Floridians and visitors alike have long adored Key West for its quirky nature and laid-back vibes. But why, some ask, is this city sometimes referred to as the Conch Republic? Is that a nickname? Was this island formerly its own nation?
The answer to both those questions is yes … and no. Why? Because nothing about Florida is that simple.
From a strict geographical or cartographical point of view, Key West is actually more than a single island. Within its city limits are also the surrounding islands of Dredgers Key, Fleming Key, Sunset Key and a portion of Stock Island.
Don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet. We’re getting to the fun part. Well, if history is fun to you. Trust us: There are good reasons folks like Ernest Hemingway, Judy Blume, Jimmy Buffett, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis and even Harry S. Truman spent so much time here.
The area was called Cayo Hueso when the Spanish controlled Florida in precolonial times. If you think Cayo Hueso means “Key West” in Spanish because it sounds like it, you’d be clever, but wrong. It means “bone cay,” a reference to the multitude of communal graveyards found with scattered bones of the region’s original inhabitants.
Okay, so granted that nugget of news didn’t answer your question. We just wanted you to have some perspective on the island’s name.
Fast forward through the 1800s, the Civil War, the 1900s, several devastating hurricanes and we find ourselves in the 1980s at the time of the Mariel Boatlift, which deposited 125,000 Cubans on Florida’s doorstep. The U.S. Border Patrol announced a blockade on U.S. 1, the main highway into the Florida Keys, with the stated intention of curbing illegal immigration and drugs into the country.
The unintended consequence: An epic traffic jam aggravated tourists and residents alike. Key West’s elected officials protested to the federal government and sought judicial injunctions against the blockade, but to no avail.
So, on April 23, 1982, Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow decided that since the federal government was treating the islands as a foreign nation, why not make it official? Wardlow declared Key West was independent and would be known by the name – you got it – the Conch Republic.
Why “conch” though? Prepare yourself for a shorter history lesson. After America’s Revolution, residents still loyal to the Crown fled to the nearest British colony – the Bahamas. Once the British Parliament began taxing the Bahamians for their food, the people decided they’d rather eat conch than pay taxes. As those fiery, gastro-savvy rebels began to immigrate to Florida in search of better-paying jobs, the nickname of “Conchs” stuck with them. (It didn’t hurt that these freshly minted Floridians often retained their British “Cockney” accents, further strengthening the moniker.)
Fast forward back to 1982 and now-Prime Minister Dennis Wardlow’s new fiefdom. His revolution would last 60 seconds before he “surrendered” to a Navy officer and applied for $1 billion in foreign aid. (Keep watching the mail for that check, Mr. Prime Minister.)
Over the years since the rebellion, some mostly comedic skirmishes have sprung up between local and federal authorities – usually involving the tossing of water balloons, conch fritters, and loaves of Cuban bread. And to this day, April 23 remains “Independence Day” for Conchs.
When visiting Key West, be sure to stand proud when you see the beloved blue flag featuring the Conch Republic logo. And just keep your eyes open for flying bread.