has long been depicted as a tranquil sand
and palm rimmed island lying
in the lee of history. Its beauty is
legendary, its tropical complexion
described by travelers in the early 1880's.
Yet recent discoveries and
field work revealed that this low-lying
subtropical island played a high
profile role in the coastal and cultural
development of Florida.
Biscayne property and
resources have been sought and fought over
by Indian chiefs and heads of
state, by generals, doctors, lawyers,
coconut planters and developers.
Tequestas were the first,
arriving, in dugout canoes. They built a
string of fishing and whaling
villages raised above sea level on posts cut
from local hardwood and palms.
They banqueted on the island's succulent
seafood from the shallows and
offshore reefs. Sea turtles seasonally
provided them with steak and eggs,
sometimes shared with raccoons and small
Florida black bears. Plants furnished
tasty seeds, berries, and fruits such as sea
grapes. Wildlife varied from
the dunes to the hammocks to the wetlands.
In the mangrove forests branches
supported bird rookeries and interwined
stilt roots served as water nurseries
for marine life.
1513, Juan Ponce de Leon
officially discovered the island, naming
it Santa Marta, and claimed it
for the Spanish King. He filled his ships'
barrels with fresh water but
did not remain long enough to realize that
here was the Fountain of Youth.
plate ships took
their northings from Cabo de Florida.
Navigational error caught them on
the treacherous coral reef, spilling silver
and gold treasure still sought
by salvors, divers and beachcombers.
Florida was traded to
England in the mid-1700's land was offered
to encourage British Colonial
plantations. Syndicates of investors were
formed, and one was called the
Cape Florida Society. But the era ended
abruptly when Florida was traded
back to Spain.
1790, petitions were
entertained for Royal Spanish land grants.
The first issued in South Florida
was for Key Biscayne, predating Key West.
Later a London-born American
woman made history and a profit by selling a
small fraction (3 acres) of
her property to the U.S. government for the
Came Florida lighthouse, built
in 1825. Using the lighthouse compound as a
central plaza, she and her
husband planned the first town of Key
Biscayne in 1839, offering 264 lots
at $500 each. A luxury resort and health spa
were proposed but not built
for more than 100 years.
succession of lighthouse
keepers watched over the key. In 1836,
Indians attacked and burned the
lighthouse during the Seminole Wars.
Military troops landed and set up
a fort and hospital; dragoons galloped along
the beach; and the Florida
Squadron patrolled Atlantic waters and Key
Biscayne Bay (the name of present-day
Biscayne Bay until the late 19th Century).
peace returned, surveyors
and Northern planters arrived. An heir of
an early title holder tried to
reclaim his land, setting off disputes and
litigation that would last many
years and cause a congressional hearing
and a Supreme Court decision.
in the 20th Century,
two-thirds of the island was established
as a coconut plantation, the largest
in the continental United States. Unusual
palms and fine flowering and
fruiting hardwoods from tropical Asia,
Africa and Latin America were introduced
sang Key Biscayne's
prases as butterflies and birds found it an
inviting habitat. Plantation
guests, arriving by yacht, described the
private island as a romantic paradise
out of the South Seas or West Indies. Key
Biscayne became a favorite landing
and gathering place of "the elite of the
winter colony" as they opened
the Miami Season.
Copyright 1995 by Joan Gill
Blank, All rights reserved.
Used with permission.
"Key Biscayne - A
History of Miami's Tropical Island
and the Cape Florida Lighthouse" by
Joan Gill Blank.