A Short History of the Florida Keys

with some bits the official histories don’t mention

Walter Starck

A Keys "Conch" ca.1870

The 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.

After the war mainstream America began to trickle in. Then the trickle became a flood and the old Keys way of life was submerged in suburbia. Bits of the old remain and some of its flavor has permeated the new but like everywhere in our rapidly changing world the old we remember was the new of our great grandparents and today’s new will be the old of our grandchildren. It’s been a fascinating journey to this point and there is always more to come. Let’s consider some highlights to this time.

The Keys are geologically young. The Upper Keys are of coral rock formed by a living reef that grew in place during a period of higher sea level in the previous interglacial period around 100,000 years ago. This relatively short peak in sea level was followed by a long glacial period when sea levels were as much as several hundred feet lower than at present. During this time the present keys were simply a rocky ridge several miles inland from the S.E. coast of the mainland Florida peninsula. This most recent glacial period was preceded by at least 25 earlier ones stretching back several million years. These in turn have been driven by cycles in Earth’s orbit that determine the amount of solar energy the planet receives.

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.

The earliest evidence of human existence in Florida is from 12,500 years ago. This is from a time just before the end of the last glacial period when sea levels were still perhaps a hundred feet below the present one. Although it seems likely that Paleo-indians would have lived in the Keys area at such time any coastal habitation sites from that era would now be far offshore beneath the sea and are yet to be discovered.

Pottery from a midden on Key largo is of a style that has been dated to around 1600 B.C. on the mainland. This indicates the present day Keys were inhabited at least three and a half thousand years ago.

The coming of Europeans to the New World introduced massive epidemics that swept far beyond the initial points of contact. Many indigenous populations were reduced to remnants and whole cultures were wiped out well before Europeans began to settle their former territory in later centuries. Spanish accounts of the recovery of treasure from their galleons wrecked in the Keys by a hurricane in 1622 mention the use of Indian divers. Until the early 1700s the Keys inhabitants were the indigenous Indians. Then, until about 1770, the Creeks (later called Seminoles) began sharing the Keys with the earlier group. After that the Seminoles were predominant.

Although claimed by Spain, the Keys were never really settled by the Spanish. In 1763 Florida was ceded to England but the British returned to Spain in 1783 at the Treaty of Versailles. In 1819 the U.S. gained title from Spain along with Spanish rights in the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. in turn (temporarily) gave up its claims to Texas. Ratification and the actual transfer of sovereignty took place in 1821. In 1822 the U.S. established the first permanent settlement in the Keys. It was at Key West, an Anglicization of the Spanish Name for the island, Cayo Hueso or island of bones.

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

Wrecking and Early Settlement
Piracy and its only slightly more legitimate maritime relative, wrecking, were Keys industries from the early 16th until the latter part of the 19th centuries. The Florida Straits were the most dangerous part of voyages from the Gulf and much of the Caribbean area to the U.S. East Coast and Europe. The Keys were low lying, surrounded by hidden reefs and to the leeward along a narrow strait. Whole Spanish treasure fleets were wrecked in the Keys and even as late as 1850 to 1860 some 500 ships were lost in the Florida Straits. That’s an average of one every week. To the Spanish the Keys were known as Los Martires (the Martyrs).

Anti-piracy squadron

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.

U.S.S. Alligator

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

undocumented and unlikely. Ships are not moths. They don’t come to lights and under a Florida law of 1823 doing anything with the intent of causing vessels to run aground was a capital offence. Where the questionable and illegal aspects of wrecking came into reality was in the making of salvage arrangements with captains of grounded or wrecked vessels. Kickbacks to captains for agreement to extravagant salvage claims and/or dubious assistance are recorded and the deliberate grounding of vessels for such purpose was commonly rumored and very likely.

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.

During the American Revolution many loyalists moved to the Bahamas and to Florida which at that time was in the period of English control. When Florida was returned to Spain in 1783 the loyalists who had moved there had to again flee. By 1788 some 9,300 had moved to the Bahamas. U.S. assumed sovereignty in 1821 and in 1825 it decreed that all salvage from wrecks in the area must be taken to a port of entry. There were only two, Key West and St. Augustine. This prompted many Bahamians in the area who were engaged in wrecking (i.e. salvage) to move to Key West. These people and their descendents became the predominant early Keys settlers. They spoke with a distinctive Cockney accent and became known as Conchs after the large marine shell that was one of their staple food items.

