History

Key West History
The island of Key West was originally inhabited by the Calusa Indians and was probably used as a burial ground. Because of the many bones found on the island the early Spanish Photo Credit:US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Sponge Auction at Wharf in Key Westconquistadors named it Cayo Hueso, which means “Bone Island.” Key West was transferred from the Spanish to the British and back before finally being controlled by the U.S. in the 1820s. John Simonton bought a large portion of the island and divided it into parcels that he sold. To enforce law and order, Simonton lobbied to have a naval base established on the island. This was an easy sale with the strategic position of Key West.

Key West had many industries before tourism including salvage wrecking, fishing, salt production, and the collection and trade of sponges. Wrecking made Key West the wealthiest city in Florida by the mid 1800s. Many of the luxury items salvaged can still be found in the homes of Key West today.

Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.  Photo by Rhonda Thompson of www.RhondaThompson.com
During the American Civil War Florida joined the Confederacy, but due to the Naval base, Key West remained under Union control. After the war Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas was used as a prison and held Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician that treated the broken leg of President Lincoln’s assassin. There is still a strong and proud U.S. Navy presence in Key West today and hopefully will be for many years to come.

Key West was connected with the rest of American during the early part of the 20th Century when Henry Flagler built the Overseas Railway through he Florida Keys. The great railroad was destroyed a few years later in 1935 during a violent hurricane. The storm took the lives of hundreds of people. The railroad was not rebuilt, but the U.S. government did build the first road to Key West using the remaining railroad infrastructure.

Since the building of the Overseas Highway Key West has been a popular tourist destination. There have been some ups and downs over the years, but the island seems destined now to hold the title as one of America’s best tourist locations for many years. Key West has become the end of the road for everyone from starving artist, writers, homosexuals, beach bums, and millionaires, each one contributing something unique to make Key West a very special place.