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Key West: General History and Sketches

Key West: The Old and the New


The earliest recorded data about Key West is to be found in a grant of the island of Cayo Hueso on August 26, 1815, by Don Juan de Estrada, the then Spanish governor of Florida, to Juan Pablo Salas. The grant recited that it was "in consideration of the several services rendered by him at different times, much in the Royal Artillery Corps stationed at this fort, as well as the services rendered voluntarily and without pay at the office of the secretary under your administration."

Nothing was done by Salas in the way of settling or improvements and the island wore the same wild aspect that it had worn for ages, when on the twenty-first day of December, 1821, Salas offered to sell his right, title and interest to Mr. John W. Simonton, of Mobile, who had met Salas in Havana. Having heard of the advantageous situation and capacity of the harbor, etc., Mr. Simonton was induced from the certain prospect of improvement throughout the country, by the cession of Florida to the United States, which his mercantile experience led him to foresee must advance the interests of a settlement at this point, to purchase the island for the sum of $2,000.00 on the nineteenth day of January, A. D. 1822.

Soon after making the purchase he sold one undivided quarter of his interest to Mr. John Warner, and Mr. John Mountain, respectively United States consul and commercial agent for the United States at Havana, and two other quarters to Mr. John Whitehead and Mr. John W. C. Fleeming. The interests of Messrs. Warner and Mountain were soon after transferred to Mr. Pardon C. Greene, who became a permanent resident of the island at that time.

Salas, however, had made a conditional sale to Mr. John B. Strong, who subsequently transferred his claim, such as it was, to Mr. John Geddes, who having the countenance of Captain Hammersley of the U. S. naval schooner, "Revenge," then in the harbor, effected a landing and took possession of the island in April, 1822.

A Dr. Montgomery and Mr. George M. Geddes were in charge of the party sent by Geddes to take possession in his name. It consisted of two white carpenters and three negroes, with provisions and lumber to build a shed. How long they remained on the island is not known, but as they were supported by Captain Hammersley of the United States Navy, the other claimants were helpless to do anything more than protest.

A lawsuit resulted, which was finally terminated by a compromise. One of the legal documents connected with this claim states that the consideration given for the island, by Strong, was a small sloop of about thirty-one tons burden, called "The Leopard of Glastonbury," for which he had paid $575.00. Strong's title proved imperfect, and Salas, in order to obtain the restoration of the island to the Simonton claimants, conveyed to him five hundred (500) acres of a tract at "Big Spring, East Florida."

There is no authentic record of the origin of the name Key West" of which two explanations are given. One, that it is the most westerly of the chain of islands or keys extending from the mainland-hence Key West; the other that it is a corruption of the Spanish words Cayo Hueso pronounced "Ki-yo Way-so," meaning bone island.

Mr. William A. Whitehead,* one of the earliest settlers of Key West, who surveyed and mapped the city in 1829, accepts the latter theory. He says: "it is probable that, from the time of the first visit of Ponce de Leon until the cession of the Floridas to the United States, the islands or keys, as they are termed (a corruption of the Spanish word Cayo) which extended in a southwesterly direction from Cape Florida, were only resorted to by the aborigines of the country, the piratical crews with which the neighboring seas were infested, and the fishermen (many of them from St. Augustine) who were engaged in supplying the market of Havana from the 'finny tribes' that abound in this vicinity. Of the occasional presence of the first, we have evidence in the marks of ancient fortifications or mounds of stones, found in various localities (in one of which, opened some time since, human bones of a large size were discovered), and tradition has in addition brought down to us notices of them which deserve all the credit conferred upon the same authority, in other parts of the country. The oldest settler in this part of the country, one whose residence in the neighborhood of Charlotte Harbor dated back to about 1775, used to say, that in his early years he had heard it stated that some eighty or ninety years previous (probably about the commencement of the eighteenth century) the Indians inhabiting the islands along the coast and those on the mainland were of different tribes, and as the islanders frequently visited the main for the purpose of hunting, a feud arose between the two tribes, and those from the main having made an irruption into the islands, their inhabitants were driven from island to island, until they reached Key West. Here, as they could flee no farther, they were compelled to risk a final battle, which resulted in the almost entire extermination of the islanders. Only a few escaped (and that by a miracle, as they embarked in canoes upon the ocean) whose descendants, it is said, are known to have been met with in the island of Cuba.

