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Key West: The Municipality

Key West: The Old and the New


The first act incorporating the City of Key West was passed January 8, 1828. On November 8, 1828, this act was repealed and a new one incorporating the Town of Key West was passed. it incorporated all the free white inhabitants of that part of the island of Key West comprehended within the limits prescribed by the plan of the town then on file in the clerk's office in the county; being all that portion of the island beginning at the junction of White street with the waters of the harbor, and extending along White street to Angela, thence southwesterly along Angela to Fort Taylor reservation, thence northwesterly to the waters of the harbor, and thence along the shore line back to White street.

The government was vested in a board of seven town councilmen, to be elected by the free white male persons over the age of twenty-one years, who bad resided three whole months within the proposed limits. The president of the body, in addition to his duties as such, acted as mayor and exercised the powers, and received the fees and emoluments of a justice of the peace for the territory. The council had usual municipal powers, and the unusual ones of "appointing pilots, regulating pilotage and enforcing all laws of the territory as well as those of their own enactment."

The first charter authorized levying license taxes, but gave no authority for a tax upon realty. This was a source of much controversy, the large landed proprietors being opposed to taxing their realty, as the major part of it was unproductive, and they were freely donating lots to induce settlers to come to Key West.

The incorporated town gave place in 1832 to the incorporated city by virtue of a charter granted by. the territorial council in that year. It provided for the selection of a mayor and six councilmen. Twelve months residence was required for voters. The first mayor elected under this charter was Colonel Oliver O'Hara.

It provided for a tax on real estate of not more than one half of one per cent on its value. It also authorized a per capita tax on "free negroes, mulattoes and slaves."

Under it members of the council were fined for being absent from meetings, and on April 4, 1835, at the suggestion of Mr. Adam Gordon, mayor, the amount assessed and paid for fines 50 was donated to the Sunday school library at Key West and its receipt duly acknowledged by Mr. William A. Whitehead, superintendent. Note the difference in the public spirit of the old and the new Key West! Our forefathers considered that those who offered their services as members of the city council should attend to those duties or be fined for non-attendance. Under the present charter councilmen are paid four dollars a meeting for working for the city, for whose development and welfare, should be given voluntarily the best services of every citizen.

The members of the town council elected under this act were Mr. David Coffin Pinkham, president; Mr. Pardon C. Greene, Mr. Benjamin B. Strobel, Mr. William A. Whitehead, Mr. Joseph Cottrell, Mr. Fielding A. Browne and Mr. George E. Weaver. The town council being empowered to elect the other city officials, elected Mr. William H. Wall, clerk; Mr. P. B. Prior, marshal, and Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse, treasurer. Dr. Waterhouse afterwards moved to Indian Key, and on January 179 1834, he and his young son were drowned by the upsetting of a small boat in which they had embarked for Matecumbie.

Mr. Prior did not qualify as marshal and Mr. Stephen R. Mallory, who afterwards became United States senator, and secretary of the navy of the Southern Confederacy, was elected and served in his place.

Under this charter an ordinance was passed by which negroes were not permitted to be on the streets after half past nine o'clock at night, without written permission (if free) from the mayor or an alderman, and if a slave from his master or mistress, under penalty of being whipped or put to labor on the public streets for three days.

Negroes, whether free or not, were not permitted to play the fiddle, beat a drum, or make any other kind of noise after bell-ring without written permission from the mayor or an alderman.

Every citizen was empowered to apprehend any negro violating this ordinance, and take him before the mayor or an alderman and obtain an order committing him to jail.

No stores were permitted to be open after bell-ring. The city bell was rung for five minutes before half-past nine every night. It was amusing to see a belated negro sprinting for home on hearing the bell ring, in order to get there before it stopped, and hear some bystander cry out, "Run nigger, run, The patrol catch you."

This charter was the first that authorized the assessment of real estate for purposes of taxation, and the assessment roll showed the value of realty to be $65,923.75. The improved portion was assessed at $61,005.00, and the unimproved which included all the rest of the island, was assessed at the rate of twenty-five dollars an acre, a total of $3,918.75. The taxes collected on this assessment amounted to $329.61; the expense of the government being borne largely by the revenue raised from license taxes. The charter gave no authority to levy taxes on personal property.

