While today it is known as Indian Key, the not quite 11-acre island found just offshore of the Matecumbe keys has been labeled with Spanish, French and Bahamian names over the course of its history. The Bahamians used to call it Kay Comfort because the island is located approximately midway along the Florida Reef, boasts a fairly deep natural harbor, and has a reputation for remaining relatively mosquito free.
Historically speaking, the island was also a popular stop for sailors sailing up and down the reef because ample fresh water bubbling up from natural springs could be found nearby on Lower Matecumbe Key. As for early recorded names of the island, they seem to begin with a 1733 map charting a Spanish salvage operation in the area on which the island was identified as Cayuelo de Matanzas.
The island was likely used for months if not years during the salvage operation of the San Pedro, one of the unfortunate vessels of the Spanish Treasure Fleet wrecked during a 1733 hurricane (the vessel bilged and her location is marked today as the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park). Use of the Spanish name was bolstered by a 1742 chart mapped by Juan Liguera that identified the island slightly differently when he labeled it Cayuelo de las Matanzas.
One year later, the island was noted as Cayo Frances on a chart drawn by Father Alana.
William Gerard De Brahm, who drew the first comprehensive English chart in 1772, marked the island as Matanca. Then a few years later, a document written by George Gauld and published in 1774, Observations on the Florida Kays, Gulf, and Reef, quoted a Captain Barton, a mid-1700s English sailor, as saying, “Off Matacumba lies a small Kay, called Frenchman’s Kay.”
Around the same time, Bernard Romans, a writer and mapmaker, used the identifier Matanca. He writes, “This key is called Matanca i.e. Murder from the catastrophe of a French crew said to have amounted to near three hundred men, who were unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the Coloosas, which savages destroyed them to a man on this spot.”
Romans’ assertion was clearly affected by some mix of legend, lore and mistaken identity as no documentation has ever surfaced to corroborate such an attack. It is likely he is referring to the 1565 Spanish slaughter of over 200 French soldiers near the mouth of the Matanzas River 400 miles to the north. Matanzas, in Spanish, translates to slaughter. How that story became associated with Indian Key is unclear.
Perhaps, to the sailors who later discovered the coast of La Florida in the 16th and 17th centuries the position of the Lower and Upper Matecumbe keys might have appeared to be vaguely similar to that of the infamous inlet to the north. It seems likely that the association of both the Spanish and French names has more to do with the fact that sailors have proven themselves to be a drinking lot prone to telling tales than anything else. In any case, George Gauld published another chart in 1775 on which he identifies the island as both Matanzas and Indian Key. Gauld also noted that the Bahamians used the names Indian Key and Kay Comfort. Finally, F.H. Gerdes states in his guide, Reconnaissance of the Florida Reef and all the Keys, published in 1849, “Indian Key is not called Matanzas but instead Indian Key.”
It is almost ironic that of all the names attributed to the island, Indian Key is the one that stuck as the name in no way references the single event the island is most surely remembered for. It was nearly three-quarters of a century after the words Indian Key first showed up on nautical charts that Chief Chekika and his Indian warriors attacked the island in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1840.
While there seems to be no stated account for how Indian Key came into the vernacular, there are logical explanations. The first reason suggests that maybe Indian Key came into use because the first humans to use the island were the indigenous Indian people. The second suggests that the name might have arisen because the island is alleged to have once been a popular gathering site for Indians looking to trade goods with passing sailors.
The August 27 edition of Notes on Keys History will address the series of events that led to the 1565 Spanish massacre of French soldiers on the banks of a Florida river inlet some 400 miles north of Indian Key. The river would later become known as the Matanzas River.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.