Fifty years after Columbus discovered the Caribbean edge of North America, a little group of islands on the Gulf side of Florida was christened by a Spanish mapmaker Las Islas Sabines—“The Cedar Isles.” During the past five centuries, these Cedar Keys have seen everything from Spanish galleons and pirate ships to nationally-acclaimed pencil factories and world-famous clam-farming.
The Seminole and other Native Americans used the Cedar Keys as a prime hunting and fishing spot long before the Europeans showed up on the scene. A two-thousand-year-old skeleton found in Cedar Key in 1999 tells its own story of human habitation on these islands for long centuries before Spanish claims. Once Spanish claims were made, however, the Cedar Keys soon became the favored way station for the gold-laden galleons en route from Mexico to Spain. And where there are ships full of such treasure, there are bound to be pirates waiting close by in the wings.
As it turns out, such notable pirates as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd knew the Cedar Keys well as a great place to conduct a successful raid. Although the Spanish were on their guard, their homebound wealth fell prey to these and other sea-bandits for many years. As a reminder of these exciting times, a late-nineteenth-century discovery of some pirate’s mislaid treasure chest not far from the Cedar Keys is still the talk of the area—apparently Baird’s Hardware in Gainesville got its start from a share of the discovered booty.
The last wave of pirating to hit the Cedar Keys area was conducted by the followers of William Augustus Bowles, a flamboyant renegade from a loyalist family in Maryland who attempted to organize some of the Seminoles into a nation—with himself as their chief. Among other things, Bowles did a good deal of pirating in Florida waters and even had a watchtower built on one of the Cedar Keys—Seahorse Key—in 1801. It was destroyed by the Spanish the following year, just before Bowles himself was finally captured and sent to languish in a Cuban castle-prison in 1803.
War between the Seminoles and the United States, however, was just heating up, and in 1839, during the Second Seminole War, the Cedar Keys became home to fortress, depot, hospital, and headquarters for the United States Army of the South, established by General Zachary Taylor himself. Seminole prisoners were held here before being relocated out west, and leaders of the warring parties conducted negotiations on “Depot Key” until a hurricane—featuring a twenty-seven-foot storm surge—brought talks to an abrupt end in 1842. Nearly all the structures were destroyed, and neither the army nor the Indians ever returned to the Cedar Keys.
That was just as well, since Congress had approved the Armed Occupation Act the same year, opening up the Cedar Keys and other Florida lands for settlement by Americans. Augustus Steele, customs officer and postmaster in Tampa, saw the chance and jumped on it. He got permission to settle the abandoned Depot Key, renamed it Atsena Otie (aSEEna Otee) Key—Muskogee for “Cedar Island”— and began to build island cottages on it for wealthy visitors. As could have been predicted, he soon became the customs officer for the Cedar Key port as well, and a Cedar Key post office was established in 1845, the same year Florida became a state. Cedar Key was now an official and up-and-coming Florida town.
And up and come it did. Cedar Key became an important port almost overnight, shipping naval stores and lumber from the mainland and establishing its own mills on Atsena Otie Key. In the early 1850’s a lighthouse was built at Bowles’s old watchtower site on Seahorse Key—the lighthouse is still in use today as part of the University of Florida’s Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. In 1859 Parsons and Hale’s General Store was built of cypress and “tabby,” a mixture of lime and crushed oyster shells. It also still stands, transformed into Cedar Key’s Island Hotel.
Meanwhile, David Levy Yulee, Florida’s first elected member of Congress and President of the Florida Railroad, had been buying up property on the largest of the Cedar Keys, Way Key, to house railroad terminal facilities. In 1860 Way Key became the westernmost terminus of the Florida Railroad, the eastern end of which was connected to railroads leading to all points north. Produce brought down the Mississippi River to the Gulf could now be shipped to the Cedar Keys and then sent by rail across the state and on to the north. That way ships didn’t have to sail all the way around the Florida peninsula, an especially risky venture during hurricane season. Cedar Key was poised for really good things.
Then the War happened. Because of their importance in the supply chain, the Cedar Keys became an early target for Federal attack. The lighthouse was the first to be taken by Union soldiers, and then the USS Hatteras raided the port, burning ships filled with cotton and turpentine as well as the railroad’s rolling stock and buildings on Way Key. In the fall of 1862 Union forces destroyed the salt kettles on Salt Key, which had been a major source of salt for the entire Confederacy. The Cedar Keys were finally taken by Federal troops and occupied for the remainder of the war.
Amazingly, the Cedar Keys were up and running again as soon as the war was over. In 1865 two major pencil factories, Eberhard Faber and Eagle, chose the Cedar Keys as the location for their mill operations, utilizing the Eastern red cedar found there for their nationally-distributed pencil production. The railroad rebuilt, with the town of Cedar Key around it, and by 1868 both passenger and freight traffic was back in full force. Over the next two decades the Cedar Keys enjoyed their greatest prosperity as they grew to be the home port for over thirty vessels, including a steamship line that transported passengers from New Orleans to Havana, Cuba. Oysters from the Cedar Keys were sent throughout the South and beyond. Cedar Key made a name for itself and flourished.
Then, at the height of their halcyon days, tragedy struck again. And again and again. First, through a simple business deal that fell through, the railroad, bought out by another company, moved its railhead to the tiny village of Tampa 100 miles to the south, effectively shifting all shipping away from Cedar Key by 1886. A decade later, in 1896, the dreaded hurricane menace returned, killing 100 people and destroying nearly everything. Atseena Otie Key was entirely abandoned, the remaining cedar trees used for pencil manufactures were gone, and the pencil mills themselves were completely demolished. Not to be outdone by water and wind, a raging fire the same year took care of most of the little that was left.
After war, hurricane, fire, and flood, the loss of its railroad and shipping importance, and finally the obliteration of its vital pencil industry, it might seem Cedar Key at the turn of the century had nothing left and should simply give up the ghost. But it was not to be so. The brave inhabitants of “Las Islas Sabines” rebuilt once again and turned their energies towards fishing as the mainstay of the community. A fishing village it remains to this day over a century later, having now been resurrected to become the center of the multi-million–dollar clam industry in America as well as a popular tourist, writer, artist, and nature-lover haven. Tens of thousands flock to the Cedar Keys every year to enjoy one of the most paradisiacal spots in the nation, grateful for the beauty, resiliency, ingenuity, and endurance of one of Florida’s oldest and best-kept treasures.