Key Biscayne

“As a young adult, I often sailed with friends to a private palm-filled island, a romantic hideaway called Key Biscayne. Blooming tropical plants complemented the thick vegetation of native origin. I remember it surrounded by crystal-clear water, an aquarium with undersea gardens provided by nature. No bridge connected this sand-encircled island with any other place in the world. I remember how marvelously isolated we felt upon arriving there, gaining a sense of freedom to behave as we wished, to explore barefoot in the shallows, to shout, to sing, to dance, even to go skinny-dipping by night. The island had a wide, flat beach backed up by low dunes along the ocean; the sand continued to weave its way among dark-green mangrove estuaries on the west where tropical birds roosted, strutted, and bred, secure in their privacy.” Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the Foreword.

Blank, Joan Gill. Key Biscayne (Florida’s History Through Its Places) . Pineapple Press. Kindle Edition.


“Key Biscayne is the southernmost barrier island along the Atlantic Coast of the United States and is located just east of Miami, Dade County, Florida. The island is approximately 5 mi (3 km) long, varies from 0.75 mi to 2 mi (0.5 km -1.3 km) wide with Cape Florida at the southern tip and West Point on a projection to the west, and Virginia Key to the north. To the east of the island is the Atlantic Ocean and to the west, Biscayne Bay. As part of the Upper Sand Keys, Key Biscayne and Virginia Key have a substrate composed of quartz sand and limestone which is distinct from the lower, coral-based keys. Increase of land mass here occurred during the Holocene with southwardly cape accretion. Over time, as sands swirled around this spit, a parabolic pattern of alternating dunes and swales formed.” Robin B. Huck, Florida Scientist

“I and all of us here remain in good health, glory to God who helps us to endure in this land trials which would appear insufferable in another place. I say this for we have had for the past three months or more a plague of mosquitoes so bad that I spent several days and nights without being able to sleep an hour. On top of this we suffered some days for lack of food. I say no more about this but to add that the only sleep we could obtain was close to the fire and half smothered in the smoke, otherwise one could not endure it. At this time the majority of the Indians went to an island a league from here to eat coconuts and palm grapes. No more than 30 remained here.” Francisco de Villarreal, 1568

The first documented human inhabitants of Key Biscayne were the Tequestas. Archaeological evidence unearthed in the late 20th century indicates the Tequestas had a large village on the Key. Built in a manner similar to the village at the mouth of the Miami River, the structures were circular, made with post and palm frawns. The Tequesta navigated from the Everglades to the mouth of the Miami River to Key Biscayne and on to the Gulf Stream in hand-hewn canoes made of either cypress or pine. The Tequesta were primarily hunters and gatherers, not engaging in agriculture. From Key Biscayne, they were able to hunt for manatees, turtles, fish, sharks and even whales. In addition to serving as nourishment, these animals also provided tools.

“Through the years, many Indian mounds and middens had been leveled: early treasures lie under twentieth-century fill and paved roads. Artifacts have been scattered, crushed, and buried. If some of the materials were sacred and escaped the natural destruction of water, tides, and storms, the despoilers of the wild lands and wetlands did not notice or did not care. They rarely looked back. Too few understand that these are our heritage and are to be kept in trust. The history of an island and its environment are forever indivisible.” Joan Gill Blank in Key Biscayne

13 May 1513
On Sunday, the 8th of May, they doubled the cape of La Florida, which they named Cabo de Corrientes, because the water ran so swift there that it had more force than the wind, and would not allow the ships to go forward, although they put out all sails. They anchored behind a cape close to a village called Abaioa. All this coast from Punta de Arracifes as far as this Cabo de Corrientes runs north and south a quarter by southeast, and it is quite clear with a depth of six fathoms; and the cape is in twenty-eight degrees and fifteen minutes. They sailed on until they found two islands to the south in twenty-seven degrees. The one having an extent of one league they named Santa Marta, and there they found water. On Friday, the 13th of May, they hoisted sail, running along the coast of a sandbank and reef of islands as far as the vicinity of an island that they named Pola, which is in twenty-six and one-half degrees, and between the shoal, the reef of islands, and the mainland, the open sea extends in the form of a bay. On Sunday, the day of the Feast of the Holy Spirit, the 15th of May, they ran along the coast of rocky islets ten leagues, as far as two white rocky islets. To all this line of islands and rocky islets they gave the name of Los Martires because, seen from a distance, the rocks as they rose to view appeared like men who were suffering; and the name has remained fitting, because of the many that have been lost there since. They are in twenty-six degrees and fifteen minutes.

Historians believe Santa Marta refers to Key Biscayne and Cabo de Corrientes to Cape Florida. Importantly, Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles ordered the establishment of a mission on the north bank of the Miami River. 

Brother Francisco Villareal, SJ, a Jesuit, began living in Miami and attempting to convert the Tequestas.

Florida was part of Spain until 1763.

Britain took possession of Florida as part of the agreements ending the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and the Spanish population largely emigrated to Cuba. The new colonial ruler divided the territory into East and West Florida, but despite offers of free land to new settlers, was unable to increase the population or economic output, and Britain traded Florida back to Spain after the American War of Independence in 1783.

Spain’s ability to govern or control the colony continued to erode, and, after repeated incursions by American forces against the Seminole people who had settled in Florida, finally decided to sell the territory to the United States. 

17 July 1821
On 17 July 1821, Florida became a part of the United States, as part of the Onis-Adams Treaty. