How Key West Got Its Name
Mysteries unveiled about this southernmost American island
The quintessential charm of Key West is no secret – it has been the full-time residence of poet Shel Silverstein and playwright Tennessee Williams, the off-season home to professional athletes, and the winter getaway of Harry S Truman, whose Old Town retreat was dubbed “The Little White House” as a result of his 11 presidential visits. But don’t let the laid-back fame of this southernmost key fool you – there’s still plenty of mystery about Key West that will enchant even the most seasoned Floridians…
Europe’s First Visitor to Key West
Key West’s first European visitor was Juan Ponce de Leon, the famed Spanish explorer, who landed in 1521. Prior to his arrival, the native Calusa tribe controlled the island, along with much of southern Florida. According to most historians, a portion of Key West had served as a communal graveyard for even earlier peoples, and was thus scattered with remains, which is in all likelihood why the Spanish dubbed the island “Cayo Hueso,” which translates to “Bone Key,” though the Spanish term was later transliterated by English-speakers into “Key West.”
Real Estate Mistakenly Twice-Sold
After Ponce de Leon’s arrival, the island vacillated between Spanish, British and American control, as Florida itself changed hands. In 1815, when Key West was again under Spanish control, the governor of Cuba (then also a Spanish territory) deeded the island to a Spanish naval officer, Juan Pablo Salas. However, six years later, the United States took control of Florida, and so Salas wanted to sell his now-American property. And he did so – twice! Once to John Simonton and once to John Strong. While Simonton was busy dividing up Key West among four of his friends, John Strong transferred the Key West deed he’d received to John Geddes. When all seven men finally realized what had happened, a convoluted series of claims and counterclaims ensued, though, ultimately, the dispute was resolved in Simonton’s favor, since he was politically well-connected in Washington.
Notorious for Pirates and Shipwrecks
By this time, the island, with its deep harbor and easy access to shipping lanes, had become the hub of many wealthy fleets, thus also drawing the attention (and plundering) of noted pirates Blackbeard and Captain William Kidd. So, in 1822, Captain Matthew C. Perry formally claimed the island for the United States, and a naval base was established a year later, providing some protection against pirates, though none against shipwrecks.
The combination of deep waters nearby to shallow reefs and shoals, fast currents and occasional hurricanes meant that during the 1800s there was approximately one shipwreck per week in the Florida Keys. In response, Key West residents developed the lucrative industry of “wrecking” (salvaging materials and goods from shipwrecks). In fact, wrecking became so common and profitable that in the nineteenth century it was licensed by the federal government – and, by 1860, Key West was the wealthiest city (per capita) in the U.S.
But, by the early 1900s, the island had lost some of its luster: The naval base was closed after WWI, and, with improved maritime technology, shipwrecks (and thus the wrecking industry) had declined precipitously. To make matters worse, Key West was struck by the famous 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which destroyed the railroad that was its only overland connection to Florida. Though the Florida East Coast Railway could not afford to rebuild, three years later the state converted the thruway into what is now the Overseas Highway portion of U.S. Route 1. Shortly thereafter, WPA artists continued an ongoing project to promote Key West as a tourist location. The natural charms of the island won out: Vacationers flocked to the island, reviving its economy. Some visitors chose to stay as permanent residents, and these new locals and their children helped develop the laid-back Conch culture of today, known for its delicious seafood, its artists’ and writers’ communities, and its delightful old-town seaside charm.