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Old 05-08-2015, 07:41 AM
Location: Coast of Somewhere Beautiful
2,333 posts, read 4,620,337 times
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Any history buffs out there? I'm looking for a good, readable history of the Keys, including Key West. The last time I visited, the only thing I could find was fluff. I'm looking for something a little more comprehensive. If anyone has a recommendation or two, I'd appreciate your help. Thanks.
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Old 05-08-2015, 01:36 PM
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I am a history buff myself, and am considering writing something someday in the future, when I know more!

It is not that easy to find what you're looking for. There are a lot of sources of history, but they are not that "readable," or they are what you aptly call "fluff."

Here are a few good resources, in both book and article form, that are not fluff and are accurate - if not necessarily presented as the most fun reads:

1. Charlotte's Story - a very thorough memoir of a woman who lived alone on Elliott Key with her husband picking limes, and lived through the great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

2. The Bridges Stand Tall, by Priscilla Coe Pyfrom - great but short memoir of a woman's life as a kid on Pigeon Key circa 1900, moved there by her father who was head engineer for Henry Flagler in designing his famous Keys railroad

3. There is also "A History of the Pioneers: The Florida Keys Vol. I," one of a series by John Viele, but I can't personally recommend any of them as I haven't read them yet (but plan to soon)

4. "Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean" is a book that is popular in local stores here, but I have not had a chance to read this one yet either so can't personally recommend yet

5. I also haven't read "The Streets of Key West: A History Through Street Names," by J Wills Burke

6. Key West: History of an Island of Dreams, by Maureen Ogle, is another book of interest which I can't personally vouch for yet

There are a ton of articles by local Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, which do have some good info about the way it once was here. Unfortunately, non-white and non-male history is more difficult to access thorough and reliable sources on, but the history of white residents post-US acquisition of Florida has a bit more documentation. Here are links to a few of Wilkinson's articles on the Florida Keys:

1. History Of the Historic Indians

2. History Of Farming

3. History Of Black History

4. History Of THE First Settlements

5. History Of Lignumvitae Key

6. Sponges

For more such articles, you can check out Florida Keys History Museum

*Here also is translation of the famous brief Henando D'Escalante Fontaneda memoir of the Keys from his time spent living among the Calusa after a Spanish shipwreck circa 1549:

If you have specific subjects of interest regarding the history of the Florida Keys, I might be able to point you in the direction of some more sources.

Last edited by StarfishKey; 05-08-2015 at 02:25 PM..
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Old 05-08-2015, 05:43 PM
Location: Coast of Somewhere Beautiful
2,333 posts, read 4,620,337 times
Reputation: 5733
Thank you very much for taking the time to send such a lengthy response. I've printed it to use as a guide. I admit that a "readable comprehensive history" may qualify as an oxymoron

I came across a couple of the books you mentioned while visiting. I regret I didn't buy "Last Train to Paradise", and will probably end up ordering it. First impression was that it handled the subject very nicely. I was less impressed with "Streets of Key West".

Again, thanks very much for your help. I'm looking forward to digging in to your list.
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Old 05-09-2015, 07:55 AM
1,448 posts, read 2,155,795 times
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Originally Posted by PawleysDude View Post

I came across a couple of the books you mentioned while visiting. I regret I didn't buy "Last Train to Paradise",
You can find any of the books on Amazon - and dare I say (even if that makes me a traitor!), probably at a better price than in a local tourist shop. Or of course, library orders are free...

I tend to prefer the memoirs, because even though they're of course very biased in their perspective of their surroundings, and also of which details are important and which are not (and they're usually wrong, from my perspective), they do at least tell the truth. I have already found numerous errors in the books I have read that were written by "popular history writers" regarding the Keys. Because most of them don't have any formal school training for what they do, they tend to just read "facts" that they find anywhere, without vetting them out in any scholarly way (nor citing where they got them), and then just throwing them together as though they are true. In the end, when you actually go to look up more facts about that particular detail, it turns out the whole thing was a myth to begin with that historians have long known there is no evidence for - just local lore. So I am extremely wary of any book of "nonfiction" that has a glossy look and cites no sources and has no annotations for all of its claims - the Keys are such a popular place for local tall tales, that anything remotely interesting has a chance for being a fabrication as much as it has for being fact.

Memoirs, especially old ones, tend to have less embellishment, especially if they stem from old diaries where the person was not looking to sell something so much as record for themselves what was taking place in their own lives. Fontaneda's account is suspect, as was any reporter to the Spanish crown, because there was a lot of money to be made in twisting the truth to one's favor. I have spent a decent amount of time vetting out the records of lackeys to Spanish royalty from the 1500s and 1600s, and while they are very useful sources to give some idea of what was going on, their way of portraying locals, and of themselves, is pretty astounding for the number of exaggerations and outright lies to try to protect their position as a source of information and of potential future good governance of locals, appointed directly of course by the same crown they are trying to please with their report.

Boring history is often the most accurate, because you know they didn't twist a lot of truths just to try to make it interesting!

It's too bad there is as yet no real comprehensive and accurate history of the Keys, or really of any individual island's progress, because the true stories here are just as wild and amazing as the fake ones! It's just that it takes an enormous amount of work to separate out each individual fact, given that few degreed historians have put an interest into telling these stories, and few sources of preserved archives exist. And every time a hurricane hits, or elderly people die, there go some more artifacts from a bygone era. The population is now so transient, and the real estate is so expensive it continues to push out original families, so Keys history is being lost all the time. People are mildly interested, but there is no real money in it unless you are one spinning yarns for the tourists - they are just as happy to read the lies as the truth when they come down for a few days to get away from reality... so not many have an incentive to do the hard work of recording the real history of the Keys.
Just as easy to make up a romantic or outlandish story about shipwrecks and swindlers and eccentrics than to find the real ones - actually, it's a lot easier!
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