The number of buildings within the city limits in 1832 was eighty-one, including sheds for the storage of wrecked cotton and other articles, blacksmith shops, etc. The two principal buildings were the warehouses of Pardon C. Greene and Fielding A. Browne; the assessed value of each was $6,000.00, including the land and wharfs.

In 1835 the city charter was abolished by the territorial council through the influence of certain parties whose intended action was unknown to the citizens generally. The repealing act provided that all ordinances should remain in force.

As soon as this action became known a petition was sent to congress protesting against it. The congressional Committee on Territories to whom the matter was referred, having reported against the action of the territorial council, that body in 1836 reenacted the charter.

Prior to 1828 a survey of the island was made, but when the proprietors sought to appropriate their several portions in accordance with the division previously agreed upon between Messrs. Simonton, Greene, Fleeming and Whitehead, it was found that the surveyor had left the island without furnishing them with any courses, distances or other data, whereby their prospective properties could be defined.

Mr. William Adee Whitehead, a young civil engineer, who had come to Key West to go into business with his brother, was engaged to survey the island and lay out the town, which he completed in February, 1829.

The streets, other than those bearing the surnames of the original proprietors, were named by them to perpetuate the memories of their relatives, friends and distinguished citizens. "Eaton" was named after Hon. John A. Eaton, secretary of war in President Jackson's cabinet; "White" after Hon. Jos. M. White, territorial delegate in Congress for Florida; "Duval" after the governor of Florida; "Grinnell" after the merchants of that name in New York; "Southard" for a senator and secretary of the navy; "Caroline," "Margaret ... .. William," "Thomas" and "Emma" after brothers and sisters of Mr. John Whitehead. "Frances" after a daughter of Mr. Fleeming; "Ann" after Mr. Simonton's wife; "Elizabeth" after a relative of Mr. Greene; "Fitzpatrick" after Mr. Richard Fitzpatrick, a then resident and for several years a delegate from Monroe county to the territorial council. "Clinton Place" after DeWitt Clinton of New York, and "Jackson Square" after Andrew Jackson. The little mangrove island just across the harbor was named Fleeming's Key after one of the original proprietors.

In April, 1836, the first election under the new charter was held, and Mr. Fielding A. Browne was elected mayor and Mr. William R. Hackley, Mr. Alden A. M. Jackson, Mr. Pierce P. Fellows and Dr. D. Platts elected councilmen. The total vote cast at this election was thirty-nine, the population being something less than three hundred. The total vote cast in the city election of November 14, 1911, was two thousand, four hundred and forty-seven.

In 1838 a novel question of taxation arose. The charter of 1836 authorized the levying of occupational taxes which were promptly paid by the leading business men of the city without protest. In the early part of 1838 an ordinance was passed levying an occupational tax to raise revenue for the year 1838 and Mr. John P. Baldwin, Mr. George E. Weaver, Mr. John H. Sawyer and Mr. P. J. Fontaine addressed a communication to the mayor, Mr. W. A. Whitehead, protesting against the enforcement of the ordinance, contending that occupational licenses once granted were for an indefinite time, and that the city had no right to require those who had been granted licenses in 1837 to take them out again. That if they could be required to do so annually, the city could also "compel them to take out licenses daily or hourly, at the pleasure of the council."

Mayor Whitehead replied to this protest in a document* remarkable for close analysis and cogent reasoning and completely and thoroughly disposed of their contention.

Judge Marvin, who was at first inclined to agree with the contention of the merchants, upon reading Mr. Whitehead's reply, said to him: "You may be perfectly right, for I am not at all tenacious of my opinion."

Mr. George E. Weaver said, "I am perfectly satisfied as to the power of the corporation since reading your communication."

A number of the merchants, however, persisted in their refusal to pay licenses, and Mr. Whitehead requested that a meeting of citizens be called by the city council "to determine whether the laws should be enforced or the charter dissolved." The council not complying with his request, he called an election for mayor, and announced his intention to resign his office in favor of whoever was elected.

