Indian Key is flush with the kind of history one would expect from these once wilder waters. It might not look like much today, not when driving past the island along the Overseas Highway. However, by 1835 the approximately 11-acre island was home to a hotel, bar and a 9-pin bowling alley. Outside of Key West, in fact, Indian Key was the single most established community in the Florida Keys.
Of course, Indian Key was not the first name given the island. The history behind some of the island’s early names just might link to the 1565 arrival of Pedro Menendez to St. Augustine! Bahamian sailors who spent their days patrolling the reef used to call the island Kay Comfort. In addition to the island being located approximately midway along the Florida Reef, freshwater was available on nearby Lower Matecumbe, and the island maintained a reputation for remaining relatively mosquito free. Also, for captains, the anchorage was good because, at least historically, Indian Key had a fairly deep natural harbor.
Of course, the island is probably best remembered for the infamous Indian attack of 1840 that resulted in a reported nine deaths. Ironically, the genesis of the name Indian Key has nothing to do with the attack. Rather, it is more than likely the name has more to do with European explorers making observations about the island’s early inhabitants than anything else.
The island’s most infamous resident was the wrecker John Jacob Housman, who was intent on creating his own wrecker’s paradise that would allow him to work independently from Key West. In addition to building docks and warehouses, as much as $40,000 was spent landscaping the island with flowering shrubs and fruit trees.
While the entirety of the Indian Key story is too much for a column, generally limited to 800 words, the island is the perfect setting for a historic walking tour. On that note, Mike Guarino, park manager for the Islamorada area state parks, including Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, San Pedro Underwater Archaeological State Park and Indian Key Historic State Park, would like to say, “The Florida Park Service is pleased to announce that local historian Brad Bertelli from the Historic Upper Keys Walking Tour Company will be offering guided walking tours at Indian Key Historic State Park.”
The announcement has been a long time coming. Applications had to be filled out, forms passed back and forth, and red tape waded through. Long story short, I now have a contract that allows me to lead interpretive walking tours around Indian Key Historic State Park, my favorite island in the whole of the Florida Keys archipelago and the Florida Keys only ghost town.
While the Florida Park Service has done a wonderful job placing interpretive plaques around the island that do detail some of the fascinating history, those plaques only reveal a fraction of the Indian Key story. As your tour guide, my biggest challenge will be limiting my talks to less than one hour, a challenge that will only get harder as I continue to learn about the island.
Of course I am a neophyte on the subject of Florida Keys history, certainly compared to the likes of Jerry Wilkinson, Jim Clupper, Tom Hambright or the late Dan Gallagher and Mr. Irving Eyster. However, I do share a passion for the history of the Florida Keys and the Upper Keys in particular, and I am eager to share some of the surprising information I have learned about Indian Key on my walking tours.
While the $13 price of the walking tour does include the park’s $2.50 entrance fee, it does not include transportation out to the island. At this point, tours will only be offered every Saturday at 1 p.m. (weather permitting). The island has no amenities, including no freshwater or bathroom facilities, so plan accordingly.
Tours will meet at the pavilion located at the end of the Indian Key dock. Plan to meet no later than 12:45. Because space is limited to 10 participants per tour, reservations are required and can be made through Florida Keys Kayak located on the grounds of the world famous Robbie’s Marina at mile marker 77.5.
For anyone looking to paddle out to the island, Florida Keys Kayak rents both single and double kayaks for either a full or half day. The scenic paddle to the island from the dock at Robbie’s only takes about 25 minutes. To make reservations for your tour call Florida Keys Kayak at (305) 664-4878. For more information about the walking tour or to talk to you guide, call (305) 395-9889.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.