A Short History of the Florida Keys
with some bits the official histories don’t mention
A Keys "Conch" ca.1870
Florida Keys are the end of the line, it’s where the U.S. peters out
and the Caribbean washes in with a whiff of rum and mańana. From
pirates to planters, wreckers, artists, dropouts and outlaws the
Keys has always attracted a varied and colorful mix of characters.
What they shared in common was an independence of spirit, an
appreciation of personal freedom and a fine disregard for sundry
strictures of mainstream society. In short they preferred life at
the edges. Such was the predominant nature of the Keys until a bit
after World War II.
In the Lower Keys coral rock has been covered over by oolite limestone deposits made during some subsequent submersion when conditions were unsuitable to coral growth.
1733 Map of the Florida Keys
from- A Map of the British Empire, Henry Popple 1733
1776 Map of the Florida Keys
from- An Accurate Map of North America, Thomas Jefferys 1776
Added to the danger of shipwreck was piracy. One of the first acts of sovereignty by the U.S. was the suppression of piracy. In November 1822 the U. S. navy schooner Alligator was wrecked on the reef off Upper Matecumbe that now bears its name. The Alligator was at that time returning to Norfolk Virginia after a successful hand to hand engagement with pirates near Matanzas, Cuba. During the battle 2 Americans and 14 pirates were killed. One of the Americans lost was the captain of the Alligator, Lt. William H. Allen. A few months later in April 1823 Commodore David Porter arrived in Key West to establish a naval depot with the express purpose of suppressing piracy and slave trading in the region. In its early years the settlement on the island of Key West was named Allentown and for some time thereafter Allen! was the boarding cry of the U.S. Navy. Today the ballast stones and a few buried timbers of the Alligator remain on the reef next to the lighthouse that was built in 1873.
Wrecking had been an occasional Keys activity since Indian times but the expansion of trade in the 19th century turned it into an industry. Although Keys folklore tells of false navigation lights being used to lure ships onto the reefs for wrecking this is
In the 1820s
lighthouses were built at Cape Florida, Sand Key and Dry Tortugas.
Carysfort lighthouse began operating in 1852. Sombrero Reef
lighthouse came in 1858 followed by Alligator (1873), Fowey (1878),
American Shoal (1880) and Rebecca Shoal (1886). These aids to
navigation and the growing advent of steamships in the latter half
of the century greatly reduced the number of wrecks. The end of the
wrecking era is generally considered to be 1905 and the grounding of
the steamship Alicia on Ajax Reef. The wrecking License Bureau
closed in 1921 and the last licensed wrecker, Captain Chet
Alexander, died in 1984.
1856 Map of the Florida Keys
The Keys in the
The railway to Key West which was completed in 1912 had had a major impact. From then on the Keys were no longer isolated and apart. By the 19 teens and twenties tourism had began and sportfishing had already become a significant Keys activity. In particular the writings of Zane Grey in the 1920s and Ernest Hemmingway in the 30s brought Key’s angling to widespread notice. The Keys in this era could be said to be the real birthplace of saltwater sportfishing. Although both commercial and recreational fishing have continued to the present the economic value of sportfishing greatly exceeds that of the commercial catch. Today, increasing value is being derived from those who only wish to see abundant fishes in their natural environment. Ironically, in the early days of recreational diving when most divers were spearfishermen it was the fishermen who wanted to ban it. Now, few divers are interested in spearing fish and many of them would like to ban fishing.
Whatever the main
legitimate economic activity in any era the Keys has seemed to
usually harbor a considerable illicit element as well. In addition
to the shadier side of wrecking some degree of smuggling has often
been going on. Arms, aliens, whiskey, and drugs have all had their
boom times as lucrative contraband. Unlike in the big cities where
lucrative crime tends to be dominated by full time professional
criminals, in the Keys such activity tended to be sprinkled across
the community as a part time job of otherwise legitimate citizens.
While only some were involved everyone knew what was going on and
simply weren’t concerned. Mainland laws had little moral authority
and were given notice only insofar as they could be enforced, which
in earlier times was not very far.
managed to ruin a
good thing the situation had become so blatant that the fire chief
of Key West was parking across the street from the high school and
dealing to students from his official red chief’s car with a big
chrome siren on top. When the feds caught on and were ready to
arrest him he disappeared and appears never to have been caught.
One of the most blatant of such Keys irregularities involved the Overseas Highway Road and Toll District. When the Overseas Highway to Key West was completed in 1938 toll booths were erected at Lower Matecumbe and Big Pine Key and a toll was collected from all traffic entering this section of the highway from either direction. These funds went to the Overseas Road and Toll Commission ostensibly for maintenance of the road. The Commission refurbished the former railroad maintenance village of Pigeon Key as a headquarters and a de facto country club for the commissioners and their political cronies. This continued until in 1952 when a scandal and investigation over use of the toll revenues ensued. The result was that Keys residents were issued permits exempting them from the toll. Local interest in the matter evaporated and the toll continued to be collected from the ever growing number of visitors for three more years. Then it somehow came to light that the road maintenance had become a state responsibility and the Overseas Road and Toll District Commission had for some time no longer had a function other than continuing to operate Pigeon Key solely as a recreational facility for the Commissioners. The Commission was reluctantly closed down and another investigation ensued but where the toll funds had gone was never determined. Maintaining a private tool booth on U.S. Highway 1 is not a bad scam if one can get away with it and they did.
