History of the Florida Keys

History, Florida Keys
History abounds in the Florida Keys

The diverse and extremely colorful history of the Florida Keys is full of adventure. From Indians, Spanish and Pirates to hurricanes and numerous shipwrecks, these islands have always been a place to explore. Let's begin our journey…

These islands were home to the native Caloosa Indians until the famous Spanish Ponce de Leon expedition in 1513. The Spanish came looking for the Fountain of Youth and of course, gold, but what they found was no gold, no fresh water and a lot of bugs. No wonder the Spanish thought these islands seemed twisted and tortured which explains why they named them Los Martires meaning "the matyrs."  It is believed that they enslaved the Indians, logged out the mahogany trees that grew here and then not seeing any other use for these islands, mapped the Keys to use the Florida Straits as a route for their ships journeying between Central America, the "New World" and Spain. Many of their ships managed to wreck on the reef giving future adventurers, underwater marine life and divers a treasure trove and playground just waiting to be explored.

The Spanish later called these chains of islands "keys", from the Spanish word "cayos", meaning "small islands". Thus eventually came the name we know now as the Florida Keys.

In 1812, all of Florida including the Keys officially became the territory of the United States. But it wasn't until 1822 that settlers began to arrive and make their home at Cayo Hueso or what is now Key West. That same year, the US established the first Navy Pirate Fleet. Dodging the pirates that infested these waters, the settlers found not only fertile fishing ground but became rich from salvaging shipwrecks. Florida including the Keys became an official part of the US in 1845.

Pigeon Key, Florida Keys
Pigeon Key is where Henry Flagler housed
people working on the railroad.

Navigable only by boat, unlike Key West, the upper islands of the chain consisted of hardworking fishermen and farmers. It wasn't until 1905 that Henry Flagler began extending his railroad from Homestead through the Everglades and on to Key Largo. Seven years later after much death and hardship, this railroad finally was completed all the way down to Key West. Instead of bringing wealth to the farming communities of the Upper Keys as hoped, the railroad managed to bring more to an already productive Key West by allowing them to ship via the railroad produce that they received from the Caribbean.

The Hurricane of 1935 – the nameless one, known only as The Hurricane, - swept through the Upper Keys at Matecumbe Keys on September 2 wiping out the farming communities and tearing the short-lived railroad to pieces. Documented at 200 mph winds and an 18-foot tidal wave, it killed over 800 people. A monument resides in Islamorada where many of the dead are buried. For the next three years, once again transportation was available only by boats. However, in 1938, the Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened and this highway is still the mainline to the mainland today.

The waters off the Keys hold many historical discoveries. The Upper Keys contain numerous shipwrecks to explore, from the Spanish galleons to World War II freighters. Also, the Keys offer the only living coral barrier reef in the United States and is home to many tropical fish and other marine life, and that in itself make this a truly exotic and historical place. One to protect, preserve and explore.