Key West is a city in Monroe County, Florida, United States. The city encompasses the island of Key West, the part of Stock Island north of U.S. 1 (the Overseas Highway) (east), Sigsbee Park (north, originally known as Dredgers Key), Fleming Key (north), and Sunset Key (west, originally known as Tank Island). Both Fleming Key and Sigsbee Park are part of Naval Air Station Key West and are inaccessible by civilians. Key West is the county seat of Monroe County. Key West is the southernmost city in the Continental United States. It also contains the southern terminus of U.S. 1, State Road A1A, the East Coast Greenway and, before 1935, the Florida East Coast Railway.
Key West is southwest (229.9 degrees) of Miami, Florida, (about by car) and north-northeast (21.2 degrees) of Havana, Cuba. Cuba, at its closest point, is south. Key West is a seaport destination for many passenger cruise ships. The Key West International Airport provides airline service. Hotels and guest houses are available for lodging. Naval Air Station Key West is an important year round training site for naval aviation due to the superb weather conditions. It is also a reason the city was chosen as the Winter White House of President Harry S. Truman. The central business district primarily comprises Duval Street, and includes much of the northwest corner of the island along Whitehead, Simonton, Front, Greene, Caroline, and Eaton Streets and Truman Avenue. The official city motto is "One Human Family."
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Colonial and precolonial times
In Pre-Columbian times Key West was inhabited by the Calusa people. The first European to visit was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. As Florida became a Spanish territory, a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison was established here. is the original Spanish name for the island of Key West. Spanish-speaking people today also use the term when referring to Key West. It literally means "bone cay (a low island or reef)". It is said that the island was littered with the remains (bones) of prior native inhabitants, who used the isle as a communal graveyard. This island was the westernmost Key with a reliable supply of water.
In 1763, when Great Britain took control of Florida, the community of Spaniards and Native Americans were moved to Havana. Florida returned to Spanish control 20 years later, but there was no official resettlement of the island. Informally the island was used by fishermen from Cuba and from the British, who were later joined by others from the United States after the latter nation's independence. While claimed by Spain, no nation exercised de facto control over the community there for some time.
In 1815, the Spanish governor of Cuba in Havana deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas, an officer of the Royal Spanish Navy Artillery posted in Saint Augustine, Florida. After Florida was transferred to the United States in 1821, Salas was so eager to sell the island that he sold it twice – first for a sloop valued at $575 to a General John Geddes, a former governor of South Carolina, and then to a U.S. businessman John W. Simonton, during a meeting in a Havana café on January 19, 1822, for the equivalent of $2,000 in pesos in 1821. Geddes tried in vain to secure his rights to the property before Simonton who, with the aid of some influential friends in Washington, was able to gain clear title to the island. Simonton had wide-ranging business interests in Mobile, Alabama. He bought the island because a friend, John Whitehead, had drawn his attention to the opportunities presented by the island's strategic location. John Whitehead had been stranded in Key West after a shipwreck in 1819 and he had been impressed by the potential offered by the deep harbor of the island. The island was indeed considered the "Gibraltar of the West" because of its strategic location on the –wide deep shipping lane, the Straits of Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
On March 25, 1822, Lt. Commander, Matthew C. Perry, sailed the schooner Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, claiming the Keys as United States property. No protests were made over the American claim on Key West, so the Florida Keys became the property of the United States.
After claiming the Florida Keys for the United States, Perry renamed Cayo Hueso (Key West) to "Thompson's Island" for Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson, and the harbor "Port Rodgers" in honor of War of 1812 hero and President of the Navy Supervisors Board John Rodgers. In 1823, Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy West Indies Anti-Pirate Squadron took charge of Key West, which he ruled (but, according to some, exceeding his authority) as military dictator under martial law. Porter was tasked by the American Navy to end acts of piracy in the Key West area including slave ships.
Soon after his purchase, John Simonton subdivided the island into plots and sold three undivided quarters of each plot to:
Simonton spent the winter in Key West and the summer in Washington, where he lobbied hard for the development of the island and to establish a naval base on the island, both to take advantage of the island's strategic location and to bring law and order to the town. He died in 1854.
The names of the four "founding fathers" of modern Key West were given to main arteries of the island when it was first platted in 1829 by William Adee Whitehead, John Whitehead's younger brother. That first plat and the names used remained mostly intact and are still in use today. Duval Street, the island's main street, is named after Florida's first territorial governor, who served between 1822 and 1834 as the longest serving governor in Florida's U.S. history.
William Whitehead became chief editorial writer for the "Enquirer", a local newspaper, in 1834. He had the genius of preserving copies of his newspaper as well as copies from the "Key West Gazette", its predecessor. He later sent those copies to the Monroe County clerk for preservation, which gives us a precious view of life in Key West in the early days (1820–1840).
In 1852 the first Catholic Church, St. Mary's Star-Of-The-Sea was built. The year 1864 became a landmark for the church in South Florida when five Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary arrived from Montreal, Canada, and established the first Catholic school in South Florida. The Convent of Mary Immaculate, the oldest Catholic School in Florida which is now known as Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea School.
U.S. Civil War and late 19th century
During the American Civil War, while Florida seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, Key West remained in U.S. Union hands because of the naval base. However, most locals were sympathetic to the South, and many flew Confederate flags over their homes. Fort Zachary Taylor, constructed from 1845 to 1866, was an important Key West outpost during the Civil War. Construction began in 1861 on two other forts, East and West Martello Towers, which served as side armories and batteries for the larger fort. When completed, they were connected to Fort Taylor by railroad tracks for movement of munitions. Fort Jefferson, located about from Key West on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, served after the Civil War as the prison for Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, convicted of conspiracy for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
In the late 19th century, salt and salvage declined as industries, but Key West gained a thriving cigar-making industry.
By 1889, Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida.
The Battleship USS Maine sailed from Key West on its fateful visit to Havana, where it blew up, igniting the Spanish-American War. Crewmen from the ship are buried in Key West, and the Navy investigation into the blast occurred at the Key West Customs House.
Pan American Airlines was founded in Key West, originally to fly visitors to Havana, in 1926. The airline contracted with the United States Postal Service in 1927 to deliver mail to and from Cuba and the United States. The mail route was known as the "Key West, Florida Havana Mail Route".
Prior to the Cuban revolution of 1959, there were regular ferry and airplane services between Key West and Havana.
In 1978, the mayor of Key West, Charles "Sonny" McCoy, water-skiied to Cuba. Although local legend and authors such as Joy Williams have claimed McCoy did this to demonstrate the necessity of a military presence in Key West (Williams actually states he made the trip in the early 1980s), sources from the time make no note of such a motivation for the stunt. He made the trip in 6 hours, 10 minutes on a slalom ski. <section end=chapter1 />