A visit to the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West is a perfect encapsulation of the uniquity of the southernmost point in the United States.
The Florida Keys – and Key West in particular – have always been something of a peculiar place.
The southernmost island chain in the United States, the Keys sit astride the Straits of Florida, the passage between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico trafficked for centuries by commercial vessels of all kinds. Their idyllic tropical location, combined with the availability of fish and safe harbors, made the islands simultaneously a place of refuge and of peril. Due to their strategic geography, the Keys were often passed through by European treasure galleons on the long journey back to the Continent. The myriad cays, inlets, channels, and atolls of the archipelago – and the storms which could whip up a frenzy – made navigation treacherous for even the most professional of crews. Wrecks abounded, heavily laden with the precious cargo of the New World.
The opportunity these treasure fleets represented – and the lack of oversight from the distant Spanish Crown – drew a whole host of marginal characters to this isolated outpost, this Gibraltar of the West. Even after the American government purchased Florida in 1819 and officially took possession two years later, governance in these remote islands was spotty at best. Pirates, wreckers, con men, outlaws, and adventurers all found their way to the Keys. And so did their cavalier and freewheeling lifestyle. Brothels, drink, illicit trade, and a laissez-faire attitude proliferated, eventually centering around the farthest large island, Key West. This cultural largesse was financed by economic largesse; the scavenging of rich local shipwrecks, combined with its low population, made mid-19th century Key West one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.Read More »