Although we commonly refer to this area we call home as The South, there is certainly no rulebook defining our region. We differ, from city to city and person to person, a variable amalgamation of places that share a few common characteristics and weather patterns.
So what does the southernmost point of the South look like? Is it oozing with butter and fried vegetables; are the accents there as thick and drawling as cool honey and necks as red as beets; are the trees swarming with cicadas and covered in kudzu? Key West, our southern extremity, is not, in fact, any of those things. With unique influences from countries around the world, including Spain, Britain, Cuba, and the Bahamas, Key West is as much international as it is Southern. Our southern extremity, rather than embodying those symbolic and oft-parodied traits, offers a unique glance into the individualities and idiosyncrasies that are as much a part of the South as our accents.
Known today for its sunshine, beaches, nightlife, and watersports, Key West is a dyed-in-the-wool vacation destination. But for centuries, it was occupied by the Calusa people, a complex society of Native Americans who built elaborate systems of estuaries around the island to catch fish, the cornerstone of their culture. The first European to set foot on Key West was Ponce de Leon in 1513, staking the picturesque island as Spanish territory. Spanish settlers referred to the island as “Cayo Hueso,” or “bone clay,” purportedly in response to the piles of bones that littered the small island: legend has it that the Calusa people used Key West as a communal burial ground prior to the settlement of Europeans.
Key West remained under Spanish control as a small settlement dependent on fishing and salvage industries until 1763, when Great Britain claimed Florida for the crown. Claims to the region passed back and forth between the British and Spanish, neither power investing in Key West, until 1819, when Florida was officially transferred to the United States.
At that time, Juan Pablo Salas, a Spanish loyalist, owned the island. Salas saw an opportunity to capitalize on the transfer of Florida and resolved to sell his island, which he did—twice. The first buyer was John Geddes, a former governor of South Carolina, who was followed by John W. Simonton, a businessman who saw the immense value and invaluable opportunity the island held with its position on the Straits of Florida, a natural and navigable shipping lane connecting the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. After a tug-of-war of deeds, Simonton won possession of Key West and soon divided ownership four ways, between himself, John Whitehead (who had originally encouraged him to buy), John Fleeming, and Pardon C. Greene. These four men came to be known as the Fathers of Key West.
Under American control, Key West and her industries grew, making way for a naval base and large salvage operations, which drew their supply from nearby shipwrecks. Salvage became such a salient part of Key West, in fact, that locals became known for the chandeliers and stately furniture found in their homes–all from marooned and sunken ships. By 1889 Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida, all because of the salvage industry.
The naval base, Fort Zachary Taylor, established in large part by Simonton, also played a large role in the early American history of Key West. When Florida seceded at the start of the Civil War, Key West didn’t get to follow—because of the Union-occupied naval base, the entire island remained under Union control. Although many residents of Key West remained loyal to the Confederacy throughout the War, the base excluded the small island from the controversy and the landscape escaped unscathed.
Migration and visitors to the island began to increase after the Civil War. First a large influx of immigrants from the Bahamas, known as “Conchs,” made their way to Key West. Conchs were the children of Loyalists who had fled to the Bahamas, the nearest land under the British crown, after the American Revolution. This next generation, however, chose to return to America and, quite frequently, Key West. Conchs became such a large part of the Key West population that in the twentieth century all locals began referring to themselves as Conchs. The moniker developed further, so that today there are “Saltwater Conchs,” who were born and raised on the island, and “Freshwater Conchs,” who have lived on the island for upwards of seven years.
It wasn’t until 1912, however, that Key West became accessible from the mainland. It was that year that Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway bridged the strait, offering visitors an easy, navigable route to the isolated island. When the bridge was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the government stepped in, rebuilding the bridge as an auto highway connected to the famous Highway 1. Key West’s main industry quickly shifted from salvage to tourism.
Though Key West’s spectacular views and welcoming waters draw in thousands of tourists and migrants every year, her most famous settler was undoubtedly Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway fell in love with the small town, with its easy access to angling and the raucous hideaway of Joe’s Bar. The island loved him back, and today they celebrate the author with Hemingway Days. The festival includes a look-alike contest, short-story and angling competitions, a street fair, and even a costumed running of the bulls. Visitors to Key West can stop at Hemingway’s Home and Museum year-round and pet one of the many six-toed cats roaming the grounds, all descended from his favorite, Snowball.
In recent years, the Conchs of Key West (Saltwater and Fresh) have banded together to form a unique, tight-knit community. In 1982, for example, the citizens of Key West declared independence from the United States when the government set up a Border Patrol Blockade at the end of the bridge, a post to check for illegal immigrants following the Mariel Boatlift, a massive migration of Cubans to America. The position of the blockade signified a physical, if not literal, expulsion of Key West from the United States, and residents responded appropriately, declaring independence and naming their small land, including all of the Florida Keys, the Conch Republic.
For residents, Key West isn’t just another piece of land. It’s an enviable home that veers close to utopian, a place anyone should be proud to call home. Their pride of place shines not just in their symbolic commonwealth but in their bright and sprightly architecture and their warm salutations to visitors. Their histories and lineages may span the globe, but they all share the honor of being part of Key West today.
A famous Key-West sign displaying roughly carved arrows declares the island’s distance from various places worldwide: Honolulu, San Francisco, Havana, New Orleans. The distances range from a short ride to thousands of miles, but they’re all accessible, and they’re all here. The hackneyed sign is representative of Key West and, in truth, the whole South: though we may be different, our roughly-hewed extremities often more disparate that analogous, we’re all still connected. We’re all still “the South.”
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