Feeling ran high, and those who were opposed to Mr. Whitehead's construction of the charter, picked up a low, illiterate character, the keeper of a sailor grog shop, named Tomaso Sachetti, who could hardly make himself understood in English, and ran him for mayor, for the double purpose of placing an indignity on Mr. Whitehead, and nullifying the objectionable ordinance. The low element, elated at the prospect of one of their ilk being mayor of the city, rallied to Sachetti's standard, and as he also had the moral support of a few of the prominent citizens, no self-respecting man could be induced to run against him. He was chosen without opposition, and on the fourteenth of March was notified of his election by Mayor Whitehead, who at once resigned as mayor, and turned the office over to Sachetti. Sachetti's reply on the same date was written by Mr. Charles Walker of whom Mr. Whitehead says: "He was a lawyer from New York, a loco-foco, an agrarian, a disorganizer, etc."

Mayor Whitehead left Key West shortly after this and never returned; and although he retained his interest in the place until his death in the early eighties, he never got over his treatment by the people of the city he had helped to found, and to which he had given his best abilities to develop and improve. Key West thus lost one of its foremost citizens, a victim to a spirit-still too prevalent-which seeks to belittle and injure the man who dares oppose public opinion, or who bravely maintains his position against popular clamor.

In 1846 after the admission of Florida into the Union, another charter was adopted, which regulated the affairs of the city until 1869, when it was superseded by the General Act of Incorporation for Cities.

About this time Key West started on its career of industrial development, coincident with the Cuban migration. The population rapidly increased from three thousand in 1860, to upwards of twelve thousand in 1870; hundreds of buildings were erected far beyond the old city limits. Under the general laws of the State, the city limits could not be extended without the concurrent vote of a majority of those living within the city, and those living within the territory to be annexed. Several attempts were made to extend the city limits, but the population outside were unable to see what benefits were to be derived which would compensate them for the increase in taxation, and voted against the extension.

Those outside the city limits were as orderly and law-abiding as those within, and were happy and prosperous without the so-called privileges of a city, and in addition were free from molestation by city policemen. There were no greater number of offences committed outside than within the limits.

In 1876 a commodious city hall was built, and its dedication on July 4th was attended with much pomp. Colonel W. C. Maloney, Sr., delivered an address which was published as an historical sketch of Key West. It was the first attempt at compiling for the use of posterity the events that had shaped the destinies of this island. The hall was destroyed by fire in 1886, and a larger one of brick built on the site of the old. The ground floor was designed for a market, and for several years was so used, but at this time there is only one stall in use. Since the fire engine house was destroyed by the hurricane of 1909, the ground floor of the hall is set apart for an engine room, and for other uses of the fire department.

When the pond, which covered most of that part of the city bounded by Simonton, Caroline, Whitehead and Greene streets, was ordered filled, several of the owners failed to comply with the ordinance, and the work was done by the city, and the lots sold to pay the expense. The lot on which the city hall stands was acquired in this way, and such was the city's precarious title, until Colonel Maloney, acting for the city, and Mr. Moreno, the agent of, and Mr. Mallory, the attorney for the heirs of Mr. John W. Simonton, to whom the lots belonged, affected a settlement; or rather Miss Florida Simonton, the sole surviving heir of Mr. Simonton, through her trustee, Miss Mary B. Jones, gave the property to the city on June 21, 1871.

In 1889 the legislature granted a special charter to the city of Key West, and included the entire island within the corporate limits. The government was to be by nine commissioners appointed by the governor, and they were to appoint all the other officials. The president of the commissioners performed the functions of mayor in addition to his duties as commissioner. The first mayor under this system was Hon. Walter C. Maloney, Jr.

This charter authorized a bond issue for paving and street improvement, and a contract for grading, paving and curbing certain streets was let to Mr. G. J. Baer. The work was progressing smoothly when a policy of obstruction was adopted by the engineer. The legal representatives of the contractors appeared before the commissioners on several occasions, protesting against this policy, and made every effort to have the work proceed according to contract. Failing to obtain relief from the commissioners, he gave up all effort to proceed with the work, and brought suit in the United States court, where he obtained a judgment for one hundred and seventeen thousand dollars. In 1899 a bond issue of one hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars was floated to pay this judgment with accrued interest and costs.

In 1891 the charter was amended, and provided for the appointment by the commissioners of a mayor who should not be one of their body, and for the election by the people of a clerk, marshal, tax collector, assessor, treasurer, etc.