"This sanguinary battle strewed this island with bones, as it is probable the conquerors tarried not to commit the bodies of the dead to the ground, hence the name of the island, Cayo Hueso, which the English, with the same facility which enabled them to transform the name of the wine Xeres Seco into 'Sherry Sack,' corrupted into Key West. That the harbor of Key West was the occasional resort of pirates has been proven by the evidence of many who were connected with them in their lawless depredations, and by the discovery of hidden articles that could only have been secreted by them."

One of the matters intrusted to the commissioners appointed under the treaty of the cession with Spain, when the United States acquired Florida, was to pass upon the validity of the grant of the island to Salas, and they, having resolved it in his favor, and the same being confirmed by Congress, the title to all lands on the island of Key West, legally derived through Juan P. Salas and John W. Simonton, were perfected and forever settled. Owing to this, there is no confusion of ancient titles to Key West realty.

The establishment of a territorial government for Florida in March, 1819, was the beginning of the actual settlement and development of Key West. Several families from South Carolina and other States, and from St. Augustine who repaired here shortly after, were hospitably received by the proprietors, and building lots were given them within that part of the island intended to be laid out for the city.

On the seventh of February, 1822, Lieutenant M. C. Perry, commander of the United States schooner Shark, received orders to visit the island and take possession of it as part of the territory ceded by Spain, and on the twenty-fifth day of March following there was witnessed by the few residents then here the placing of a flag pole and the hoisting thereon of the flag of the United States, while at the same time its sovereignty over this and the neighboring islands was formally proclaimed. Lieutenant Perry named the island Thompson's Island, and the harbor Port Rodgers, the first in honor of the then secretary of the navy, Hon. Smith Thompson, and the other after Commodore Rodgers, the president of the naval board. From Lieutenant Perry's report to the navy department, it would seem that these names originated with him, and received the approval of at least three of the proprietors of the island, Messrs. Warner, Fleeming and Whitehead, who were present. These names, however, did not remain long in use; Cayo Hueso and its English substitute, "Key West," seemed to suit the fancy of the people more than the new names.

Commodore Porter of the navy, also took a hand in naming Key West and dated his letters from "Allenton," but this was even shorter lived than the others.

Key West lies in latitude 240, 331, north, and longitude 810, 48', west. Its topography, before its ponds and lagoons were filled, was like that of other habitable keys near the Florida Reef, having a high ridge extending along its water front on the ocean or gulf side, where the deepest water lies, and sloping back to ponds and lagoons, beyond which lie high hammock lands. The early settlers naturally selected the high ridge on the deep-water side to build the city, and until the onward march of commercial progress and the development as a naval station drove them further back, the finest residences were built on and near the water front, from the present location of the United States Marine Hospital to the foot of Duval street. Back of the high ridge on the southwestern end of the island was a large lagoon which commenced in a swamp not very far from the southwestern end of the island and continuing along, nearly parallel with the beach, crossed Whitehead street near Caroline, and entered the water near the north end of Simonton street. Where it crossed Whitehead street it was so narrow that it was easily bridged for carts and carriages by a few planks. After crossing this street, it spread out into what was called a pond, which in 1836 covered about two acres of ground. Duval street then crossed this pond in about its center. The depth of water varied with the ebb and flow of the tide, but it was generally about twelve to eighteen inches deep. A foot bridge, made of piles and covered with planks, commenced within about 100 feet of the corner of Duval and Front streets, and extended to within about 75 feet of the corner of Duval and Caroline streets. A more substantial bridge about fifteen feet long afforded a passage across the entrance of the pond, about on a line with Simonton street, which was used by drays and other vehicles; it being the only way to get to and from the northwestern part of the island. There was also a small bridge across Whitehead street, which in 1850 was superseded by a wagon road.

