The Stories Behind the Names of Florida’s Unique Island Chain Known As The Florida Keys

The Stories Behind the Names of Florida’s Unique Island Chain Known As The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are a beautiful chain of islands off the southern coast of Florida. Their unique names reflect their diverse history and geography.

Key Largo is the first and northernmost of the Florida Keys, just south of Miami. It was named “Cayo Largo” meaning “Long Key” by early Spanish explorers due to its size – at 30 miles long, it is one of the longest islands in the chain. The name was later anglicized to Key Largo.

Plantation Key was originally called “Cayo Vizcaíno” or “Spanish Man’s Key” after early homesteader Spanish Joe Vizcaíno. It was later renamed for the coconut, pineapple, and citrus plantations that dotted the landscape there in the early 20th century.

Windley Key is named after Florida pioneering homesteader Dan Windley, who settled there in the 1860s to grow citrus and avocados. He then sold plots of land to other settlers.

Upper Matecumbe Key gets half its name from the Native American word “matecumbe” meaning “land of the dead.” This may refer to the island serving as a burial ground. The first word Upper was added to distinguish it from Lower Matecumbe Key.

Lower Matecumbe Key, as the name suggests, lies south of Upper Matecumbe. It was originally called Cayo Matecumbe before Upper was added to the northern island’s name. Matecumbe shares the same Native American origins as Upper Matecumbe.

Layton was named after Florida’s prominent Layton family, including Francis Layton who owned most of neighboring Long Key in the early 1900s. Many Long Key workers lived on housing on what became known as Layton.

Long Key forms the upper half of what Spanish explorers called “Cayos Vivoras” or Rattlesnakes. Early flagler railroad workers then named it Long Key for its length, and it used to extend much further before hurricane damage. Long Key State park is named after pioneer Henry Flagler’s Long Key Fishing Camp which opened in 1904.

Conch Key was named by American fishermen after the queen conchs that live in its waters, while Duck Key was named for the ducks that inhabit its mangroves.

Grassy Key was named by American naturalist John James Audubon for its green, grassy landscape when he visited in 1832. Today Grassy Key is home to Dolphin Research Center, dedicated to dolphin education and conservation.

Crawl Key likely gets its name from the crawl stroke swimmers had to use when crossing between nearby islands. Its previous name was Leesville after Florida’s Lees family before the causeway connected it to Long Point Key.

Long Point Key’s name refers to its long pointed shape, extending out from neighboring Fat Deer Key. Nearby Fat Deer Key was humorously named by campers there in the early 1900s for the plump key deer that inhabited it.

Key Vaca or Vacation Key was named when developer Howard S. Brown shaped it into a resort island in the 1950s complete with golf course, hotel and ferry landing. Previous names include Cayo de Baca and Cow Key.

Boot Key Harbor lies between Boot Key and Marathon island. Boot Key was named for its shape resembling a boot. Marathon island was named after the Marathon Land Company incorporated the island for development in 1911. The word marathon recalled the long engineering effort to build the Overseas Railroad.

Pigeon Key was named by railroad workers for the passerine birds that inhabit it. Nearby Seven Mile bridge connected it to Moser Channel, named for captain Andrew Moser who quested for shipwrecks along the Keys. The Channel splits Pigeon Key from the city of Marathon.

Little Duck Key was named for the small ducks or ducklings seen there, in contrast with neighboring larger Duck Key which is named for the shape of the island resembling a ducks head. Missouri Key was nicknamed for the Missouri migrants who lived there in the early 1900s to can pineapple, farm and fish.

Ohio Key was also named after Midwestern settlers, this time from Ohio who came to plant coconut palms and citrus groves. Ohio key was later annexed to Bahia Honda Key, named for its “deep bay” by Spanish explorers. Both islands now make up Bahia Honda State Park renowned for its beaches.

Spanish Harbor Key and Kemp Channel were charted and named by British surveyor George Kemp in 1874 while mapping safe harbors amongst the Keys. Big Spanish Harbor Key protects the smaller Spanish Harbor Key.

Little Conch Key’s name contrasts it with larger Conch Key to the northeast. West Summerland Key was coined a “tropical paradise” by magazine editor E.J. Watson, inspiring its idyllic name paired with its location west of Ohio Key.

No Name Key was mysteriously never officially named. According to legend, a dispute between developers led one man to spitefully remove its designation from paperwork before it was made official. The name stuck, giving No Name Key its paradoxical name. It belongs to the unincorporated township called Big Pine.

