HISTORY OF KEY BISCAYNE, FLORIDA

By  Mike Miller   December 2, 2021

Key Biscayne was the center of civilization for the Tequesta, a small tribe of sea-savvy Indians who fished the crystal waters of the Florida Keys.

Because Key Biscayne is only about five feet above sea level, the Tequesta raised their villages on palm pilings, much like the summer homes that today line Florida's coasts.

Long before sea turtles were endangered, the Tequesta hunted them for their meat and harvested their eggs for valuable protein.

In 1513, Ponce de Leon "discovered" the island and presented it to the King of Spain as Santa Maria. The Tequesta were fortunate in that Ponce only had time to restock provisions before leaving.

They weren't so lucky some 50 years later when the ruthless Pedro Menendez de Avila took refuge from a hurricane on the Key.

Avila had been on an expedition ordered by the King of Spain in which he was to establish the settlement of St. Augustine and massacre any French protestant "heretics" nearby.

Avila established relations with the Tequesta, but unfortunately for them he decided they should be good Catholics.

A mission was built, with Jesuit priests and soldiers left behind to ensure the heathen Tequesta became proper Christians.

Before long the Tequesta and their new Spanish friends weren't getting along, and well, you can guess how that one ended.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, many a Spanish galleon laden with gold met its demise on the treacherous shoals and reefs off Key Biscayne.

Much of the treasure from these wrecks remains to be discovered.

At some point, the place became known as Vizcaya (Biscayne) when a sailor from that Iberian region was shipwrecked on the island.

When Florida was transferred to British control in the mid 1700s, the British tried to bring in colonists and plantations to the vast wilderness.

This endeavor was soon aborted after the Revolution sent the red coats back home with their tailcoats between their legs.

Spain once again found itself in possession of La Florida.

The Spanish crown quickly busied themselves issuing land grants in South Florida, especially Key Biscayne, in an effort to bring Florida into a profitable standing.

In 1825, after the US had acquired Florida from Spain, the Cape Florida Lighthouse was built.

An iconic landmark still intact today, the lighthouse and its environs became the heart of the newly planned Town of Key Biscayne, with lots selling at $500 in 1839.

As Key Biscayne prospered, farmers from the north began arriving and setting up plantations.

Most of the island's acreage was used for exotic fruit farms.

Due to its isolated subtropical habitat, Biscayne's flora and fauna attracted naturalists like ants to candy.

The area's beauty was renowned the world over, and with the adventurers came the tourists.

For many years, up until the years just before World War Two, the Matheson family ran a huge coconut plantation on the Key.


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