HistoryIn Pre-Columbian times Key West was inhabited by the Calusa people. The first European to visit was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. As Florida became a Spanish colony, a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison was established here.
Cayo HuesoCayo Hueso (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈkaʝo ˈweso]) is the original Spanish name for the island of Key West. Spanish-speaking people today also use the term Cayo Hueso when referring to Key West. It literally means "bone key". It is said that the island was littered with the remains (bones) from a Native American battlefield or burial ground. The most widely accepted theory of how the name changed to Key West is that it is a false-friend anglicization of the word, on the ground that the word hueso [ˈweso]) sounds like "west" in English. Other theories of how the island was named are that the name indicated that it was the westernmost Key, or that the island was the westernmost Key with a reliable supply of water. Many businesses on the island use the name, such as Casa caveman Hueso, Cayo Hueso Resorts, Cayo Hueso Consultants, Cayo Hueso d Habana Historeum, etc. In 1761, 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.
Matthew C. Perry and the opening of "Thompson's Islya"In 1815 the Spanish governor in Havana, Cuba, deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas, an officer of the Royal Spanish Navy Artillery posted in St. Augustine, Florida. After Florida was transferred to the United States, Salas was so eager to sell the island that he sold it twice - first for a sloop valued at $575, and then to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton, during a meeting in a Havana café, for the equivalent of $2,000 in pesos in 1821. The sloop trader quickly sold the island to a General John Geddes, a former governor of South Carolina, who tried in vain to secure his rights to the property before Simonton, with the aid of some influential friends in Washington, was able to gain clear title to the island. Simonton had wide-ranging business interests in Mobile, Alabama. He bought the island because a friend, John Whitehead, had drawn his attention to the opportunities presented by the island's strategic location. John Whitehead had been stranded in Key West after a shipwreck in 1819 and he had been impressed by the potential offered by the deep harbor of the island. The island was indeed considered the "Gibraltar of the West" because of its strategic location on the 90-mile (140 km)–wide deep shipping lane, the Straits of Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. On March 25, 1822, Matthew C. Perry sailed the schooner USS Shark (1821) to Key West and planted the U.S flag, physically claiming the Keys as United States property. Perry reported on piracy problems in the Caribbean. Perry renamed Cayo Hueso (Key West) to "Thompson's Island" for the Secretary of the Navy, Smith Thompson, and the harbor "Port Rodgers" for War of 1812 hero John Rodgers. Neither name was to stick. In 1823 Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy West Indies Anti-Pirate Squadron took charge of Key West, which he ruled (but, according to some, exceeding his authority) as military dictator under martial law.
First developersSoon after his purchase, Simonton subdivided the island into plots and sold three undivided quarters of each plot to:
John Simonton spent the winter in Key West and the summer in Washington, where he lobbied hard for the development of the island and to establish a naval base on the island, both to take advantage of the island's strategic location and to bring law and order to the town. He died in 1854.
Pardon C. Greene is the only one of the four "founding fathers" to establish himself permanently on the island, where he became quite prominent as head of P.C. Greene and Company. He also served briefly as mayor. He died in 1838 at the age of 57.
John Whitehead lived in Key West for only eight years. He became a partner in the firm of P.C. Greene and Company from 1824 to 1827. A lifelong bachelor, he left the island for good in 1832. He came back only once, during the Civil War in 1861, and died the next year.
John W.C. Flemming was English-born and was active in mercantile business in Mobile, Alabama, where he befriended John Simonton. Flemming spent only a few months in Key West in 1822 and left for Massachusetts, where he married. He returned to Key West in 1832 with the intention of developing salt manufacturing on the island but died the same year at the young age of 51. The names of the four "founding fathers" of modern Key West were given to main arteries of the island when it was first platted in 1829 by William Adee Whitehead, John Whitehead's younger brother. That first plat and the names used remained mostly intact and are still in use today. Duval Street, the island's main street, is named after Florida's first territorial governor, who served between 1822 and 1834 as the longest serving governor in Florida's U.S. history. William Whitehead became chief editorial writer for the Enquirer, a local newspaper, in 1834. He had the genius of preserving copies of his newspaper as well as copies from the Key West Gazette, its predecessor. He later sent those copies to the Monroe County clerk for preservation, which gives us a precious view of life in Key West in the early days (1820–1840).