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Key West History

The early history of Key West, Florida is that of a long and illustrious variety. The personalities, both famous and infamous, who shaped the island include explorers and entrepreneurs, artists and privateers and smugglers and military leaders.

Florida, or La Florida, was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. His crew nicknamed the island of Key West Florida Los Martires, or the martyrs, because of the thick and twisted mangroves along the shores of these Florida Keys southernmost islands. European charts and maps listed Key West, Florida as Cayo Hueso, or Bone Key, because of sun bleached bones found on the island.

The control of the Keys went back and forth between Spain and England for many years until all of Florida was ceded to the United States in 1819. U.S. businessman John Simonton had purchased the island of Key West. Realizing the potential for its deep water, he divided it into four parts, kept one for himself and sold the other three to businessmen Fleming, Whitehead and Green. These four names live on as Key West street names.

Simonton then convinced the United States Navy that Key West would make a great Navy base for the northern Caribbean region due to its easy access through the Gulf of Mexico. In 1822, Lt. Matthew C. Perry sailed the USS Shark to Key West FL Keys to scope out the island as a commerce port and military base. He reported back favorably and claimed Key West for the United States.

The island of Key West became a U.S. port of entry. It was a much closer location than the current port in St. Augustine. A customs house was established, and Key West became a trans-shipment port for foreign cargo from Cuba. The Custom House is now the official headquarters of the Key West Art and Historical Society. The beautiful Romanesque building features two floors dedicated to preserving the island’s history, art and significant events.

The battleship USS Maine sailed into Key West in 1896. After spending a year in port, it sailed on to Cuba to show support and protect America's trade and business interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain. In February 1898, while sitting in Havana Harbor, the ship exploded. Nearly 266 members of the 354 member crew were killed, and the rest were badly burned. The cause of the catastrophe was never explained, but two months later the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War. This war won independence from Spain for Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands.

Key West industries and factories included Key West salt manufacturing, fishing, sponging, cigar making and trade and turtle hunting. Salvaging also became a big industry due to the treacherous offshore reefs.

The 1930s brought a stronger Navy presence to Key West history. A submarine base was constructed, which provided civilian jobs. It closed in 1974, but the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica still provides a military presence as well as civilian jobs.

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