February 21, 2024
Key Milestone

Photo: iStock

The Keys' name comes from the Spanish word "cayo," meaning small island.

Around the State

Key Milestone

Florida's tropical island chain marks its 200th anniversary.

Amy Keller | 7/19/2023

Two hundred years ago this month, the Florida Territorial Legislature created Monroe County — which contains all but one of the Florida Keys — as Florida’s sixth county. Five years later, Key West was incorporated as a city and became the county seat. The Florida Keys include 1,700 islands stretching over 220 miles. The Calusa and Tequesta tribes were the original inhabitants of the islands.

What’s in a Name?

The Keys’ name comes from the Spanish word “cayo,” meaning small island — but they were almost called something else. Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer credited with discovering Florida and the Florida Keys in 1513, initially named the islands Los Mártires, meaning martyrs, supposedly because he thought they looked like men who were suffering.

Tourism Driven

During the 1800s, industry in the Florida Keys ranged from pineapple farming in the northern islands to shipwreck salvaging throughout the archipelago and cigar-making in Key West. In 1912, Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad linked the Keys to mainland Florida, providing wealthy visitors a direct route to vacation in the once-isolated islands. The Great Depression and the destruction of the train in 1935 by a hurricane took a toll on the islands, but today tourism supports about half of all jobs in Monroe County.

Turquoise Sanctuary

Designated in 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 3,800 square miles of water, from just north of Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas. It includes North America’s only coral barrier reef, 1.4 million acres of seagrass beds, 1,800 miles of mangrove shoreline and more than 6,000 species of marine life.

Sources: Rockport Analytics; Florida Department of Environmental Protection; TBD Economics; Monroe County; Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

By the Numbers

  • 5.1 million total annual visitors to the Keys
  • 33% share of visitors from Florida
  • 1.4 million annual visitors to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which features 90 miles of existing paved segments along a 106-mile corridor from Key Largo to Key West
  • 750,000 annual cruise ship visitors
  • 75,000 year-round residents in the Florida Keys
  • $2.5 billion annual tourism spending in Monroe County
  • 28,000 tourism-supported jobs
  • 54% share of local jobs connected to the marine ecosystem

Tags: Around Florida, Feature

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