Florida Keys and Key West: Early colonization

Florida Keys and Key West – Early colonization

Foreigners arrived in the Keys in 1511 after Spain conquered Cuba, just 90 miles south of Key West. When Ponce de Leon claimed Florida in 1513, he named the island chain Los Martires (the martys) and the outlying islands Los Tortugas (the turtles).

The Spanish in the Keys

Spain established Havana in 1517 and sent ships sailing past Los Martires by 1519 loaded with treasure bound for Europe. Despite a few skirmishes with the Calusas, Spain and Native American tribes remained friendly. Spain didn’t seem a threat because they appeared interested only in fishing, gathering bird eggs, scouring for rival vessels, and converting the Native Americans to Catholicism instead of colonizing the islands.

Simultaneously, England had interests in the area. They claimed the Bahamas for King Charles I because of the rich fishing, turtles, mahogany for shipbuilding, and they feared the Spanish would build fortresses and dominate the shipping lanes.

Skilled fishermen from the Bahamas harvested fish from the waters of the Florida Keys regularly, building a rewarding business with Havana. By the 1600s, Cuban fishermen referred to the Keys as Los Cayos de Florida, the little islands of Florida. The English used the word cayo, which originated with the Taino tribes in Cuba, and the English altered it to cay. Ultimately, inhabitants corrupted it to key, and, by 1742, the English called the islands the Florida Keys.

Needing a statically situated naval base, England attacked and captured Cuba in 1762, raiding Havana. The country stayed under English power for almost a year, until in 1763 when Spain ceded Florida to England in exchange for Cuba. Spain really didn’t recognize the Keys as a piece of Florida; however, they continued fishing there. Fearing reprisal from the English, the remaining native inhabitants left the Keys for Florida. The British, realizing the treaty was vague, stated the Keys should be occupied and protected as part of Florida. No one ever officially contested the British claim. However, the British handed the islands back to Spain in 1783, just to keep the Keys from the United States, but in 1821 all of Florida, including the Keys, officially became American territory.

The United States Take Over the Keys


Spain regained command of Florida in 1783, but neither the Spanish nor the English settled the Keys in great numbers until 1821. After Spain ceded Florida to the United States, salvaging wrecked ships off the coast of the Keys became a lucrative business. According to the laws of salvage, the first captain boarding a marooned ship became the wrecking master and received the principal share of the recovered payload. However, the U.S. started regulating the wrecking operations, issuing an edict stating that only U.S. citizens could participate in the recovery operations. Since many Bahamians participated in this occupation, they started immigrating to the Keys in great numbers.

The first settlement in the Florida Keys began at Key West, in 1822, two decades before Florida became a state. The other Keys remained deserted until 1874 when the government surveyed and made homesteading plots.

New Must-Have Florida Travel Book

Authored by travel writer Roberta Sandler, each chapter tells the story of a specific monument in a manner that engages the reader and assists them in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of its significance.

A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials: A Look Inside

The memorials, monuments and statues featured in the guidebook represent a good cross section of Florida’s geography and history. A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials is organized geographically, includes driving itineraries highlighting the must-see markers, and spans Florida’s five centuries of history, from the Spanish colonization to the marvels of space travel.


Sandler researched the history behind each monument and memorial with care and thoroughness, almost as if she was researching her own family’s genealogy. She tells the complete story beginning with why the marker is significant and how and when the marker was put in place. The people and events memorialized come alive throughout the guidebook. Featured monuments and memorials represent well-known events to some of the most obscure and range from lighthearted to tearfully tragic.

Markers Featured in A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials

  • In Florida’s Panhandle, the monument to Captain John Parkhill, a marble obelisk, sits on the lawn of Florida’s Old Capitol in Tallahassee. Capt. Parkhill was killed in combat in 1857 during the Third Seminole War.
  • Chipco, an Indian chief and ruthless warrior during the Seminole Wars of the 1800s, cheated death multiple times and his story is told in a memorial in the Central Florida town of Lake Hamilton.
  • On Florida’s East Coast in Fort Pierce, a life-size bronze statue memorializes 33-year-old CeeCee Lyles, a courageous flight attendant who died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11.
  • A statue of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sits in Punta Gorda on Florida’s Southwest Gulf Coast. Some historians believe Ponce de Leon visited Charlotte Harbor between 1513 and 1521.
  • Down south, 36 cast bronze busts tell the island’s history in the Key West Memorial Sculpture Garden.
  • Busts of those influencial in shaping Key West include American tycoon and railroad developer Henry Flagler, author Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S. Truman.

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This is a must-have travel guidebook for anyone interested in history, obscure facts and getting off-the-beaten path. The book provides a new and fresh perspective on the Florida many visitors think they already know. Florida residents will appreciate the guidebook as a resource when planning one-tank trips throughout the Sunshine State and discovering more about their beloved state.

A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials: About the Author

This is Roberta Sandler’s third book. Her first book, Senior Pursuits: Making the Golden Years Worth the Wait, was honored with a Mature Media Award and her second book, Guide to Florida Historical Walking Tours, was honored with the Florida Historical Society’s Golden Quill Award. The award-winning travel writer lives in Wellington, Fla. with her travel photographer husband.

A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials: Book Details

Paperback: $21.95, 280 pages, 90 photos, 5 x 10

Publisher: University Press of Florida (September 15, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN 10: 0-8130-3258-X

ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-3258-0