A History of Key West
As the New World, and Florida in particular, began to be settled Native American Indian tribes were forced to the south. Florida's Calusa tribe eventually migrated to the Florida Keys and Key West where they fought to keep the southernmost lands. In the process many Indians were killed and the Key West beaches were used as burial grounds. According to Key West lore Spanish settlers, upon finding the bones of the dead Indians strewn on the beach, named the island Cayo Hueso, which means Island of Bones. Later English settlers, hearing this, Americanized the Spanish name to Key West, which is actually fitting as the island (key) is the most westerly of the Florida Keys island chain.
Over the years, ownership of the island switched several times between the Spanish and the English, providing no real control over the island. In 1815 the island was given by Spain to Juan Pablo Salas. A few years later Florida was relinquished to America. American businessman, John Simonton, purchased the island from Salas in the early 1820’s, later selling portions of Key West to fellow businessmen Greene, Whitehead, and Fleming (all of whom have Key West streets named after them today, so be on the lookout!). The triumvirate began to develop Key West, and are even responsible for bringing the United Stated Navy down to build a base, which slowed the pirating in the area. However, settlers still had to combat illness, mosquitoes, and treacherous seas.
As Key West grew, so did local business. The island became a major shipping area, but the coral reefs caused many shipwrecks in heavy weather. Thus, salvaging became a major industry for Key West, making the island and its people the richest per capita in the United States. Besides salvaging, turtling, fishing, sponging, cigar making, and salt manufacturing were all big business, although not without their own problems.
Henry Flagler provided Key West with access from the mainland when he built the Overseas Railroad from Homestead to Key West, which was finished in 1912. Thanks to Flagler and the Prohibition, Key West grew wealthier yet, as the island was a prime location for smuggling liquor from Cuba and the Bahamas back to the mainland. (Years later, many residents again made tidy profits by smuggling marijuana through Key West.)
Unfortunately, Key West went bankrupt due to the Great Depression and the hurricane of 1935, which wrought much damage in the islands, including destroying the railway Flagler worked so gruelingly to erect.
But even bankruptcy could not take away the lure of Key West, and people such as Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams came to visit or reside here, attracting others to the island. In 1938, the Overseas Highway, replaced the Railway utilizing the bridges Flagler had built for the former. Furthermore, the Navy base built years earlier became paramount during WWII, which also brought new life to the island.
In 1982, a group of Key Westers seceded from the Union of the United States of America to form the Conch Republic. The mainland’s response to this “crisis” was to barricade the entrance to the Keys at Key Largo so that the tourists and supplies could not get through. Unable to replenish supplies (most importantly beer and rum) with the roadblock in place, the seceders surrendered. Visitors may still see the flag of the Conch Republic hanging up around our island at places such as the Conch Republic Seafood Company bar and restaurant.