The U.S. Census of 1870 records Florida had a population of 187,748, Key West had 5,657 and the Upper Keys 134. Of the last, 53 were Bahamians, 71 Floridians, 4 English, 2 Irish and one each from Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Russia,. All those listed as Floridians had Bahamian parents but for two children of a Bahamian father and a Texan mother. Thus, 124 of the 134 were of Bahamian descent. Occupation of those over 18 were 24 farmers, 12 seamen, 3 lighthouse keepers, 3 servants, 1 minister, 1 carpenter and 1 farm laborer. In 1940 the Upper Keys population was 352. A decade later in 1950 it was 1,025 and in 1960 it had grown to 3,125. In 2000 there were 25,073 Upper Keys residents.

The present population of the Florida Keys is about 80,000 of which the single largest occupation would probably be retired. The 2000 census found Key West to have a population of 25,478. In 1890 there were 18,080 in Key West. In 1920 it was reported at almost 20,000 but the Great Depression saw many leave and by 1940 it had fallen to 12,927. The land area of the inhabited Keys is about 65,500 acres

1856 Map of the Florida Keys

The Keys in the 20th Century
As wrecking declined over the latter half of the 19th century farming and fishing replaced it. The half-century from about 1880 to 1930 was the heyday of Keys farming. Pineapples, limes and other tropical fruits, plus winter vegetables (especially tomatoes) were the main crops. The commercial fishing industry was slower to develop. The highly perishable nature of seafood restricted its market until refrigeration became widespread in the 1930’s.

Train on the Seven Mile Bridge in the 1920s

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.

 Norma II, a sportfishing mothership yacht of the 1930s

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.

In Key West in the 1970s there was a boom in cannabis importation. When federal authorities became aware of what was going on and made some arrests local juries found the accused not guilty. After a series of such cases the situation became apparent and subsequent trials were moved  to  the  federal  court  in  Miami.   Before  the  feds

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.

Prostitution and gambling were for a long time staple sectors of the Key West economy s well. For many years in fact if one had business to do with the city government you

went to the town hall in the morning or Mommas in the afternoon. This was an upmarket bordello with a comfortable bar which served as the club and unofficial city hall where the city fathers could be found in the afternoon.

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.

The tollgate on U.S. Highway 1 at Lower Matecumbe ca. 1940

In 1941-42 the U.S. Navy built the water pipeline from Florida City to Key West and the Keys became free of a dependency on rainwater. Over the subsequent few years electrical power was extended to most areas. Everything was then in place for Keys development to boom along with period of economic expansion following World War Two. The decades from the 1950s through the 70s saw the Keys boom and change in character from an isolated frontier area into a holiday and retirement Mecca. By the 1980s however, most residents began to feel that with respect to ongoing development enough was enough. Road traffic in particular was reaching a choking point and there was no practical means of building the super highway the ongoing development was going to need. So too, there was a growing environmental awareness and residents could foresee the disappearance of much of what had attracted them to the area. Studies of carrying capacity, development plans and restrictions on future development ensued.

Subsequent growth has been considerably curtailed. The result has been that obtaining a home in the Keys has become a matter of buying an existing one from a limited supply for which there is a high demand. Inevitably this has resulted in soaring prices and many modest homes on quarter acre lots now sell for prices approaching $1,000,000. Land taxes and the general cost of living in the Keys have likewise risen and are now among the highest in the state. All this has meant that fewer and fewer working class people can afford to live here. This in turn has resulted in a labor shortage and high wage costs while many if not most of the old Keys families have cashed in and moved elsewhere.

 Pigeon Key and the Seven Mile Bridge with Marathon in the background.       Helmut  Horn photo

Hurricanes have played a major role in both the human and natural history of the Keys. In Spanish times storms drove whole galleon fleets to destruction on the reefs and they have periodically continued to wreck havoc on the islands. Although in nearly every decade the Keys experiences a storm or two there is a big difference between a force 1-3 storm and one of force 4-5. Force 1-2 storms are the commonest and do little damage. At force 3 damage is still only modest. At force 4 damage becomes extensive though deaths are still few. At force 5 damage is almost total and mortality is high. Sea level rise is generally proportional to storm intensity and at force 5 the ocean comes over all but the highest points in the Keys. The combined destructive power of waves and wind is immense. Most human structures are swept away to be deposited as massive piles of debris elsewhere.

