The Florida Keys’ First Settlers

The Florida Keys' First Settlers

Heading for R and R in  the Florida Keys? Vacationing in Florida wasn’t really a concept in 3,000 B.C., but that’s when the first peoples allegedly arrived. And while Florida’s early inhabitants were not wearing Tommy Bahama shirts or tweeting their activities, they were assuredly barefoot, drinking fruity drinks and eating lots of delicious seafood.

These native Indians, which were either related to the Calusa of southwest Florida or the more peaceful Tequesta (who lived near the mouth of the Miami River), are the far-lesser-known inhabitants during the rich Keys history. They had an abundance of natural resources:  food from the sea, and palm trees, which also provided drink and building material. The lack of fresh water sources must have been a real challenge. But the early Keys dwellers were eventually wiped out by a combination of poxes from invading Europeans: disease, swords, guns, and one item more closely associated with the Keys of today: rum. By about 1750, there were no Indians left.

Ponce de Leon made history when his expedition arrived here in the 1500s. He was allegedly looking for the Fountain of Youth, and while today’s bar-lined Duval Street in Key West has that effect on many, Ponce made note of the towering mahogany trees that grew in the islands, and knew he’d found a fountain of logging income. (After many discoveries along the Florida coastline, DeLeon was eventually killed by a Calusa Indian’s poisoned arrow, during an expedition to southwest Florida).

The Florida KeysEarly Spanish explorers gave the Keys their name of “Cayos” (Keys). These Spaniards were less than impressed, due to lack of water, lack of gold, and tropical insects. But a large number of islands in the chain keep part of their original name, including Cayo Largo (Key Largo). Hundreds of Spanish Galleons eventually passed through the Keys on their way home from Central America, where they’d found the gold they sought, but shallow waters and coral reefs doomed many of these expeditions.

In the 1800s, American anglers began visiting during cold New England winters, and catches were reduced.  But the hook was set, and the Florida Keys would forever be known as a great place to fish. Fishing is still one of the top things to do in the Keys during vacations. Media, primitive as it was in the 1800s, picked up on the angler’s angle, and tourism was born.   With them came even more fishermen looking for a better life. In the period from 1820 to 1900, the Keys became a busy maritime hub, with a constant flow of goods from and to Havana, Cuba and Nassau, in The Bahamas. Today, the tradition, albeit with flip-flips and umbrella drinks. Viva la Keys!