CELEBRATING 200 YEARS OF PERMANENT SETTLEMENT
A Brief Historical Timeline
Long before the Florida Keys were explored and colonized by the Spanish, the islands were first home to several tribes of Native Americans. It is believed that the Calusa and Tequesta tribes occupied the Florida Keys, with the Calusas being the principal tribe, as early as 800 ACE. The islands of the Florida Keys were an ideal location for people to live off the land due to the abundance of food and materials to make tools. The Indigenous People depended on the copious sources of seafood including lobster, fish and turtles. They also were gathers and collected fruits such as sea grapes and cocoplums while they employed conch shells as shovels, weapons, cups and other tools. Native Americans also made use of teeth from sharks to create weapons.
Soon, however, Spanish colonizers settled in the Keys, primarily to gather turtles for food and hard woods for building. This triggered mistrust between them and the Native Americans. The Indigenous People continue to occupy the Florida Keys until the early 1700s. Creek Indians moved into the region around 1770, but there remained no permanent settlement. The islands continued to be used temporarily by transient Native Americans, particularly the Seminoles, as temporary outposts for fishing, trading and wrecking activities.
John Simonton, 1822
Our history of a permanently settled island began on January 19, 1822 when John W. Simonton of Alabama purchased Key West from Juan Pablo Salas for the handsome sum of $2,000; the latter had acquired it as a Spanish Land Grant in 1815 for his service to the Spanish crown. Since Florida was a new U.S. Territory the original Don Juan de Estrata Land Grant to Salas had to the confirmed - no U.S. deed could be granted. Simonton was in a race to lay claim to the island against other individuals, but his tenacity paid off and he was finally given legal claim.
Simonton soon took on three northern partners: John Whitehead, John Fleeming and Pardon Greene. Simonton divided it up property amongst he and his three partners. These investors acknowledged that Key West’s natural deep water port was the deepest port between New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia.
No sooner than William Whitehead arrived in Key West in 1822 to survey the island, Lieutenant Matthew C. Perry sailed into the harbor under orders from the U.S. Navy to take possession of the island on behalf of the United States. Simonton had paid for the island in January, and by the 25th day of March, Perry hoisted the flag of the U.S., claiming sovereignty over it and the neighboring islands.
Perry named the island ‘Thompson’s Island’ and the harbor ‘Port Rodgers’ – the first to honor the then Secretary of the Navy, and the other after Commodore Rodgers, the President of the Naval Board. Neither one of the names would last long, barely beyond the visit of Perry.
March 25, 1822
General Order, April 6th 1823
A Salute of 17 Guns is to be find at 8 o'clock this morning from the Battery in front of the Town, and the American Ensign is to be hoisted at the Flag Staff.
The Town is hereafter to be called Allenton, and the Battery, Thompsons Battery.
Commodore David Porter
The early settlers envisioned a three-prong approach to expansion. First, in the early 1820s, the railroad had not yet come to the U.S., and travel over land was arduous and expensive. The least expensive way to transport goods from Point A to Point B was by ship. Key West was well positioned as a convenient way station on the grand highway between ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the flourishing industrial cities of the Northeast.
Second, it was the hope of the partners to convince Congress to designate Key West as a customs port. It would serve not only the United States, but the entire West Indies. Cuban coffee and sugar, for example, would enter the country through Key West, and American goods would depart for Cuba, the Bahamas and other foreign ports through the same harbor.
Third, the partners also envisioned the island as an outpost of national security and defense. At the time Key West came under U.S. control, West Indies piracy had escalated to a critical level, harrying merchant ships from America, Europe and South America. In addition to piracy, there was much unrest in many of Spain’s colonies that were struggling for independence. Conflicts were spilling over, and Key West was in a vulnerable geographic location – it must be protected.
Everything truly fell into place in 1825 when the Federal Wrecking Act prescribed that all property wrecked in U.S. waters be taken to a U.S. Port of Entry. Three years later, in 1828, Key West was designated a Port of Entry. Key West grew from a barren island into a bustling city within a few years.
Merchants, warehouse owners, carpenters, shipbuilders, sailmakers, attorneys, doctors, insurance representatives, politicians, military personnel, journalists and the like all made their way to the island in the hopes of finding riches.
As stated, the wrecking industry emerged as the main trade in Key West. Now under U.S. rule, Bahamians that salvaged sunken cargo could no longer take it back to the Caribbean. Instead, they had to go through the process of auctioning it off at the Port of Key West. It became a highly organized and regulated industry, with dozens of vessels and hundreds of men active in the trade at any given time.
