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Monroe County, Florida

Key West: The Old and the New


In 1821 when Andrew Jackson was governor of Florida, he, with the approval of the authorities in Washington, divided the State into two counties, Escambia and St. Johns. The former comprised all that part of the State lying west of the Suwanee river, and the latter all lying east and south.

Monroe county, named after President Monroe, the sixth county to be established, comprised no insignificant portion of the territory. It embraced all that part lying south of a line commencing at Boca Gasparilla river on the Gulf of Mexico, and extending up the northern margin of Charlotte Harbor to the north of Charlotte river; thence up the northern margin of that river to Lake Macaco; thence along the northern margin of that take to its most eastern limits; thence in a direct line to the headwaters of the Potomas river; thence down that river to its entrance into the ocean, together with all the keys and islands of the Cape of Florida.

In 1828 the first division of the Territory of Florida into counties was made for representative and other purposes (the territory before that time having been governed by the organic laws of congress, and a council authorized by that act). In February, 1836, out of these magnificent boundaries Dade county was established and so named to perpetuate the memory of Major Dade who with his command was massacred on December 28, 1835.

Its southern line commenced at the western end of Bahia Honda, and ran in a direct line to Cape Sable;, thence in a direct line to Lake Macaco, thus cutting off from Monroe county all of the keys north of Bahia Honda, and all of the eastern portion of the southern peninsula north of Cape Sable. This caused much dissatisfaction, as a very appreciable part of the population of Monroe county resided at Indian Key, and their business, domestic and social relations were entirely with Key West.

In 1859 the boundaries of Monroe county were again changed, and a portion of the county on the mainland was cut off to form a part of the new county of Manatee.

By the act of 1866 the northern boundary of the county commenced at the mouth of Broad Creek, a stream separating Cayo Largo (as it was then called) from Old Roads Key, and extending thence in a direct line to Mud Point. This change gave back to Monroe county all the islands from Old Roads Key to Bahia Honda which had been taken by the act of 1836. On the thirteenth of May, 1887, the county of Lee was created out of that part of Monroe county north of the line, which separates townships 53 and 54 south.

Prior to the organization of Dade county, Monroe was bounded on the north by Mosquito county, which was created December 29, 1824. The name Mosquito was not distinctive enough, however, for a county which shared with all the other counties in the State the privilege of being inhabited by these diminutive citizens, and in January, 1845, the name of Mosquito county was changed to Orange county.

Before there was any survey made of Key West or the town chartered, there was erected on Jackson Square a building known as the county court house which was altered and improved at the expense of the United States in 1830 and occupied by the United States court until it moved into a building on Wall street. In 1831 the territorial council appointed Col. Lackland M. Stone and Mr. Win. A. Whitehead commissioners to erect a stone jail and brick cistern. and a lot was purchased by them, which was part of lot two in square sixty-four, on which to erect the jail.

In 1832 Col. Stone removed from Key West, and Mr. Fielding A. Browne was appointed commissioner in his place. Bids were called for to erect a jail twenty-six by sixteen feet with two rooms and cistern adjoining. Bids were received from Mr. ]Richard Fitzpatrick for $3,200.00 and from Mr. John W. Simonton to erect the jail without the cistern for $1,699.00. A lot for the erection of the jail bad previously been purchased, but as the amount appropriated by the legislative council for the jail and cistern was but $2,000.00, it was decided to build the jail near the court house on Jackson square where a cistern had already been built. The jail, which was on the Thomas street side of the square, was built of native coral rock, the walls being three feet thick. In 1845 this jail was abandoned, and one of similar construction erected on Jackson Square near the corner of Fleming and Whitehead streets. The old jail on Thomas street was standing as late as 1871, but in its dilapidated condition was of no use except to afford a shelter to wandering herds of goats.

The second stone jail in turn gave way in the march of progress (or crime?) to a larger and more modern structure in 1880. In 1907 a concrete wall ten feet high was built around the rear wing of the jail. In 1910 its capacity was again increased.

In 1875 a small one-story brick building was erected for an office for the clerk of the circuit court. In it was a fire-proof vault for keeping county records and court documents. It was so used until the new court house was completed in 1890.

