Early Key West History
Ponce de Leon discovered Florida for Spain in 1513 and when his expedition sailed past the southernmost islands in this new acquisition, his sailors named the Los Martires, or “the martyrs” after viewing the mangroves along the shores. Ponce de Leon died in 1521 along with several missionaries after being shot with a poison arrow battling Florida Indians protesting Spain’s intervention to turn them into Christians.
The island of Key West began to appear on maps and charts about a century later as Cayo Hueso, or Bone Key. Legend has it that the first explorers on the island discovered bones of dead Indians scattered on the beach as a result of a bloody battle between the Calusa Indians of South Florida with warlike Indians who had pushed the Calusas into the Keys. The bloody battle on Cayo Hueso left many dead while the survivors escaped on boats to Cuba.
Spain deeded the island to Juan Pablo Salas in 1815 and after Florida ceded to the United States in 1819, Salas sold the island of Key West for $2,000 to John Simonton who was an American businessman. John saw great potential in Key West and divided the island into quarters. He then sold three to fellow businessmen Greene, Fleming and Whitehead who also recognized the potential in the island’s natural deep-water harbor. Probably as a result of a distortion of the original Spanish name, the island was now renamed Key West.
John Simonton convinced the United States Navy that Key West would be a great place for a base of operation. The Navy was interested and sent Lt. Matthew C. Perry in 1822 with orders from the Secretary of the Navy to scout Key West out as a port for commerce and base of operations. Lt. Perry’s report back to Washington was very favorable. Lt. Perry claimed Key West for the United States and sailed away. Key West was designated as a U.S. port of entry and a customs house was established. This meant that salvaged cargoes could be entered at Key West instead of further up the coast at St. Augustine. It also allowed Key West to be a transshipment port for foreign cargo, particularly from Cuba.
A Growing Economy
Wrecking and salvaging: The island’s primary business was wrecking and salvaging because established trade routes came so close to the reefs just seven miles offshore of Key West and stormy weather easily cause ships with valuable cargoes to sink just off shore. Chandleries and storehouses were plentiful on the Island. People from all over gathered to bid on the valuable salvaged items. Key West was considered the richest city in the United States between 1828 and the 1850’s.
Fishing & Salt Manufacturing: Key West industries included fishing and salt manufacturing. From 1830 until the Civil War, Key West supplied much of the nation’s salt, used largely for food preservation, which came from the surrounding salt waters. When plentiful salt mines were discovered on the mainland the demand for Key West salt quickly lost momentum.
In 1831 there was only one cigar factory in Key West but it soon became big business when the cigar trade found its way across the Florida Straits from Cuba. The Cuban Revolution caused thousands of cigar workers to emigrate to Key West and this caused the industry to grow quickly. By 1890, 129 cigar factories were in operation and bringing in good profits. However, promises of tax-free land and cheaper labor enticed them to move to Tampa. Key West soon lost its place as America’s leading producer of hand-rolled Cuban cigars.
Sponging: Beginning at the end of the 19th century, sponging was part of the Key West economy for a short period of time. Although the waters around Key West and the Florida Keys held many thriving sponge beds, Key West’s remote location made it difficult and expensive to get the end product to market. Some rich sponge beds were located on Florida’s west coast near Tampa and it was easier to transport them from there. Although a deadly sponge fungus destroyed most of the beds around the Florida Keys and Key West, the last twenty-five years have seen a revival of healthy sponges and today several small businesses are harvesting Keys sponges.
Smuggling Rum: During Prohibition in the 1920’s smuggling of contraband beer and rum from Cuba and whiskey, rye and scotch from the British Isles via Nassau was easy and many Key West citizens became wealthy from the profits.
Marijuana Smuggling: In much the same way, marijuana smuggling in the 1960s through the early 1980s prospered. The enterprise became more dangerous and many went to prison while others made their fortunes and purchased premium land, homes and businesses.
Tourism: From the earliest days of Key West tourism was (and still remains today) Key West’s biggest business. Key West gets millions of visitors from around the world travel here each year by plane, by cruise ship, or by car down the Overseas Highway to find paradise at the end of US1.