When the first Spanish explorers approached the Florida shores in the 16th century as they searched for rumored gold and eternal youth, a number of native Indian tribes had long resided throughout the peninsula and on its surrounding islands.  The Tequestas and the Calusas, who thrived on the abundance provided by the sea and the rich coastal lands, dominated the southernmost regions.

Like the other early Florida tribes, the Tequestas and Calusas eventually disappeared with the coming of Western civilization and its accompanying diseases and conquering spirit.  Some of the void was filled, though by other natives, Creek Indians who slowly moved into the southern states.  They were neither welcomed nor beloved by the European and American settlers.  They came to be called “Seminoles”, a name perhaps corrupted from the Spanish word Cimarron, meaning “wild” or from the Creek words ishti semoli, meaning “wildmen” or “outlanders” or “separatists”.

One contemporary chronicler of explorer Ponce de Leon, observing the chain of islands on the horizon, said they appeared as men who were suffering; hence they were given the name Los Martires or “the martyrs.”  No one knows exactly when the first European set foot on one of the Keys, but as exploration and shipping increased, the islands became prominent on nautical maps.  The nearby treacherous coral reefs claimed many actual seafaring “martyrs” from the time of early-recorded history.  The chain was eventually called “keys”, also attributed to the Spanish, from cayos, meaning “small islands”.

In 1763, the Spanish ceded Florid to the British in a trade for the port of Havana.  The treaty was unclear as to the status of the Keys.  An agent of the King of Spain claimed that the islands, rich in fish, turtles and mahogany for shipbuilding, were part of Cuba, fearing that the English might build fortresses and dominate the shipping lanes.  The British also realized the treaty was ambiguous, but declared that the Keys should be occupied and defended as part of Florida.  The British claim was never officially contested.  Ironically, the British gave the islands back to Spain in 1783, to keep them out of the hands of the United States, but in 1821 all of Florida, including the necklace of islands, officially became American territory.

In the early1900’s, travel between many of these islands was only possible bay boat.  A modern pioneer, Henry Morrison Flagler, claims responsibility for providing the first civilized access to the Keys.  He dreamed of extending the Florida east Coast Railway from Homestead to Key West.  His dream was realized in 1912, after years of extreme physical hardship for the engineers and laborers who designed and built it.

After the 1935 Labor Day hurricane destroyed the railroad, the Overseas Highway replaced it in 1938.  The highway has since been widened and modernized.  More than 40 bridges now connect these islands, like a Caribbean necklace, for more than 126 miles.

Though most of the Florida Keys remained remote and inaccessible until well into the 20th century, their history glitters with romantic tales of pirates, fortunes gleaned from unfortunate shipwrecks, brief heydays for several island cities, struggling pioneer farmers and occasional military occupation.  It also holds its share of tragedy resulting from settlers’ encounters with hostile Indians, yellow-fever-bearing mosquitoes, dangerous hurricanes and unpredictable seas.

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Julie Johnston
P.O. Box #344 • Key West, FL 33041
Phone: (305)304-1438 • Fax: (305)292-7822