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Visiting the Florida Keys: Keys History

Updated on December 29, 2014

Definitions

Key: comes from the Spanish word cayo which means little island.

Florida Keys: means little islands of Florida.

The Atlantic Ocean from the tip of Key West
The Atlantic Ocean from the tip of Key West

In the Beginning...

The Florida Keys have such a rich, amazing history, and it's fun to go back in time and discover who set foot on the islands, what happened to them, and what they left behind.

The Florida Keys were originally inhabited by the Calusa and the Tequesta indians. The indians maintained their home in the Keys until the Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, brought his expedition from Spain looking for the Fountain of Youth in the 16th century. Instead, they made money logging mahogany trees they found. They were not able to find fresh water, the coral sand was not usable for growing food, and there were reportedly "way too many insects".

A short time later, many Spanish Galleons began moving through the Straights of Florida with gold from Central America heading for Spain. Many of these ships wrecked, sending loads of treasure to the bottom of the ocean.

Beginning in the 1700s, English "wreckers" began searching for treasure along the coral reefs among the Keys, but it was reported that no one settled in the Keys until the US won Florida from the Spanish in 1821.

First Settlement

The first US settlement in the Keys was established in the 1820s in Key West. The settlement was also called Cayo Hueso, which meant Bone Island, as the Key was littered with bones from the Caloosa Indians, who used it as a burial ground. The US then constructed Fort Zachary Taylor, a military base in Key West, that was turned over to the Navy in the 1940s.

Nine years after the end of the Civl War, a homesteading program began in the Keys. People got land and attempted to settle their land any way they could. They used what they could find to build houses, They attempted to farm the land and were able to get melons, pineapple, coconut, and oranges. Insects were horrible, particularly the mosquitoes. They used small boats to get from place to place, and to get their produce to markets.

Monument erected to honor the people killed in The Hurricane of 1935.
Monument erected to honor the people killed in The Hurricane of 1935.

Henry Flagler and His Railroad

Henry Flagler began in 1905 extending a railroad down the East Coast of Florida through Homestead, Florida and into Key Largo. It took seven years to build the railroad all the way down to Key West due to conditions, disease, and hurricanes. This allowed Key West a connection to the rest of the Keys and Florida.

In 1935, a hurricane (no name as names were not yet given to hurricanes) swept through the area. Winds were over 200 miles per hour and more than 800 people were killed. Many of those killed were WWI veterans building a road as part of a federal work program. The Labor Day hurricane destroyed the railroad and many towns along the way.

The railroad was replaced by the Overseas Highway in 1938.

Florida Keys Pictures

Keys in the distance with a view of one of the bridges
Keys in the distance with a view of one of the bridges
Mangroves that comprise uninhabited Keys.
Mangroves that comprise uninhabited Keys.

The Keys Today

Today the Florida Keys house a vast array of different individuals from many cultures. When walking through Key West, you will no doubt hear many languages spoken and a variety of skin tones. Tourism, fishing, diving, and lobster season are all commodities for the people who make the Keys their home. As times have changed, modern conveniences have allowed people to be much more comfortable around the area, and the laid back feel provides a refuge for those seeking rest and relaxation. Treasure abounds in the Florida Keys, no matter what type you're looking for.

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    • TripleAMom profile image
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      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      Thank you shiningirisheyes. We love where we live. My husband has fallen in love with it for sure. Even having grown up in Miami, this is where he most wants to live. Thanks for the comment.

    • TripleAMom profile image
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      TripleAMom 4 years ago from Florida

      We love Islamorada. Can't get much better. Yes there's a night life, but there is plenty to do with the kids. It's the place they most want to go back to this year for vacation :)

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      You are still a heck of a lot closer than I am. And Pensacola is included in my statement of such a beautiful area. You are one lucky lady!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Actually, I don't live in Islamorada. I wish!! We live in Pensacola, Florida, but love to visit the Keys. My husband grew up in Miami and kept a boat down there.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      We always stay at Islamorada. Such breathtaking scenery and after all the partying, all the swamp buggies and endless bar crawls, I have to say my favorite part of every trip is the wonderful breakfasts by the water. The bird life was amazing. From herons, egrets to cranes I could sit there all day watching them. You live in a beautiful part of the world, my friend.

      Jimmy Buffet does know what he is talking about LOL!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      shiningirisheyes, the Keys are definitely one of our favorite places. Where do you visit? We go to Islamorada usually to stay.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Outstanding location to visit as I have done so many times. I enjoy the sunset festivals, Turtle Crawls, breakfasts by the ocean and Hemingway history as well. There is always so much history and endless sights and sounds. The swamp buggy ride was spectacular as well.

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 5 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      Interesting history of a place I love. My husband and I go camping in the keys for about two months almost every winter, and it's one of my favorite places. Voted up and interesting.

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 5 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Very Interesting!!! I love history and this is something that I knew nothing about!!! Awesome Job and Loved the Pictures as well!!!

      Voted Up, Awesome, and Interesting!!!

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks Bill, will go check it out now. I have been very lax on Hubpages this last month because of getting kids back in school and getting our routine down, but looking forward to more contact with everyone.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are mentioned in my latest

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Hey teaches, I didn't know that about West Palm and Henry Flagler. Will have to see that. I love history, especially of Florida. Hopefully will get off the last of the Keys articles today. Lots of stuff going on with only two more weeks of the kids on summer vacation.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      West Palm holds Flagler's mansion and his railroad cars, which are pretty interesting as well. Thanks for the history lesson on the Key's, one day I will make it there for a visit.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for sharing with us

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Hey carol, the keys are gorgeous. We so enjoyed vacation. Will do one more in this series with more pics.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      Enjoyed learning more history about the keys. While living in Florida a little did absorb...The photos bring back a lot of good memories. Thanks for sharing this.

    • TripleAMom profile image
      Author

      TripleAMom 5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks Bill. I loved doing the research. Didn't like history in school, but I sure like it now. Appreciate your comments as always :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wendy, give me some history and I'm all over it. Loved this hub; I always find this stuff interesting....but then I taught history for fifteen years so go figure. :)