Fortunately these stronger storms are relatively rare and only seem to strike the Keys one or twice in a century. The 1935 hurricane that killed most of the population in Islamorada and adjacent areas was a force 5 storm. Since then the only other severe storm has been Hurricane Donna in 1960 which was force 4. After Donna, road and bridge washouts were quickly fixed with temporary repairs but water and power were not fully re-established for several months while replacement of destroyed docks, boats and buildings took a year and more. Although the destruction was large deaths in Donna were few.

Islamorada memorial to those killed in the hurricane of 1935 .

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.

In the sea new channels are scoured and shallow water bottom communities are temporarily devastated but recover in a few years. On the reefs at depths down to 20 or 30 feet destruction is near total. Corals are broken and uprooted and coral rubble and sand surging across the bottom scour away all but vestiges of attached life. In deeper water several inches or more of silt blankets the bottom and smothers much of the attached life.

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 reefs.

Adding to the uncertainties has been two other recent events that have had a widespread detrimental effect on many Caribbean reefs. In 1983 an epidemic disease almost exterminated populations of the long-spined black sea urchin throughout the region. Previously these urchins had been abundant grazers on reef algae and after their populations collapsed algae bloomed. The algae not only compete with corals for space on the substrate but good evidence is beginning to be found indicating that when algae become abundant coral diseases greatly increase. Adding to the problem has been several widespread episodes of coral mortality in the 1990s associated with extended periods of windless summer weather when the normal mixing by waves ceases and the surface layer can reach lethal temperature levels for corals. Shallow reef tops and areas where tides drain the surface layer into deeper streams are worst effected. These events have been widely attributed to Global Warming but coral cores and sub fossil corals indicate that such events are neither new nor have the recent ones been more severe. In any event the most recent years have seen a global decline in such events and only time will reveal the reality. Although dramatic prophesies always attract the most attention history teaches that a moderate degree of observant caution tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism is probably the best way to approach such predictions.

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.

A Personal Perspective
When, where and however they may be, our own lives while unfolding tend to feel familiar, ordinary and just the way things are naturally. Looking back however, growing up in the Keys in the 1940s and 50s was in many ways a unique experience. It was remarkably free and adventurous while at the same time being healthy and absent of many of the ills of modern urban society. There were dangers but most were of one’s own making and capable of being dealt with. It was a matter of learning to judge circumstances and limits plus expanding ones skills and other abilities. The following are some recollections of that era.

My family were not of Conch background but a great grandfather was a German immigrant who settled in the Indian River area in the late 1800s. He built a schooner and began making trading voyages buying fresh winter vegetables in the Bahamas and the Keys. These were then taken on a fast Gulf Stream assisted run to New York where they brought top prices. He is said to have once bankrupted half of Key West from gambling debts when his vessel beat the heavily backed local favorite in a race. His son, my grandfather, went on to become one of the earliest and most successful of the early sport fishing charter captains in the early decades of the 20th century. My father continued on in the tradition and was one of the leading fishing guides from the mid 1940s through the 1970s. My first six years were spent at Whale Harbor in Islamorada and after that on Lower Matecumbe where we were the only residents outside the small fishing settlement at the opposite end of the island.

Whale Harbor ca. 1939

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.

Shortly afterwards they returned, two at the front door and a third, the largest, came to the back door which opened off the kitchen. I was in the kitchen when my grandfather went to the door. He was violently shoved aside and in falling backward struck his elbow breaking it. The intruder then headed out of the room toward the commotion coming from the direction of the front door With one arm disabled, granddad got up and grabbed a large glass jar of dried beans from an adjacent shelf, By this time the intruder was about 20 feet away. My grandfather hurled the jar it exploded against his head in a spray of beans. It was game over for that one.

I ran into the other room to see what was happening there and found my father bashing the head of a second intruder against the floor. Moments later my grandfather arrived and told my father to stop. The third intruder was gasping for breath near the front door. Facing two attackers dad had taken out the first with a blow to the throat.

Meanwhile, mother was calling the police. In those days the only local police was the highway patrol. When the patrolman arrived sometime later he reckoned, “It don’t look like you all need much help.”