No attempt was made to get rid of the lagoon or pond because it was apprehended that if it should be closed to the flux and influx of the tides, other portions of the inhabited city would be subject to overflow, and to guard against this the charter of 1836 not only restricted the authorities of the city from filling up the streets, but the owners of lots covered by the pond were also restrained from filling them.

The hurricane of 1846 so altered the configuration of the island by washing up the sand, that the pond ceased to receive the tides, and the consequences apprehended not having occurred, the restriction against such filling was omitted from subsequent charters, and in November, 1853, an ordinance was passed requiring the respective owners of the submerged lots to fill them up.

These lots were in the hands of various owners, some of whom complied with the terms of the ordinance, others suffered the work to be done by the city, and paid the costs of the filling, whilst others refused to fill in or pay the expense incurred therefor.

The city was surveyed and mapped by Mr. William A. Whitehead in February, 1829, and like all new cities was more pretentious on the map than in reality. None of the streets extending southeasterly were cleared beyond Caroline street. On the 8th of October, 1831, the city council adopted a resolution giving free commission to the inhabitants of the town to cut and remove the woods standing on Eaton street, which caused it to be cleared of trees from Duval to Simonton streets. As late as 1837 Eaton street beyond Simonton was covered with its original small trees, heavy underbrush, vines, cacti, etc., but in that year the woods were cleared and the brush burned off on all that part of the island lying between Whitehead and Elizabeth streets, as far out as Fleming street.

The first street opened through to the South Beach was Whitehead street. Duval street was only cleared about half way between Eaton and Fleming street as late as 1836, and the only house on it at that time, after crossing Caroline street, was one belonging to Captain Francis B. Watlington. This house is still occupied by his immediate family, and though built in the early thirties, weathered the great hurricanes of 1835, 1846, 1909 and 1910, and sustained little damage.

A large part of this work was accomplished in one day by a party of fifty or more United States sailors sent on shore for this purpose by the commanding officers of the United States sloop Concord, and other vessels then lying in the harbor. Prof. Coffin, instructor in mathematics to the midshipmen, and leading townspeople, among whom were Judge Marvin, Mr. Jos. B. Browne , Mr. Stephen R. Mallory and Mr. Asa F. Tift, assisted in the work, which was done with a view to take away from the Seminole Indians, who were at war with the whites on the mainland, the means of concealing themselves, should they attempt an attack on the town.

The following from the pen of Judge William Marvin, for many years United States district judge at Key West, is interesting reading of the old days: "About the persons I found living in Key West when I first landed there in October, 1836, from a little mail schooner, which sailed from Charleston (the whole population was then not very far from four hundred souls), James Webb, then about forty-five years old, was the judge of the Superior Court. He had been appointed by President Adams from Georgia. He was a good lawyer, an impartial judge and a genial gentleman. He resigned his office in 1839 and moved to Texas, where he was appointed by President Lamar, secretary of State.

Texas had not then been admitted into the Union-it was the Lone Star. Mr. Alden A. M. Jackson was clerk of the court and Mr. Thomas Easton was marshal. They told in that day a good story of the marshal. He had been only recently appointed. He was calling in the court the names of the jurors. He did not know the sound of a single letter in Spanish. He had come from Tennessee. He came to the name on the list-Joseph Ximinez. He called 'Joseph Eks-im-e-nez.' No person answered. Some one whispered to him to call 'Joseph He-ma-nes,' which he did. Whereupon Mr. Ximinez answered 'here' and walked up to the clerk's desk to be sworn in. 'Phoebus! What a name!' exclaimed the marshal.

"The only lawyers at that time at the bar were Mr. Adam Gordon and Mr. Wm. R. Hackley. Mr. Chandler had, a short time before, resigned the office of United States attorney and moved away. I had succeeded to his place. Mr. Wm. A. Whitehead was collector of the port, Mr. Adam Gordon deputy, and Mr. S. R. Mallory, inspector.