Ships were wrecking on the Florida Reef at the rate of almost once a week in the middle of the 19th century. The city quickly developed into Florida's most important port. As a hub of salvage, adjudication, and auction, Key West become Florida’s largest city and America’s richest, per capita. The 1830s saw Key West become Florida’s leading port, accounting for 60 to 90 percent of territorial imports and exports.
As traffic through the Florida Strait increased, so too did the wrecks. Salvaging crews unloaded close to half a million dollars worth of salvaged goods on to Key West docks each year. As long as the Strait remained badly charted and unlit, many ships continued to founder on the reef.
Wrecking Industry 1830s
Fort Zachary Taylor, 1845
In 1836, when Key West had a population of 517 people, members of the Army Corps of Engineers urged Congress to appropriate $3 million to build a fort on the island to protect the Florida Strait and the Gulf of Mexico. Key West was surveyed in 1844, on the eve of Florida becoming a state, and it was determined that the southwest part would provide an excellent location for coastal fortifications. Sixty-three acres were chosen, and some $5,000 was paid for the land.
Five years after construction started, the structure was named Fort Taylor after U.S. President Zachary Taylor who was a hero of the Mexican-American War and who had recently died of typhus while in office.
This gave Key West its first true large-scale military installation, signaling the government’s recognition of the island’s economic and geographic value. While the fortification was imposing and was equipped with powerful weaponry, it took a long time to complete and was only just ready for what was next in store.
Bahamians were among the first people to immigrate to Key West in the mid-nineteenth century. Many relocated to the island to labor in fishing, sponging, turtling, shipbuilding and other maritime industries. Two main factors that contributed to increased Bahamian migration were the poor economic climate and opportunities in the Bahamas, as well as the short distance from the Bahamas to Florida.
Key West's growth in industries and wealth was dependent on this labor force. Many of the Bahamian immigrants settled in a neighborhood on the southwest edge of Key West town, between Whitehead Street and the area of naval and military bases now named Truman annex. The neighborhood became known as Bahama Village, and as more Bahamians of African descent arrived, the neighborhood took on a distinctly Afro-Caribbean flair which was reflected in architectural styles and traditional foods, and general cultural customs.
Bahamian Migration, 1850s
American Civil War, 1861-1865
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Key West could have been one of the most important holdings for the Confederacy. Fortunately for the Union, Captain James Milton Brannan, U.S. Army, was the senior ranking officer
on the island prior to the outbreak of war. His undermanned company represented the total forces belonging to the federal government in South Florida. Three days after Florida seceded from the Union, Brannan took possession of Fort Taylor in the name of the Union. Although no one was aware of it at the time, the maneuver solidified Key West’s position as a Union stronghold for the duration of the conflict.
The Union Navy was able to utilize the strategic port of Key West as their base of operations for the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Having a southern base greatly influenced the outcome of the Civil War, particularly with regards to the Union’s ability to limit the amount of supplies coming into and out of port cities along the Gulf of Mexico.
To combat the Union’s ships, the Southern states hired civilian vessels, known as ‘blockade runners’, to break through the line of defense in an effort to keep themselves supplied with goods necessary to continue the war.
Despite the Confederate feelings of the island’s residents, they generally kept their sympathies quiet. That is because, unlike most southern cities, Key West prospered during the Civil War owing to its connection to the Union.
Notwithstanding the departure of Confederate supporters, the island's population grew to 3,500, essentially due to its continued economic success. Most people worked in the sponge industry, the shipping or merchandising business, while an occasional shipwreck kept the salvagers occupied.
While most Southern cities were desperately trying to pick up the pieces during the long Reconstruction period, Key West was in a much different position. Due to its Union control, residents were permitted to trade with other northern cities to keep open the supply lines. This meant that the population was relatively well off – some merchants and warehouse owners made a handsome profit during the conflict.
But times were changing. Upgrades in nautical charts, navigation equipment and lighthouses meant that shipwrecks on the Florida Reef were growing less and less. The wreckers and other Key West entrepreneurs could see the writing on the wall. These men, who already owned ships and very technical equipment, shifted their capital and experience into sponging.
While the waters off Key West were abundant with the rich sponge beds yielding high-quality sponges, the remote location of the island made it difficult and expensive to get the sponges to market. To explore the profitability of Florida Key’s sponges, a sample shipment was sent to New York City in 1849. The softness and wide variety of Key West sponges immediately appealed to a large number of people, thus began an island industry that lasted over 50 years.
Soon, what had been a small industry in the 1850s run by men in small boats now attracted out-of-work wreckers and commercial fishermen. By the early 1860s, brokers were hauling $70,000 worth of sponges out of Florida Keys waters.
At its peak, Key West held the monopoly on the sponge trade in the United States , employing 1,200 men working on 350 ‘hook boats’. It produced an average of 2,000 tons of sponges per year which yielded the economy roughly $750,000.