quickly. By 1890, 129 cigar factories were in operation and bringing in good profits. However, union labor strikes caused the owners problems and promises of tax-free land and cheaper labor enticed them to move to Tampa. Key West soon lost its place as America's leading producer of hand-rolled Cuban cigars.

Sponging was also part of the Key West economy for a short period of time beginning at the end of the 19th century. Although the waters around Key West and the Florida Keys held many thriving sponge beds, Key West's remote location made it difficult and expensive to get the end product to market. Some rich sponge beds were located on Florida's west coast near Tampa and it was easier to transport them from there. Although a deadly sponge fungus destroyed most of the beds around the Florida Keys and Key West, the last twenty-five years have seen a revival of healthy ones and several small businesses are harvesting Keys sponges today.

Then came Prohibition in the 1920s, and another Florida Keys cottage industry was born. Smuggling of contraband beer and rum from Cuba and whiskey, rye and scotch from the British Isles via Nassau was easy and many Key West citizens became wealthy from the profits.

In much the same way, marijuana smuggling in the 1960s through the early 1980s prospered. As time went on, the enterprise became more dangerous and many went to prison. Some Key West residents, however, made their fortunes and purchased premium land, homes and businesses.

But, from earliest days, Key West had tourism, and today that is its biggest business. Millions of visitors from around the world travel here each year by plane, by cruise ship, or by car down the Overseas Highway to find paradise at the end of US1.

Military Involvement

As America's southernmost state, Florida seceded from the Union in 1861. But at almost the same time Fort Zachary Taylor, important to the defense of Key West Harbor, was commandeered by a small troop of Union solders. It was expected that the local citizenry would protest its seizure, but that didn't happen, and more Union troops eventually arrived there. Key West was the only place in the United States at the time from which you had to travel north to join the South.

During this same time, Key West was home to the East Coast Blockade Squadron whose mission was to stop blockade runners from sailing important contraband to the rebel troops through the Gulf of Mexico. Almost 300 blockade runners were arrested and their ships impounded in Key West Harbor.

In 1896, the battleship USS Maine sailed into Key West and its officers and crew made themselves at home. A year later, President McKinley ordered the Maine to sail on to Cuba as proof of America's military might and support for American business interests in that country. On February 15, 1889, as the ship sat it Havana Harbor, it was ripped apart by an explosion that killed 266 of its crew of 354. Many were also badly burned and returned to Key West to be cared for by the nuns at Mary Immaculate convent. The dead were also returned, and today they lie buried at a special monument in Key West Cemetery. The cause of the explosion was never explained, but on April 22, America went to war with Spain. This short war won independence from Spain for many of her island possessions including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands.

The Navy's presence in Key West was increased in the 1930s, as the threat of world war became reality. The construction and maintenance of a submarine base provided many civilian jobs and Key West was back on its feet. Although the submarine base was closed in 1974, the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica still thrives and is responsible for a military presence and the provision of many civilian jobs.

 
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