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


surfaced beside them and given them time to launch a life boat and get clear before sinking their ship. The rescued crew were safely ashore at Whale Harbor and having their breakfast when we saw the Coast Guard vessel heading out from Snake Creek to search. The Coast Guard wasn’t very highly regarded in the Keys in those days.

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.

The author on the dock at Whale Harbor ca. 1941

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 penetration.

During the war my father was away for three years and I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. From time to time we would visit the fishing settlement at the old ferry slip on the lower end of Lower Matecumbe. My favorite people there was a commercial fisherman named Bob Pate and his wife Bea. Bob had a reputation as an excellent fisherman. He always had funny stories to tell and Bea was kind plus she always had some kind of treat for me. I learned later about their backgrounds. Bea was a Vassar graduate and Bob had been Al Capone’s personal chauffer and bodyguard. Once, when asked why he left Chicago Bob said he “didn’t like the weather”. Whatever the reason, it seems he remained in good graces with his former boss as Capone would occasionally drive down from his winter home in Miami Beach to pay Bob a visit.

Most kids had their own boats or ones they could use from an early age. My grandfather built mine for me when I was six. With this boat and an old face mask of my father’s I learned to dive by wearing the too large mask over my whole face and removing it to breathe when I came up. A few years later at Lower Matecumbe I got my first outboard which greatly expanded my range of exploration.

The author's first boat.

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 only real game hunting in the Keys was a few doves but in that era hawks and vultures were widely considered as appropriate for what the outdoor magazines called “varmit” hunting. There were also plenty of small sharks on the flats and these were included in our own varmit category. Inevitably, we occasionally made ad hoc decisions to temporarily expand our definition of “varmit” to include sundry other species of wildlife that presented a tempting target. Also there were always bottles and cans on the beaches that could be thrown out into the water to make excellent targets. This offered the added advantage of being able to see exactly where each bullet struck and thus make appropriate correction.

Ammunition was not too expensive and we used lots of it. One result was that we became good marksmen. Another was that in not just having guns but extensively using them we developed a reflexive ability to handle them appropriately.

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.

Two recollections in particular reveal just how much attitudes have changed. When I was about 13 I read about the history of the Bowie knife and getting one became a major want. At the end of that winter family friends who owned a sporting goods store in Delaware sent me the treasured knife when they returned home. It had a blade about a foot long and I honed it to razor sharpness, the testing and demonstrating for which soon had the backs of my arms shaved bare. I of course had to show it to my friends so I wore it to school and demonstrated it by lopping hefty branches off the shrubbery with a single stroke. Over the next few days other kids started bringing their dad’s and older brother’s military bayonets and K-bar knives and some without these brought machetes. Then for a few days in study periods we used sharpening stones and stropping on our leather belts to see who could get the sharpest edge. After about a week we lost interest and that was that.

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.

Games, TV, movies and hanging out were available, but exploring, camping, fishing, boating, diving shooting, and building things were much preferable to me. For several years in my early teens I was into fly fishing including tying my own lures. By age 14 I had caught a wide range of fish including tarpon and bonefish. Then I began to develop an interest in spearfishing which at age 15 led me into scuba diving and underwater photography. This in turn developed into an interest in marine biology and eventually in a PhD in marine science at the University of Miami.

In my early teens I built a "hut" using drift timber collected from the beaches on Lower Matecumbe. It was out in the water on posts next to the mangroves off the end of our property. Access was by boat. This was a great place to camp out but could at times be plagued by hideous amounts of mosquitoes and sandflies. Once a friend from Miami was with us and wanted to catch a shark. That night we baited a shark line and put it out through a small window next to his sleeping bag. The idea was that the visitor would be able to hold the line and be ready to haul in anything that took the bait. Shortly after we had gone to bed for the night he excitedly announced that he had felt a bite on the line. We advised giving it some slack to allow time for the bait to be swallowed. He did this while getting up and leaning out the window in preparation to hauling in on the line. We then said, Hit em!, and he did. On the other end was a lemon shark of perhaps 80 pounds. It took off when hooked and hauled our friend out the window. We grabbed his ankles just in time to prevent his going overboard but he never let go of the line and soon hauled in his catch.

The author's driftwood hut
For enlarged view click image.


Another favorite 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.

