Florida Keys History

History of the Florida Keys

Arrival of the Spanish

florida keys history
USS Mohawk

The word Key comes from the Spanish word cayo, which means little island. The Florida Keys, therefore, means “little islands of Florida”, and it is with the Spanish that our brief history of the Florida Keys really begins. These little islands had been home to Caloosa Indians who lived here until the arrival of the history-making Spanish Ponce de Leon expedition. When the expedition first arrived here in the early sixteenth century, these explorers were looking for the Fountain of Youth but instead found money to be made in logging the great old Mahogany trees that grew here. Thus began the Keys’ long history of absorbing visitors, confronting commercial development, and accepting manmade changes in its landscape. The Spanish didn’t see any use for the Florida Keys except logging the mahogany and taking some Caloosas as slaves. The Spanish were really after gold and they didn’t find any here. he future’s horizon. The Florida Keys will always be an exotic world of tropical adventure to those who visit, and a special tropical paradise to those who who are lucky enough to stay.


There was also no fresh water, no dirt to grow things in, and way too many insects. The Spanish left these stony islands and moved on, but they did make note of the Florida Keys for their maps.

Soon after their arrival, the Straits of Florida saw hundreds of Spanish Galleons traversing the area with gold from Central America bound for Spain. Too bad the Spanish mapmakers didn’t make better maps of the reef outside the Florida Keys, since many of them wrecked there in the following years. Descendants of Englishmen who settled in the nearby Bahamas cruised the reef near Key wEst for these wrecks, beginning in the 1700s. They didn’t really come to shore to live on Key West until the US won Florida from the Spanish in 1821. In order to continue their lucrative careers as wreckers, they had to become residents of the US, so they began living on the island.

Arrival of the United States

The Keys back then were deserted and remote, and seemingly uninhabitable. As time passed and the United States came into existence, and the new US Government worked on its plan of Western (and Southern) expansion, settlers began to arrive. The first settlement appeared in the 1820s in Key West, also called Cayo Hueso, which means Bone Island. There were bones all over Key West before the settlers arrived and cleaned them out in the 19th Century. The bones were human bones, and they were the remains of Caloosa Indians, who used the island as a burial ground.

Florida wasn’t even a state yet when settlers made their stake on Key West. They didn’t bother with the rest of the Keys, which remained au naturel and deserted. About two decades after the first settlers arrived here, the US began construction on Fort Zachary Taylor, initiating Key West’s long history with the US military. Fort Taylor was an army base until the 1940s, when it was turned over to the Navy, which had a much larger presence here and continues to do so up into the present day.

Arrival of the Settlers

Nine years after the end of the US Civil War, the US government looked toward the rest of the Florida Keys with an eye towards developing its homesteading program.

These new settlers used whatever they could find to build their homes, including wood washed up on shore from shipwrecks. These settlers must have really been put to the test when you consider how inhospitable this area was without air conditioning, running water, insect control, or farmable land. The mosquitoes were thicker than air and means of eradicating them were primitive and not very effective. Try wrapping cheesecloth around your head and taking a walk in a swamp sometime… They burned smudge fires day and night, which was what the Indians here and in the Everglades used to do. These brave settlers who suffered those early days fished and farmed and went to Church and very different from their fellow-settlers already living a pirate lifestyle in Key West. Their wilder neighbors to the West were wreckers but they were farmers. They managed to pull pineapple, milons, coconuts, and oranges from the rocky land. They used small boats to carry their produce out to larger boats that took their wares to larger markets.

Arrival of Flagler & His Railroad

The small boats were their mode of transportation until the arrival of Mr. Henry Flagler in 1905. His railroad down the East Coast of Florida was then extended through Homestead and the Everglades and into Key Largo. It took seven years of construction, disease, hurricanes suffering, and worker death to get the railroad all the way to Key West, but it finally arrived. The railroad essentially cut off the farming communities of the Upper Keys since now Key West was open to receive produce from all over the Carribbean for shipment via the railroad to the mainland. The farmer-settlers had really depleted the fragile, thin topsoil of the Upper Keys by this point anyway, so the end was near. The Great Hurricane of 1935 finally did them all in and most of the towns along the way to Key West just disappeared.

1935 Hurricane

The hurricane of 1935 has no name because we weren’t naming the great storms yet at that point. Nevertheless, this one has its own name, because of its sheer power and destruction. It’s known as the The Hurricane, and it hurled itself through the Upper Keys at the Matecumbe Keys on September 2. Winds topped 200 miles an hour and more than 800 people died. There’s a Hurricane Monument in Islamorada, where many of the dead are buried. Many of them were World War I vets working to construct a road as part of the Federal work project system of the 1930s.

In 1942, a pipeline bringing fresh water from the Everglades was put in through the Keys, and the government began promoting the Florida Keys as a vacation destination. From here, you can see the link to modern day tourism and development, and the outline of Florida Keys history is complete. There are new issues to consider, new events that take place, more natural disasters to ponder and ever-more new personalities to encounter, and the history of exoticness, eccentricity, escapism, and tropical dreaminess continues into t into the future’s horizon. The Florida Keys will always be an exotic world of tropical adventure to those who visit, and a special tropical paradise to those who who are lucky enough to stay.

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