Key West’s history is rich in influences from its neighboring island countries. Be it from the Bahamas or Cuba, many records documenting this history can be found in the Monroe County Public Library Florida History Department.
Due to the economic downturn in the early 1800s, many Bahamians settled in Key West. The Bahamian emigres included descendants of English Loyalists who migrated to the Bahamas in the 1770s during the American Revolution, with their slaves, in hopes of continuing with their plantation industry. However, the poor Bahamian soil soon led black and white Bahamians to turn to sea trades: fishing, sponging, turtle fishing, boatbuilding, and wrecking.
Wrecking was a very profitable trade in the middle of the 19th century. Since the Age of Discovery, ships returning to Europe from the New World, laden with goods, had to navigate the treacherous shallow waters of the Florida Reef as they followed the Gulf Stream. With rudimentary navigational tools, no existing lighthouses, and the unpredictable tropical weather, shipwrecks were very common along the Florida Keys through the 19th century. Bahamian wreckers would scour these waters and bring their salvaged goods home to Nassau to sell at auction. In order to stop this bleeding of resources, in 1825 Congress passed a law stipulating that goods salvaged in U.S. waters, must be brought to an U.S. port. The effects of this new law, the fact that in 1830s Britain abolished slavery in the Bahamas and the U.S. in 1885, and other economic situations, led wreckers, fishers, and others to leave their homeland and settle in Key West and all along the Florida coast. Conchs, as the Key West Bahamians were called, made up two thirds of the island’s population in 1860s. Both black and white Bahamians brought not only their skills, but also their culture – including architecture, food, music, Junkanoo bands and Goombay Festivals. (Coconut Grove also has strong Bahamian heritage and still holds an annual Goombay Festival.) Some Bahamians literally relocated their houses, as is the case with one of Key West’s founding father, Captian John Bartlum. Another Key West founding father, also native of Green Turtle Cay, is William Curry, Florida’s first millionaire. The wrecking business was a big factor in making Key West one of the wealthiest U.S. cities at the time, with wrecks occurring almost once a week in the mid-1800s. But by the end of the 19th century, the construction of lighthouses, better navigational charts, and steam powered ships greatly reduced the number of shipwrecks and the wrecking industry declined.
Another island neighbor influencing the early development of Key West was Cuba. The Cuban cigar industry flourished to a very prosperous business in Key West in the 1800s. The earliest known cigar factory in Key West opened in 1831. But the big boom came in 1868 with the Cuban Ten Years’ War and the arrival of Cuban migrants. Many skilled Cuban cigar laborers were now available, and eager, to work for the Key West cigar factories, which increased quickly in number and production. Cuban-grown tobacco was rolled in Key West, and sent to New York which was responsible for distribution to the rest of the U.S. and throughout the world.
The tradition of the Cuban cigar factory Lectores was brought to the Key West factories. As cigar workers sat at tables rolling cigars, a lector would read from the classics, poetry, or newspapers. A great tradition which would expose many illiterate laborers to literature, philosophy, and even current events. A new lithographic technique developed in Germany at this time allowed for innovative use of color, embossing, and gold and bronze motifs in advertising art. This technique was used to create beautifully illustrated, high quality cigar labels, greatly adding to the promotion of the Key West cigars. The cigar industry, which is said to have reached production of over one hundred million cigars annually, peaked in 1890. After the great Key West fire in 1886, which destroyed much of the city, and with the attractive propositions from Tampa to relocate, many factories moved to the Tampa area.
The Florida History Department, in the Key West branch of the Monroe County Public Library system, has an extensive collection documening the Keys history. This collection includes historic records, oral histories, scrapbooks, and thousands of photographs. The library is the repository of the “Key West Citizen” newspaper. Other collections include World War I Water-Front Passes; Civil War 1862-1865 U.S. Army Hospital Department Register for Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas; Records of the Cuban Consulate in Key West, FL 1886-1961; Bahamas Records; and various impressive collections donated by prominent Key West merchants and collectors. Some of the oldest images of Key West can be found in the the Scott DeWolfe Collection.
Genealogy research brings in a great number of visitors to the Florida History Department. Here visitors will find Key West Church, Marriage and Baptism Records from 1831 to 1981, and Cemetery Records from 1800’s-2000 to support this research. Another prevalent visit involves searches on house histories. With Key West’s unique architecture and high real estate value, a house’s history affects what restoration can be carried out by current homeowners and potential home buyers. The Monroe County Public Library’s Florida History Department holds key documents to complete a house history search dating back to the 1800s: Tax Books, Deed Books, and Sanborn Maps. The Sanborn maps offer these visitors invaluable information, such as property boundaries and detailed outlines of the house with windows, doors and outside features which may affect their restoration plans.
Mile Markers: Linking Keys History is a collection of over 900 photographic images on the cultural and economic history of the Florida Keys, spanning the years 1880 to present, and depicting early industries such as sponging, shark fishing, turtle canning, and cigar manufacturing, as well as the unique architecture. – Mile Markers: Linking Keys History. dPanther Digital Library.
Key Names – A gazetteer of the islands of the Florida Keys, maintained by the Monroe County Public Library, provides the origins of the names of the Florida Keys: http://keys.fiu.edu/gazetteer/
Library Flickr site with over 21,000 historical images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keyslibraries/albums
Monroe County Public Library – Key West
700 Fleming Street, Key West FL 33040
Historian: Tom Hambright : email@example.com
Archivist: Breana Sowers, : firstname.lastname@example.org