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.
Key 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.
|The 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.
In 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.
||Spanish 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.
When 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.
|In 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.
||A 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).
When 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.
Early 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
|Naturalists 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.