Pigeon Key and the Seven Mile Bridge with Marathon in the background. Helmut Horn photo
The damage from such severe storms is not limited to the human sphere. Immediately after such storms most vegetation is stripped bare of leaves and many plants are killed by salt water. Within a few weeks however, most native vegetation, except for mangroves, is putting out new leaves. Mangroves are able to grow in salt water by excreting excess salt from their leaves. When they are stripped of their leaves they can no longer cope with the salt and large areas of them are killed by severe storms.
At Alligator Reef immediately after Donna the entire reef was white coral rubble and sand. Then within a few weeks the appearance began to change from white to a yellowy tan as a gelatinous algal film began to cover the rubble and rock. After a couple of months larger algae, sea grasses, gorgonians and other attached life had begun to re-establish and within a year small coral colonies started to be noticeable. In deeper water the silt gradually disappeared over the next couple of years as it was re-suspended by currents and the occasional surge action of long wave length ocean swells whose effect could reach deep enough.
Today, after some 45 years without a severe hurricane, the islands look more lush than they did in the 1950s before development really got underway. The significant amounts of fresh water and nutrients injected into the ground by thousands of septic tanks also cannot failed to have had some effect in this regard.
On the reefs coral
cover has declined over the past couple of decades in many areas. It
is widely believed this has been due to a decline in water quality
and most specifically to increased nutrients coming from both the
islands and the mainland. While this might well be true, direct
evidence for significantly increased nutrient transport from the
land has not been found. Meanwhile it has been discovered that the
nutrient flux from naturally occurring internal waves bringing
nutrient rich deep ocean water onto the outer reefs is up to 50
times greater than that coming from inshore water reaching the
Opposite- An early 1960's aerial view of Lower Matecumbe showing extensive areas of dead mangroves killed by hurricane Donna. For enlarged view click image.
To see view aerial photo sequence of changes in mangroves over the past half century click here.
One of my earliest
memories of Whale Harbor was of an altercation that began when the
barmaid at our bar and restaurant refused further service to two
motorcyclists when they became belligerent. One then started to
climb across the bar toward her. She picked up an empty beer bottle
and broke it against edge of the sink behind the bar. Brandishing
the jagged glass by the intact neck of the bottle she warned him to
come no further. They backed off and left threatening to return.
Another very early
memory was of an early morning call from the U.S. Navy in Key West.
They asked if my grandfather could help in the rescue of survivors
from a small freighter that had been sunk by a German U-boat off
Alligator Reef. My grandfather immediately headed out in his boat
and my mother and her sister started preparing a big breakfast,
certain that he would soon be returning with the survivors. He in
fact found them quite quickly after he got to the area and all were
in good condition. The U-boat, at considerable risk to itself, had
One windy day during the war years when it too rough to go out fishing I was with my grandfather at the dock talking to some fishermen. Just behind them in the water I spotted something floating I didn’t recognize. I called attention to it and it turned out to be a large bale of raw rubber. Rubber was a strategic commodity in short supply and it brought $40 which granddad decided was mine. This was about two weeks wages for an adult at that time.
When I was about
five years of age I began fishing from the dock. I would accumulate
a week’s catch of grunts and snappers which I kept in a live car (a
floating wooden cage) and then sell them to a fish buyer who came
around occasionally. One day a large school of pompano began leaping
out in the channel. My grandfather jumped in a launch with a castnet
and I accompanied him. When we arrived amidst the school of fish
there was a sudden great Thump! against the side of the boat just
next to me. A large barracuda chasing the pompano had struck into
the air and hit the boat leaving a large hole like a cannon ball in
the one inch planking. An inner plywood lining had prevented further
Keys toys, a Colt .45 and a Bowie knife
At age 12 I
received my first rifle, a single shot .22 caliber. This was not
unusual. A year later I acquired a .410 gage shotgun and the next
year added a 32-20 lever action rifle. At 15 I knew from memory the
ballistics tables for a broad range of cartridges and at 16 I quite
legally bought a .45 automatic pistol from a Miami gun store.
The proof of this
is an absence of any serious mishaps. The competence of Keys kids in
handling boats, fishing, shooting, climbing cocoanut trees, and
other skills of that environment were something one took for granted
with other Keys kids. However, with visiting children from elsewhere
one quickly discovered it was often necessary to watch out that they
didn’t either hurt themselves or someone else through their lack of
know-how we tended to assume everyone had. Even now I am still often
acutely aware of the inept and dangerous handling of firearms so
often depicted in films and video.
A few years later
my younger brother, Terry, decided to refinish the stock of his rifle as a
project for his woodworking class at Coral Shores high school.
Carrying the rifle on the school bus each day he completed the
project. Amazingly, at least from today’s perspective, no parents or
teachers objected to any of this. Today, of course, a student with a
rifle waiting for a school bus would result in public hysteria and
arrival of the swat squad.
early teen activity was the hunting of turtles, rays, and sharks by
harpooning. This was effected by cruising likely areas in an
outboard skiff on calm days until prey was spotted. Then it was
chased until it was close enough to be struck with a harpoon. This
had a detachable spear head attached to about 100 feet of quarter
inch nylon rope with a buoy at the end. The float permitted letting
go of the harpoon line if large sharks and rays pulled too strongly.
Eventually they would tire and could be hauled to the surface and
killed by shooting them. Turtles were taken home to eat.
For those who might be horrified by all this juvenile redneck mayhem
it may be well to consider that by the attitudes, values and
behavior of the era we were not out of line. For example, a 1937
issue of National Geographic Magazine featured a story on the
exciting sport of harpooning manta rays off Miami. They called them
devilfish. As for myself, by the time I was in my twenties killing
things had ceased to have any appeal as a sport.
Some important Keys dates
1600 - B.C. tentative date of
Indian pottery from Key Largo
For more on the history of the Keys see www.keyshistory.org.