Notes on Monroe County

The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 occurred one year into the American Revolutionary War. 

The conflict between a burgeoning United States and the British was settled when John Adams, Ben Franklin, and John Jay, all of whom represented the United States and British Parliament member David Hartley, representing King George III, met to sign the Treaty of Paris on Sept. 3, 1783. The treaty established the sovereign and independent status of America's initial 13 colonies.

It was a concept that continued to grow, and by 1800, three additional states had been added to the original 13; the 14th, 15th, and 16th states were Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. A handful of years later the square footage of the United States would practically be doubled when the French sold the United States a chunk of real estate remembered as the Louisiana Purchase. The transaction for the parcel of land that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the line that would one day separate North Dakota from the Canadian border was completed on April 30, 1803.

After the deal was struck, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery Expedition the job of exploring the newly acquired property. The expedition was led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was after their report was delivered in 1804 that interest began to swell for lands to the south, a Spanish held territory called La Florida. The land was largely a peninsula that thrust its way between the greener shades of the Gulf of Mexico and the turquoise hues of the Atlantic Ocean.

On several occasions, the United States had made it known to Spanish officials that they were interested in purchasing the property, and on several occasions the Spanish ignored the offer. However, it soon became obvious that as the United States continued to expand and apply pressure to La Florida's northern border, it was going to become necessary to finance a large army if the Spanish intended to combat the intrusion. The Spanish experienced a change of heart around 1818 and rather than defend their territory, decided to sell La Florida for around $5 billion.

The terms of the deal were negotiated between John Quincy Adams and Luis de Onis. Adams had been serving as Secretary of State under President James Monroe; Luis de Onis was a foreign minister to King Ferdinand VII. The agreement the two parties drafted was the Adams/Onis Treaty of 1819, more commonly referred to as the Florida Treaty. While the initial version was signed in 1819, it was not until February 22, 1821 that the treaty was delivered to Washington and officially proclaimed. 

The official and symbolic exchange of flags between the two countries did not occur until July 10, 1821 and one week later, July 17, General Andrew Jackson was appointed the first military governor of the newly formed Florida Territory.

Initially, the Florida Territory was divided into two counties: Escambia County and St. Johns County. Escambia County was created nearly a week before the official exchange of flags with Spain. St. Johns County was proclaimed July 21, 1821. The dividing line between the two counties was the Suwannee River.

Monroe County was formed in 1823 and became the sixth county established in the Florida Territory. Named after the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, the county seat was assigned to the territory's largest established community at the time, Key West. Larger in area than it appears today, Monroe County once extended north to the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee.

By 1823 there were basically three communities between Key West and Key Biscayne: Key West, Key Biscayne, and Indian Key. Indian Key's legendary John Jacob Housman would have the biggest impact on Monroe County's boundaries. 

For years the crafty wrecker had tried to separate the community of Indian Key from the dominion of Key West. His efforts had always been thwarted until he came up with what would become his winning argument -- jury duty placed an unfair burden on the county's northern residents who, when called, would have to arrange boat passage to the country's southernmost city. 

Before Key West realized what had happened, Monroe County had been redrawn to show that its northernmost border had become Bahia Honda. Lands north of Bahia Honda belonged to the newly formed Dade County. Captain Housman was quick to construct a court house on his 11-acre island, and Indian Key was declared the first county seat of Dade County. 

In 1844 the county seat was moved to the mainland. In 1866, the middle and upper islands found between Key Largo and Bahia Honda were reassigned to Monroe County.

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