Big Pine Key is named for its native forest of Caribbean pine trees. Nearby lakes and mangroves shelter campers and wildlife at Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key.

Howe Key was named for serviceman Leighton Howe, who raised a family there in 1925. Cudjoe Key was named for the famous Native American outlaw “Cudjoe” Lewis who attacked English ships sailing these waters in the 1700s seeking refuge for escaping slaves.

Summerland Key was coincidentally named by land developers for its temperate breezes and sunny shores, echoing the “Summerland” spiritualist community founded in California in the late 1800s that believed spirits lived in a perfect summer realm.

Ramrod Key was named for its straight, ramrod-like shape by early English surveyors. Looe Key reef offshore was named for the HMS Looe that ran aground there in 1744. The Atocha shipwreck that scattered silver and jewels across the key in 1622 also brought notoriety.

Big Torch Key was named for the tall torchwood trees growing there that once provided wood for ship repairs. Little Torch Key lies just to the south.

Middle Torch Key and Lower Torch Key were named descriptively according to their latitude among the rest. North Key Largo was named as it split off from larger Key Largo, keeping some uniformity.

Big Pine Key, home to a rare dwarf subspecies of Key deer, also attracts birdwatchers seeking the endangered Bahama swallow which nests there. Tiny Sugarloaf Key was named for its hill resembling the pointed-topped loaves. Saddlebunch Keys resemble bunches of saddlebacked fruits according to early British admiralty charts.

Shark Key likely derives its name from the sharks patrolling its shores – in addition to the fact that the island’s shape closely resembles a shark. Key Haven’s name refers to its harbor popular for fishing charters and diving tours to Looe Key reef. Cuban Island was named for the Cuban fishermen who camped upon it seasonally up until the early 1900s.

Culebra Island shares its name with the Spanish word for snake, as legends tell of soldiers fleeing serpent attacks on its shores in the 1500s. More recent stories tell of rum runners hiding barrels on its beach during prohibition who likely accelerated the name.

Lower Harbor Key, Channel Five and Boca Chica Key form the northeast border of Boca Chica Channel. Boca Chica means “little mouth” in Spanish, denoting the entrance to safe-harbor Saddlebunch Harbour between the keys. Pine Channel separates Lower Harbor from Lower Matecumbe.

Lignumvitae Key was named for the very hard wood that locals occasionally salvaged from shipwrecks there. Lignumvitae means “wood of life” in Latin referencing the denseness and unique wood grain. Shell Key was named for the colorful scallop shells that commonly wash ashore.

Sand Key forms the southern border of Safe Harbor. Its sandy shores inspired its name, though it also goes by Cayo Arenas. Man Key forms part of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, as does Tea Table Key whose name evokes British mariners stopping to take tea.

Indian Key bears the name of fierce natives who once inhabited it, while Indian Mound Key references its ancient burial mounds. Upper Harbor Keys form the northwest edge of this island maze that terminates near Wisteria Island, named for the flowering vines that engulf it.

Pelican Key is named for the large seabirds that nest on its mangrove islet each year. Whale Harbor Key frames the west entrance to protected Whale Harbor, likely named so for its popularity with whales in past centuries that swam its warm shallows alongside manatees.

Tavernier Key finishes this island chain that borders the gulf coast mainland. Tavernier was named for famous 17th century French explorer Pierre Tavernier who was gifted the land by his brother, governor of Louisiana under French rule. Tavernier Key now separates Key Largo from the vast Florida Everglades that stretch inward.

Specifically, Key West was named by British mapmakers and surveyors in the early 1700s. When mapping the keys near what is now Key West, they named them the Cayos del Oeste, or Keys of the West. The name “Key West” is simply an English adaptation of that original Spanish name. Later, as Key West grew into a town and eventual city, its name reflected its geographic location – it was the westernmost major settlement in the Florida keys, situated further out into the Gulf of Mexico than other keys that had been populated to that point. The name Key West stuck as it literally described its location as the “West Key.”

The Florida Keys stretch over 200 miles with unique tropical isles steeped in history and nature, immortalized by the names bestowed on them by intrepid explorers centuries ago. The keys now number over 1700, though only around 30 are regularly inhabited. From winding trails on Big Pine Key to coral gardens beneath Conch Key, the keys reward visitors with postcard-perfect beaches, exotic foods, natural wonders and local charm showcasing Florida’s diverse landscapes and culture.

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