"The principal merchants were Mr. Fielding A. Browne, a Virginian; Mr. Pardon C. Greene,* from Rhode Island; Mr. Oliver O'Hara, from South Carolina, and his partner, Mr. Charles Wells, from New York. Mr. Wm. Shaw, Mr. Geo. E. Weaver and Mr. Philip J. Fontane were grocers and ship chandlers. Mr. Amos and Mr. Asa Tift kept a dry goods store. Mr. Alexander Patterson was an auctioneer, and kept a store located near a cocoanut tree at the foot of Whitehead street. Mr. William H. Wall kept a little store, had been married a a short time before to Miss Mabritty and lived in a small house on Whitehead street a little beyond Jackson Square, the farthest house out on that street. Mr. Lewis Breaker, the father of Mrs. James Filor, was a justice of the peace. Mr. John Geiger was pilot, captain of a wrecking vessel, a man of decided character and a sort of commodore among his compeers. Mr. Charles Johnson and Mr. Francis Watlington, both bright and intelligent men, were pilots and wreckers. I am not quite certain whether Mr. William Curry was living in Key West at the time I am writing of or not. I am inclined to think he came there at a somewhat later period. He was at one time clerk in Mr. Wall's store. At a still later period he formed a partnership with Mr. George Bowne in the business of buying and selling wrecked goods, and made money. But few people came from the Bahamas before 1836. Among the first to come were Mr. Wm. Curry's family, Mr. Samuel Kemp, Mr. John Braman, Mr. Benj. Albury, and Mr. John Lowe, Jr.'s family.

"Among the young men about town are to be named Amos and Asa Tift, Stephen R. Mallory, Joseph B. Browne, John P. Baldwin and Lieut. Benjamin Alvord, United States Army, afterwards paymaster general of the army. I do not know that these young fellows ever 'painted the town red,' for they were a well behaved and orderly set of young gentlemen; but they, or some of them, were known to be in the streets very often in the small hours of the morning, serenading some one or more of the young ladies of the town. Among these young ladies were Miss Mary Nieves Ximinez, who married Mr. Joseph Beverly Browne, Miss Whalton, Miss Breaker, and at a very little later period, say in 1837-38, Miss Mary and her sister Miss Nona Martinelli. Nothing pleased Mallory better than to take his flute and get one or two friends, and Roberts, a colored man with his fiddle, to join him and go out into the beautiful moonlight nights and serenade some lady or ladies. Among the married ladies were Mrs. Wm. A. Whitehead, Mrs. Adam Gordon, Mrs. Wm. Randolph, sister of Mr. Fielding A. Browne, Mrs. George E. Weaver, Mrs. Joseph Ximenez, Mrs. Alexander Patterson, Mrs. Francis Watlington, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Whalton and Mrs. Ellen Mallory.

"Messrs. Charles Howe, Winer Bethel, Stephen J. Douglas, James Curtis, Thomas Ferguson, Walter C. Maloney, James Filor, Fernando J. Moreno, Senac, Charles and Asa Tift, James C. Clapp, Rev. Osgood E. Herrick and James Hicks all came to Key West after 1836. Mr. Howe was living at that time at Indian Key."

The first permanent settlers in Key West were Mr. Joseph C. Whalton and family, Mr. Michael Mabritty and family, Mr. Antonio Girardo and family from St. Augustine, Fla., and Mr. William W. Rigby and family and Mr. Richard Fitzpatrick.

A territorial government was established in Florida in 1819 and Key West then began to feel the benefit of an influx of population. Probably few new cities have ever started out with as high a class of population as Key West. Nearly all who came here had some means, and were people of culture and refinement. St. Augustine, Virginia, South Carolina, New York and Connecticut furnished their quota of the early population. Wrecking and fishing for the Havana market were the almost exclusive sources of revenue, and as they were both very lucrative occupations, many substantial fortunes were made.