In 1889 the wooden court house that linked the old Key West with the new-where Christians of all denominations had worshipped God, and sung praises unto His Holy Name; where young children had been carried to have their lives dedi icated to the service of Christ, with the sign of the Cross; where the sacred marriage ceremony had been performed; and the requiem for the dead mingled with the sobs of the afflicted; where secular and Sunday schools had been taught, and the territorial and State courts performed their functions-was torn down to make way for the commodious brick court house which now stands on the square.

The day before the demolition of the old court house a number of citizens gathered there, on invitation of the county commissioners, and participated in what might be regarded as the funeral services of the old structure. Short speeches were made by Mr. Eugene 0. Locke, Mr. Jefferson B. Browne, Mr. Walter C. Maloney, Jr., and Mr. W. R. Carter, member of the Hillsboro county bar.

The erection of a court house and jail on Jackson Square has fostered the erroneous impression that it is the property of the county. Jackson Square is the property of the city as much as the streets, and is held by the same title and from the same source. No deed or grant in writing to this square was ever made by the original proprietors, but in the division of the island the block bounded by Whitehead, Southard, Thomas and Fleming streets was treated as common or public property, and shown on the map delineated by Mr. Win. A. Whitehead in 1829, as Jackson Square, named in honor of Andrew Jackson. The delineation and its recordation was a dedication to the use of the public, and the city holds it in trust, as it holds the streets, for public purposes only.

Col. W. C. Maloney, one of the great lawyers of his time says: "In this connection, a matter of moment to all of you, seems to demand a passing notice, inasmuch as it is believed to be but little known, and less understood by the community generally, and some of the officers of government especially. than it should be, and which affects the interests of the people inhabiting that portion of the island particularly subject to the jurisdiction of the 'City of Key West,' under and by reason of its corporate powers. I allude to the proprietary and possessory title in and to 'Jackson Square.' There are those of you who are under the impression that, because of the fact that there is no instrument of writing, in the shape of a conveyance from the original proprietors of the island to the city authorities granting the 'fee,' as the lawyers term it, coupled with the fact that the county court house and jail have been erected upon it, that the title to the square is not wholly in the 'city.' Let me assure you that your condition as owners of this square is much better than it would have been if the original proprietors had given an absolute deed of it in 'fee' to the city, for in that case it might have been sold from under your feet, and the money expended for a banquet to entertain the king of the cannibal islands, or some other illustrious dignitary from abroad.

"The proprietors of the island, foreseeing that Key West must become the county seat of Monroe county, and the most fitting place for the exercise of the judicial powers of the United States in admiralty and maritime affairs, wisely made room in your city for the accommodation necessary to these purposes, and in the plan of the city 'Jackson Square' is delineated, and in the division of the island between the original agrarian proprietors, it was treated as 'common' or 'public' and the plan of the city with this delineation, being made the incorporated area of your city by charter, gave to you in your corporate capacity all the proprietary rights vested in the original proprietors, save that of alienation, and vested in you, and you only, the right of possession.

"You hold this square and also 'Clinton Place' by the same terms by which you hold the streets running through your city, not by express grant, but by an 'implied use,' or 'usufruct.' You can only lose your right when you suffer them to be used for other than public purposes, consistent with the nature of the usufruct."

In 1876 Mr. Win. A. Whitehead made this contribution to the literature of the proprietorship of Jackson Square: "On laying out the town it was first thought desirable that the public square should be located nearer the water, and the block between Fitzpatrick street and Clinton Place was thought of. Another project was to locate it at the 'Middle Spring,' as it was then called in Square 61, but the fact that there was already a building on what is now Jackson Square, erected, if I mistake not, for the use of the county authorities before the survey was made or the town chartered, led to the selection of that square for the purpose. As you say in your address, there is no document emanating from the proprietors conveying the fee of the streets and squares, nor do I recollect that anything was said or thought of, at the time, relating to the control of Jackson Square. That, as well as the streets, was informally dedicated to public uses, and that there should ever arise any difference of opinion, in regard to its control, between the authorities of the county and the authorities of the town was never thought of. The former were virtually in possession, and I do not believe that any application was made to the town authorities for permission to erect the jail. I am not qualified to discuss the legal points that may be involved, but knowing as I do the views and wishes of all the original proprietors, I do not hesitate to affirm that it was their intention that the square should be used for any legitimate purpose, either of town or county; and representing as I do, one fourth of the proprietary interest, I would be pleased to join those representing the other interests, in signing any document that might legally and effectually determine the rightful control. As such a course is probably impracticable, I would take the liberty to suggest the appointment of a commission, composed of an equal number of representatives of the city and county authorities (with the judge of the United States district court as umpire, in case of any disagreement), charged with all needful control of the premises. I think the circumstances fully warrant some such concession on both sides."

