By Tom Hambright, Monroe County Historian
This small coral island's strategic location has played a major role in its history and a part in the development of the United States and Florida. Key West is on the treacherous Florida Reefs and lies at the western gateway to the Florida Straits, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Across the Florida Straits are Cuba and the Bahamas, Key West's foreign neighbors.
Native people settled on the island up to 1, 000 years before the Europeans arrived. Legend maintains bones were left on sand dunes along the south shore of the island and later when the Spanish explorers found the bones, they named the island Cayo Hueso which means Bone Island. Hueso is pronounced "weso;" the English corrupted it into "Key West."
Juan Pablo Salas, a Spanish military officer of St. Augustine, received the island as a land grant in 1815. When Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, Salas sold the island to John Simonton, an American businessman, for $2, 000. Simonton was aware of the island's deep and natural harbor and its strategic location. Simonton would soon take in John Whitehead, John Fleming and Pardon Greene as partners.
In 1822, the Navy ordered Lt. Matthew C. Perry to the island to make a survey and to claim it as part of the U.S. Territory of Florida. The next year Commodore David Porter arrived and established the first Naval Station on the island as a base for his Anti-Pirate Squadron. From here he was able to clear the Caribbean of pirates.
In 1823, Monroe County, named for President Monroe, was created. The County originally included all of South Florida. Although Key West was made the county seat, it was not until 1828 that it became incorporated as a city. By 1831, an Army post had been established and in 1845 the construction of two great forts, Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas and Fort Taylor in Key West, had begun. Due to the military presence and a civilian population, which did not favor the Confederate States, Key West was the only southern city to remain in the Union for the Civil War. The Navy's Gulf Blockading Squadron brought a total of 199 captured ships, attempting to run the Union blockade of the Confederate States, to Key West to be adjudicated in the Federal Court.
The first white American settlers on the island were New Englanders and Bahamians who were wreckers and fishermen. Wreckers saved ships stranded on the Florida Reef and were regulated by the Federal Court in Key West, which awarded the wreckers a percentage of the ships and cargoes saved. Several great fortunes were made from this industry. The construction of lighthouses on the reef began the decline of wrecking but the sea-going men developed other sources of income from the sponging, shipping, and fishing industries.