The little colony at Key West was not without excitement at times. On December 7, 1831, the Key West Gazette said: "Considerable excitement has existed here during this week occasioned by the riotous conduct of a number of the passengers from on board the wreck of the ship Maria. As soon as they arrived here, every accommodation which the place could afford was granted them; fifteen or twenty tents were pitched for their convenience, and a number of them were taken into different houses.

"On Thursday last, after a rather free indulgence to Bacchus, they, from some imaginary cause, became dissatisfied and threatened the lives of Captain McMullen and some of his crew. They evidenced their feelings that night, by the most boisterous behavior; in consequence of which the inhabitants at the lower end of the town were prevented from sleeping and were in momentary expectation of having their homes assaulted. On Friday afternoon they collected in such numbers on Browne's wharf that the proprietor was obliged to suspend business. Here a general battle ensued among them, in which it was difficult to tell who or how many were engaged, and a disfigura

They do not go in flocks, but separately and in twos and threes. They are a dark rich blue-black "having the upper part of the head pure white, with a deep rich brown edging at the lateral parts of the crown. 11 The young have no white on their heads, that distinguishing feature not appearing until the birds are four months old. This bird comes from Cuba in the latter part of April and remains on the keys where it breeds, until about the first of October. It is not found elsewhere in the United States.

Mr. Audubon painted the whiteheaded pigeon on a bough of what is called in Key West the "Geiger Flower," botanically known as the "Rough-Leaved Cordia." Of this plant, which is now abundant in Key West, there were only two specimens in 1832, and they were in the yard of Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel.

During this visit Mr. Audubon discovered a new variety of pigeon hitherto unknown to ornithologists, of which he says: "I have taken upon myself to name this species the 'Key West Pigeon,' and offer it as a tribute to the generous inhabitants of that island, who honored me with their friendship." It is sometimes called the "partridge pigeon," from its resemblance to the partridge or quail in its habits and coloring. Like the whiteheaded pigeon, its natural habitat is Cuba, whence it once came in quantities to Key West and the adjacent keys, but is rarely found here now. Only a half a dozen specimens have been procured in the last thirty years, one of which was shot by Mr. J. W. Atkins, manager of the Telegraph and Cable Company, an amateur ornithologist of some repute. Mr. Audubon calls it the "most beautiful of woodland cooers, and on observing for the first time "the brilliant changing metallic hues of its plumage" was so inspired with the difficulty of Copying nature in this instance that he exclaimed "But who will draw it?" His painting, in the " Birds of America," shows it to be a most beautiful bird, but it is obvious that Nature laughed at man's effort to put on canvas what God had limned.

On February 22, 1832, the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Washington, a banquet was given by the patriotic citizens of Key West, in honor of that occasion. The program and toasts were of high order and deserve to be perpetuated in history; not only as a lesson in patriotism but as an illustration of the thoroughness of the journalism of that day.


in May, 1860, the United States gunboats Mohawk and Wyandotte captured two slavers, the Wildfire and Williams, and brought them into this port with their cargoes of three hundred Africans.

A barracoon was constructed at Whitehead's point, about where the principal sand battery now stands, and several large barracks built for them,. These fronted the shore a distance of about 140 yards from high water mark, and every day the Africans would go in a mass and bathe. As their clothing was scant, consisting of merely a clout, they had none of the inconveniences of modern surf bathers. The dormitory for their accommodation was two hundred and twenty-five feet by twentyfive feet, and this was divided into nine large rooms, so that the sexes and children of different ages could be separated. They were fed in squads of ten, seated around a large bucket filled with rice and meat, each armed with a spoon to feed with. Thirty gallon tubs well supplied with cool fresh water stood in each room. The percentage of sick among them was enormous. Nearly all were suffering with ophthalmia, while many were totally blind. A hospital one hundred and fourteen by twentyone feet was erected, which at one time had as many as one hundred and eighty patients. The hospital was in charge of Doctors Whitehurst, Skrine and Weedon, under whose care most of the sick were restored to health.