Mr. Whitehead's wise recommendation was never adopted and the control of, or jurisdiction over Jackson Square, still remains in this uncertain condition.

Clinton Place, the small triangular plot at the intersection of Front, Whitehead, and Greene streets, was dedicated by the original proprietors to the use of the public in like manner as Jackson Square. In 1886 the Army and Navy Club of Key West erected a granite monument to the officers and men of the Union army, navy and marine corps, who died at Key West from 1861 to 1865. A concrete coping has since been constructed around it by the Federal government, which is permitted by the city authorities to have the care and maintenance of the plot.

Although the construction of a jail was one of the first public acts of the county authorities, an incident occurred in 1828, a narrative of which was published in a Northern paper, indicating bow little use there was for it at that time, which sheds light on the easy going ways of the people, and their respect for the supremacy of the law:

Samuel Otis was the keeper of the jail, which was a small frame building quite distant from the settled part of the town. A man by the name of Ayres, who was in the habit of getting drunk, had come to Key West. He was taken in custody by Captain Otis and carried to the residence of Col. Greene, who was one of the magistrates, who upon being told that Ayres was drunk again ordered him put in the lockup, after the following conversation had taken place:

"Well, Squire, Ayres has been drinking again! Shall I take him to jail?"

"You may do with him what you please, Capt. Otis," replied the justice, not well pleased at the moment with the interruption.

"Just as you say, Squire," was the answer of the obsequious Officer, and he forthwith announced to the gentleman in attendance that lie must proceed to jail.

"Rot me if I do, Capt. Otis. Ain't I a free citizen of this here republic? I tell you I won't go unless I please, and I don't please unless I get my clothes."

"Well Ayres, where are your clothes?"

"Why they are down in the old shed by the water, and there they may stay for all me, for I won't go to get 'em; that's flat, Capt. Otis."

"Will you stay here, then, Ayres, while I go."

"No, I won't; how can you 'spect a man to stay here in this hot sun?"

"Well, Ayres, I don't want you to stay here, then; but while I go after your clothes, do you go to the jail, knock at the door, and Peter will let you in."

Peter, the jailer, was no less a person than one of three mutineers who had been sentenced by the Admiralty court to six months imprisonment, and had stayed there because the judge had commanded him to do so. He was the factotum of Capt. Otis, kept the keys and locked himself in after every necessary opening of the prison doors.

Ayres proceeded to the jail and knocked and when Peter asked who was there be replied "It's me open the door! Otis says you must let me in, and though I don't like altogether to be shut up with such fellows as you be, I 'spose I must, for they say it's law."

Upon that, the doors opened "grating harsh thunder," and the prisoner within admitted the prisoner from without.

In 1900 the county bought a plot of land opposite the United States army post, and erected an armory for the use of the local military company. Shortly afterwards the Supreme Court of the State decided that it was the duty of the State to provide armories, and that the county had no authority to expend money for that purpose. In 1903 the legislature refunded to the county the sum of $10,000.00 which had been expended for the armory. With this money the county road, which traverses the entire length of the island, was built.

The finances of the county are in excellent condition.* The present county officers are: James R. Curry, chairman; W. R. Porter, E. Monroe Roberts, Braxton B. Warren and Domingo Milord, members of the board of county commissioners. Eugene W. Russell, clerk circuit court, Hugh Gunn, county judge; Clement Jaycocks, sheriff; Thomas 0. Otto, tax assessor; Theodore A. Sweeting, tax collector.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Hefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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