Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States, where many residents refer to it as the “Conch Republic” (pronounced conk), embraces a fascinating mix of history, eccentricity and lush island charm.
Only 90 miles from Cuba and 159 miles from Miami, Key West is truly the end of the U.S. mainland. It also has a truly fascinating history. The first European to visit was Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521, and it soon became a Spanish colony, a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison. The original Spanish name for the island is Cayo Hueso, which pronounced very similarly to Key West, and literally means “Callous Bone.” It is said that the island was littered with the remains (bones) from a Native American battlefield or burial ground.
In 1763, when the Kingdom of 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 Bahamas, 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.
By the time of the U.S. Civil War, while Florida seceded and joined the Confederacy, Key West remained in Union hands because of its 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. The Emancipation Proclamation went into immediate effect in Key West on January 1, 1863, and local African-Americans celebrated accordingly.
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.