The Origins of Key West’s Conch Republic Legacy

The island of Key West was bought with private funds, making the acquisition an American affair. John Whitehead made an offer of $2,000 to the Spanish owner of the island, Juan Pablo Salas. The settlers saw it grow into a bustling town, becoming known for being a nest of pirates and disease. Wrecking became the main business as salvagers helped out distressed sea vessels while sea-sponge harvesting, cigar manufacturing, and tourism followed as major industries. Key West held a cosmopolitan city with plenty of immigrants and a taste for rebellion. It became a haven for vice, particularly during the Prohibition, and attracted the attention of rumrunners and Prohibition agents due to its proximity to Cuba. However, Key Westers were resilient, and even managed to get an arrest warrant issued against a Prohibition agent. The town struggled during the Great Depression, but gained visibility thanks to tourists and artists funded partly by federal dollars. After the New Deal programs, the town continued to thrive as an arts hub. In the 1960s and 1970s, Key West continued to attract attention, remaining calm in 1962 despite tense political relations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later becoming a key location in the international drug trade. By 1982, the federal government had new plans for catching drug runners and illegal immigrants.