The Africans were cared for by the Federal authorities but were the recipients of many acts of kindness from our citizens. Hundreds visited them daily, carrying clothing, food and other things for their comfort and pleasure. The first burial was of a child six weeks old, whose young mother was barely in her teens. Her devotion to her offspring made her an object of much sympathy to the visitors to the camp, and upon the death of the child, our people provided a handsome coffin to bury it in. The interment took place some distance from the barracoon, and the Africans were allowed to be present at the services, where they performed their native ceremony. Weird chants were sung, mingled with loud wails of grief and mournful moanings from a hundred throats, until the coffin was lowered into the grave, when at once the chanting stopped and perfect silence reigned, and the Africans marched back to the barracoon without a sound.

In December, 1867, Key West was honored by a visit from Mr. Jefferson Davis, late president of the Southern Confederacy, and his wife, Varina Howell Davis. Mr. Davis' long confinement in Fortress Monroe had broken his health, and he was advised to go to Cuba for the winter. He embarked from Baltimore for Havana via Key West, and spent the day here. He and Mrs. Davis were the guests of Hon. Joseph B. Browne. A delicate and thoughtful attention was shown them by Colonel W. C. Maloney, Sr. He sent a basket of fruit from his garden to ornament the dinner table, and requested that it be presented with his compliments to Mr. Davis, after the dinner. In the center was a fruit of the cocoanut tree, surrounded with its spiral stemmed blossoms. The delicate green of the anone, contrasted with the brown of the sapodillo, and the yellow and red of the mango gave the needed dash of color; the whole effect was enlivened by a generous sprinkling of the bright Pink of the West India cherry-the favorite fruit of the donor's garden. Colonel Maloney had been an uncompromising Union man during the war, and his intense nature made him a bitter partisan. But the war was over, Mr. Davis was a private citizen, his health was broken, and he had suffered the hardships of a long prison life, and, what was a still more weighty consideration with Colonel Maloney, he was a guest of the city and entitled to all consideration.

An incident of this visit, trifling in itself, is indicative of Mr. Davis' gentleness of character and disinclination to wound. While out driving with his host, they stopped at a friend's home to get a ripe sapodillo for Mr. Davis to taste. He broke it in halves, and on taking a bite, quietly and without any expression of distaste, put the two parts together, and continued his conversation. On being asked if he did not like the fruit, said: 461 cannot say that I care for it particularly, but I fancy some people are very fond of it."

Illustrative of his extreme punctiliousness, this incident is given: ŅIn 1880 a group of students in the State University of Iowa were boasting of the distinguished people of their acquaintance. One of them spoke of knowing Mr. Jefferson Davis who had been a guest at his father's home in Key West. The claim was good naturedly challenged, and a wager laid, to be determined upon the young man receiving a letter from Mr. Davis which would verify his statement. The student wrote to Mr. Davis in April, 1880, and after waiting two months, received no reply, and paid thebet. More than a year afterward a letter came from Mr. Davis stating that through some accident the letter had been mislaid, but upon it being lately recovered was promptly answered. At this time Mr. Davis was engaged in writing his great work, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy," and notwithstanding the fact that his mind was engrossed with his great subject, he was concerned lest he might have been guilty of an act of discourtesy, and hastened to make reparation, although a year had elapsed since he received the letter.

In 1880 General U. S. Grant, accompanied by General Phil H. Sheridan, paid Key West a visit, on his return from his tour around the world. He came on the steamship Admiral from New Orleans bound for Havana. It was a day memorable in the history of the island-all stores were closed, and it was made a general holiday.

He was met by a committee consisting of Mr. John Jay Philbrick, Hons. Frank N. Wicker, George W. Allen, Eldridge L. Ware, Joseph B. Browne, G. Bowne Patterson, Judge James W. Locke and many others. A drive over the island, a public reception, and a banquet were part of the functions provided for his entertainment. The banquet was served in the St. James hotel, as it was then called, prepared by Mr. L. Y. Jenness. The menu was printed on silk American flags; the red, white and blue color scheme being carried out in the badges and decorations.

Excerpt from "The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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