In 1907 a new charter was granted to which amendments have been made from time to time, according to the fancies of the members of the legislature, the caprice of ward politicians, or the demand of agitators. It has been demonstrated, however, that change is not necessarily progress, and those who are least qualified by ability and experience to suggest amendments to the organic law are the most eager to propose them.

In 1910 the city voted a bond issue of one hundred and ninety-two thousand dollars for paving or sewerage purposes, and a contract was awarded to the Southern Asphalt and Construction Company to pave all that portion of the city lying southwest of Caroline street; Division street from Duval to White street, thence along White street northwest to the water; Fleming from Whitehead to White street, and Simonton as far as Fleming street, with brick; and Duval street from Caroline to Division street, with asphalt block. The first brick in the new pavement was laid by Mr. Charles R. Pierce of the board of public works on December 11, 1911.

The total bonded indebtedness of the city is something over six hundred thousand dollars; the assessed value of all property in 1900 was two million six hundred and seventy thousand nine hundred dollars, and in 1910 was four million two hundred and thirty thousand nine hundred dollars. During that decade over two hundred thousand dollars' worth of real estate was condemned and taken over by the United States government.

From 1832, the date of the first charter of the city, the following citizens have successively been elected to the office of mayor: Mr. Oliver O'Hara, Mr. Fielding A. Browne, r. William A. Whitehead, Tomaso Sachetti, Mr. Pardon C. Greene, Mr. Philip J. Fontaine, Mr. Alexander Patterson, Mr. Benjamin Sawyer, Mr. Walter C. Maloney, Mr. Fernando J. Moreno, Mr. John P. Baldwin, Mr. John W. Porter, Mr. William Curry, Mr. Philip J. Fontaine, Mr. Alexander Patterson, Mr. Benjamin Sawyer, Mr. John P. Baldwin, Mr. William Marvin, Alexander Patterson, Mr. E. 0. Gwynn, Mr. William S. Allen, Dr. D. W. Whitehurst Mr. Henry Mulrennan, Mr. Joseph B. Browne, Mr. William D. Cash, Mr. Winer Bethel, Mr. E. 0. Gwynn, Mr. Carlos M. de Cespedes, Mr. Livingston W. Bethel, Mr. Robert Jasper Perry, Mr. E. 0. Gwynn, Mr. William McClintock, Mr. R. Alfred Monsalvatge, Mr. James G. Jones, Mr. J. W. V. R. Plummer, Mr. James A. Waddell, Mr. Walter C. Maloney, Jr., Mr. Robert J. Perry, Mr. James A. Waddell, Mr. John B. Maloney, Mr. George L. Bartlum, Mr. Benjamin Trevor, Mr. George L. Babcock and Mr. Joseph N. Fogarty.

The surviving mayors are Mr. William D. Cash, Mr. Livingston W. Bethel, Mr. John B. Maloney, Mr. George L. Bartlum, Mr. George L. Babcock, Mr. Benjamin D. Trevor and Dr. Joseph N. Fogarty, the present incumbent.

When Dr. Fogarty finishes the term for which he was elected November 14, 1911, he will have the honor of having .held the office of mayor for a longer period-six years-than any of his predecessors.

Mr. Cornelius J. Kemp, Mr. William B. Curry, Mr. Frank H. Ladd, Mr. Edward E. Ingraham, Mr. William M. Pinder, Mr. Charles W. Lowe and Mr. J. R. Valdez compose the present city council.

On the board of public works are Messrs. William R. Porter, Jefferson B. Browne, Joshua Curry, Charles R. Pierce and Shirley C. Bott.

In 1895 the city undertook to secure a supply of fresh water, and an artesian well was sunk in Jackson Square to a depth of two thousand feet. Samples of the borings were taken every twenty-five feet from the surface to the bottom. A set of these Samples was furnished by Mr. Alexander Agassiz to Mr. Edmond Otis Hovey, who prepared a very full and exhaustive report for the zoological society of Harvard College. Mr. Hovey says that the samples indicate a shallow water origin for much of the material. The most solid rock passed through came from a depth of from one hundred and fifty, to one hundred and seventyfive feet from the surface inclusive. No traces of fresh water were found.

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


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