GUEST EXPERT MEGAN SCALLAN, PhD ABD
One of the most special places in the Upper Keys is Indian Key. Accessible only by boat, this 11-acre island on the ocean-side of U.S-1 is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing and even hiking through one of Florida’s infamous ghost towns. Indian Key was one of the first inhabited cities in the Florida Keys, founded in the early 1820s.
Due to its geographical positioning, New Yorker Jacob Housman purchased the island for his wrecking business. Despite advances in navigational information and technology throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, wrecks still occurred, mainly due to increased commercial traffic through the Florida Straits. Wrecking settlements, like Indian Key, were dependent on a good, deep harbor, a nearby source of fresh water and closeness to a dangerous reef upon which ships were likely to wreck. Indian Key was a good location for Housman to establish a town with a wrecking based economy due to its isolation, situation opposite Alligator Reef and its proximity to Carys fort Reef, 35 miles away, considered the most dangerous part of the reef.
The natural environment on Indian Key has been extensively altered by human intervention. In the 1830s famous botanist Henry Perrine moved to Indian Key to create an experimental tropical plant station, bringing with him exotic and tropical seeds and plants from Mexico such as agave, arrowroot, cashew nuts, coffee arabica, flax, grass rope, sisal hemp, mango, strawberry prickly pear, tamarind and turmeric.
Several of these species still exist on the island today. At its height, Indian Key was home to a restaurant, saloon, the Tropical Hotel, a nine-pin bowling alley and all the shops, wharves and warehouses needed to accommodate a thriving wrecking village. But things changed forever on the morning of August 8, 1840, when the town was burned by a group of “Spanish Indians” in 1840, during the Second Seminole War. After the disbanding of the main community at Indian Key, following the attack, the island and its remaining structures experienced reuse throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s by various groups including the United States Navy, farmers, shipbuilders and fishers.
If you want to visit the island today, it’s only accessible by kayak—but it’s definitely worth a trip. You can download the Florida Stories app (FLstories. org, the Google Playstore, or the Apple Store) for free on your phone to listen to a narrated walking tour of the island. The tour, developed by Florida Keys History and Discovery Foundation in partnership with and funding provided by the Florida Humanities Council and the Division of State, Department of Cultural Affairs, with support from the Florida State Parks, features 12 stops.
Starting at the Park Pavilion, it takes listeners through the town square, home ruins, Housman’s gravesite as well as the observation town, post office ruins and a final stop with a view of Alligator Reef Lighthouse. If you make the trek, remember to bring sunblock, plenty of water and a diver-down flag for snorkeling activities. Kayak rentals are available from local charter companies. EXPLORE HISTORY: VISIT INDIAN KEY