the first European visitor to Key West was Ponce de Leon while native peoples populated or at least used the island prior to his arrival. when de Leon’s men arrived, bones covered the island, possibly from a battle or because it served as a burial ground, which prompted them to call it Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island. when Florida became a Spanish colony, the island became a fishing village and small garrison. original Spanish settlers relocated to Cuba following when Britain claimed control, but back-and-forth between the powers resulted in a lack of oversight of the island for a significant portion of the 18th and early 19th centuries. at various points in its early history, the island was sold simultaneously to two men who subsequently fought one another; a military officer controlled the island using martial law as a military dictator; served as a strategic salvage village on a crucial deep-water channel through the Gulf of Mexico.
during the 1800s, immigrants from the Bahamas, known as Conchs, began to populate the island. today Key West is often referred to as the “Conch Republic,” with it’s own flag and strong sense of identity among natives (and accepted “freshwater” transplants). they were later joined by all manner of famous and infamous Americans, from Dr. Samuel Mudd to Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett to Harry S Truman.
Key West has long served as an important military and shipping outpost, as it sits on the northern edge of Florida Straits, separating the Atlantic from the Gulf. there’s a Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key, where pilots train; the USS Maine sailed from there to its fate and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War; all number of cruise ships dock in the port before heading to more Caribbean locales. all those non-native short-term visitors certainly don’t help the feeling that the town is something of an unapologetic tourist trap though, as I mentioned before, if you get away from Duval Street and Mallory Square, it doesn’t seem like a bad place to while away some time.