The sharks and rays were sold to stone crab fishermen to use as bait for their traps. Sharks and rays were the preferred bait for this purpose. It was cut into chunks of about 4 to 5 inches size and preserved in barrels with rock salt. This preservation might better be called retarded rotting and stone crab fishing was a foul smelling activity with an attendant tinge of social stigma even though the catch brought top prices even then.

Harpooning was usually a two person activity, one to run the boat while standing in the back using an extension on the outboard tiller handle to steer. Standing was necessary in order to see the prey. The harpooner also had to stand up without any support while using both hands to hold a 15 foot harpoon pole . Spotting, chasing, harpooning and boating the catch required agility and a range of skills to be successful and not get hurt in the process.

A real danger that might not immediately come to mind was that large sharks when being chased and harpooned will sometimes turn and attack. My grandfather repeatedly warned me of this and eventually it happened. The first time, a lemon shark attacked the outboard propeller and broke the shear pin which ended the chase. He must have had a sore mouth but he departed and we were left to drift while we removed the propeller and replaced the pin.

A more serious attack came a year or two later when a friend, Gary Belcher, and I harpooned a 12 foot hammerhead. It attacked the boat driving the bow violently sideways leaving Gary temporarily suspended in the air before dropping directly onto the enraged shark. I was steering and thus near the pivot point of the boats motion so was not unbalanced. I immediately swung motor so that the propeller would not hit Gary. Amid all the confusion the shark fled and after recovering my friend we resumed the chase. We caught up with the harpoon float and kept our distance while letting the shark tow us and tire itself out. Eventually we were able to bring it to the surface and kill it with a pistol shot.

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.

Growing up with such a high degree of freedom and independence, however, left me with a yearning for remote places and far horizons. By 1971 I had managed to get together a 104 ton vessel built to my specifications for marine biological research. For the next two decades I explored widely in the western Pacific eventually ending up in far northern Australia where a sparse population affords an environment not unlike the Keys of my childhood. Every few years though I still return to the Keys for a visit and a touch of home.

 The author at 17 with with Colt .45 in hand
and another hammerhead he had harpooned.


Some important Keys dates

1600 - B.C. tentative date of Indian pottery from Key Largo
1513 -  Ponce de Leon anchors at Dry Tortugas
1622 - Spanish galleon fleet wrecked in the Marquesas Keys
1733 - Spanish galleon fleet wrecked in the Middle & Upper Keys
1744 - HMS Looe wrecked at Looe Key reef
1748 - HMS Fowey wrecked at Fowey Rocks reef
1763 - Florida ceded to England
1783 - England returns Florida to Spain
1814 - Francisco Ferreira receives Spanish land grant for Marathon
1815 - Juan Salas receives Spanish land grant for Key West
1821 - Florida becomes U.S. territory
1822 - wreck of the U.S.S. Alligator
1822 - Key West declared an official port of entry
1824 - Silas Fletcher establishes store on Indian Key
1826 - Lightship “Caesar” placed near Carysfort Reef
1826 - Lighthouse at Dry Tortugas begins operating
1828 - Key West incorporated as a city
1840 - Indian attack on Indian Key
1846 - all but 8 of 600 houses in Key West destroyed or damaged by hurricane
1852 - Carysfort Lighthouse begins operation
1860 - Key West is richest town per capitia
1868 - Many Cubans move to Key West during Cuban civil war
1890 - Key West cigar production reaches 100 million with 64 factories
1905 - railway construction began
1905 - last “good” wreck of the wrecking era (the Alicia at Ajax Reef)
1906 - hurricane kills about 160 railway workers in Upper Keys
1909 - 400 buildings destroyed in Key West by hurricane
1912 -  first train to Key West
1919 -  hurricane does $2,000,000 damage in Key West, steamer Valbanera lost with
              466 persons
1928 - car ferries between Lower Matecunbe and No Name Key began
1938 - Overseas Highway completed
1942 - Keys Aqueduct completed
1942 - Electrical Cooperative opens plant in Tavenier
1947 - Everglades National Park. declared
1951 -  Coral Shores school opens (first Key’s high school outside Key West)
1955 - Key Deer Refuge created
1960 - John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park established
1960 - hurricane Donna does severe damage in Upper Keys
1963 - Key Largo Cut completed
1975 - Keys proclaimed an Area Of Critical State Concern, development restricted
1982 - Conch Republic declared
1990 - Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary established

For more on the history of the Keys see www.keyshistory.org.