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Islamorada, what’s in a name?

Beyond rumor and second hand stories, Henry Flagler had more to do with the place name Islamorada than anything purple. While colorful, the purple story, at least as it relates to the Upper Keys, lacks any form of documentation or corroboration.

The purple theory is generally attributed to one of two phenomenons, both of which date back to the early days of Spanish exploration. One source of the purple theory comes in the form of a sea snail known to feed on Portuguese man o’ war identified as Janthina janthina. Also known as the purple sea snail, the pelagic species with a thin purple shell floats at the ocean’s surface beneath a raft-like mucus bubble of its own making. The bubble serves as a sail much like the pink and purple tipped jelly of the Portuguese man o’ war on which the snail sometimes feeds.

Because the snails have a tendency to from large groups at sea, from time to time winds blow the bubble-sailed snails in a single direction which causes them to occasionally pile up en masse on land. While these purple-shelled snails are indigenous to climates with warm tropical and temperate waters and it is certainly plausible that some time long ago Spanish sailors witnessed a stranding of these colorful snails on the Matecumbe islands and declared either one of the other a purple isle, there is no historical documentation chronicling the event.

The second prevailing purple theory stems from a climbing vine with brilliantly colored rice paper flowers indigenous to South America. The first European to document the botanical was Dr. Philibert Commerson, a naturalist assigned to what is considered France’s first exploratory circumnavigation of the globe. After cataloguing the plant “discovered” near Rio de Janeiro in 1768, Commerson named it in honor of the man at the helm of the 126-foot, 26-gun frigate La Boudeuse on which he had been assigned, Commander Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

By 1768, the original site of Islamorada had been clearly identified as some form of Matecumbe for, at the very least, decades. A Spanish map charting wreck sites of the imperiled 1733 treasure fleet ravaged by a September hurricane that predates the discovery of the bougainvillea by more than three decades identifies Upper Matecumbe as Matacunbe Viejo. Matecumbe, in fact, is one of oldest place names in all of South Florida and dates back to 1573.

To the contrary, the place name Islamorada does not seem to enter the historical records until after the arrival of William J. Krome. An engineer working for Henry Flagler, Krome was responsible for coordinating the direction of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway’s right-of-way. He is also the namesake of the mainland’s Krome Avenue.

Apparently liking what he saw, Krome purchased 15 acres of Upper Matecumbe Key from the two youngest sons of the original Russells, Richard and Mary, who arrived on the island circa 1853. Krome paid John H. and James W. Russell $735 or, $49 per acre, for the property. He then platted 22 lots and declared it the town site Isla Morada.

The following announcement appeared in a May 7, 1907 newspaper and read, “On the north end of Upper Matecumbe Key a new town known as Isla Morada has sprung into existence… It is believed that Isla Morada will become an important tourist stopping place in winter as the location is beautiful and the fishing convenient and excellent.”

What was later confirmed by Mr. Krome’s wife, Isabelle, in a letter written to her friend Mal Flanders dated May 10, 1965, was the meaning of the place name. Mrs. Krome wrote, “I was not a member of the family at that time and had no part in the selecting of the name, but Mr. Krome told me that it was derived from the Spanish isla and morada, meaning home.”

The likely genesis of the place name Isla Morada was the 60-foot schooner Island Home. Commissioned by Plantation Key’s John “Brush” Pinder, one of the primary uses of the vessel was the shipping of Pinder’s pineapples and Key limes, likely to Miami where they could be loaded on to the East Coast Railway train cars and reliably ushered to market. Pinder and his family lived on a swath of Plantation Key stretching from bay to ocean in the vicinity of what is today at least partially home to Founders Park.

Bush hired a gentleman to build his ship, a Bahamian described as part black and part Indian, named “Old Whiskers” Wilkerson who reportedly “eyeballed” construction of the 60-foot, two-masted, flat-bottomed, centerboard schooner designed to navigate the shallows and shoals surrounding the island chain.

Christened the Island Home in 1903, Sarah Albury, the oldest child of Brush Pinder, spoke of the ship’s launch in Nikki Beare’s Pirates, Pineapples, and People. “It was a sight and event I’ll never forget. All of the children were so excited. None of us had ever seen so much excitement. Everyone was laughing and joking. Oh! We all had a happy time that night.”

While there is no documentation directly associating the Island Home to Krome’s Isla Morada, Krome would have been keenly aware of the vital role the schooner served. Before Flagler’s train would begin offering daily service to the Upper Keys circa 1908, the only means of communicating with the world beyond the Keys was via the ocean and the Island Home had certainly served as a vital conduit.

Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center. The author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history, his column appears every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at whypanic@aol.com.

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