The island would see no life until years later when Spanish explorers happened upon the island and its beaches still littered with skeletons bleached white from the sun. As they moved about the island, skeletons piled one atop the other would provide the only evidence of the lurid battle fought so many years ago. It is no wonder the Spaniards dubbed the island, Cayo Hueso, or Isle of Bones!
As the white man moved into the Caribbean, Cayo Hueso became a base for fishing and a favorite haunt and rendezvous for pirates and wreckers! The shallow reefs nearby would take their toll on many a ship and crew who attempted to pass anywhere near the now famous island...and anywhere near the infamous pirates and wreckers who would lie in wait, waiting to salvage the cargo from any ship unable to find its way through the challenging maze of coral. In fact, such misfortune, abetted by a hurricane or two, would long continue as a most profitable "enterprise" for the miscreants hidden along the shoreline...so much so that "salvaging" became a way of life for these opportunists called, "Wreckers."
In 1822, Cayo Hueso was sold for $2000.00 to an American businessman from Mobile, John Simonton, who recognized its strategic military and commercial importance, and who it is believed, was the man first responsible for misinterpreting the Spanish words, Cayo Hueso, to mean "Key West." From that point, the island was designated as Key West on navigational maps, and as they say...the rest is history. There is also a theory that many Americans were unable to say Cayo Hueso, and the Spanish words were ultimately bastardized into Key West. True or not, Key West was as golden as its storied sunsets for those in the "salvage" business...but life on the island would soon change...even for the pirates and wreckers.
Florida was finally ceded to the United States and a navy base was established on the island with strict orders to drive the "pirates" from the Florida Straits. The navy would remain an integral presence on the island for the next 150 years but even as early as 1831, Key West would become known for its "melting pot" of settlers with diverse habits and customs with virtually no court or modes of legal restraint. This unusually cosmopolitan community, with its floating population of renegades, vagrants and adventurers flourished...and soon became the wealthiest city per capita in the United States!
During the Civil War, Key West would continue to prosper, the only Southern city in Union hands. After the war, it would become home to thousands of Cuban rebels fighting for independence from Spain, many of them cigar makers. Yet another island industry was born as the Cigar makers brought their valuable craft to the island.
History would continue to claim Key West as a haven for Cuban refugees long into the 20th Century...in the meantime; the island would shuttle like a slow boat between riches and ruin until 1912 when the overseas railroad was built. This monumental achievement, driven by the diligence and foresight of Henry Flagler, finally connected Key West to the mainland for the very first time. Hopes for an "American Riviera," however, were quickly dashed by the Depression and, in 1935, a hurricane washed the railroad away and, overnight, Key was again, nothing more than a poor fishing village.
Eventually, the Overseas Highway, built on the roadbed of the old railroad, would form a final and lasting connection to the mainland. Key West’s destiny as a compelling and accessible vacation destination was at last, confirmed...the force of destiny would not be denied. Long live "la forzza del destino" and long may Key West continue to be a sleepy fishing village! It is not, as you know, "poor," but visit it once, and you may never leave!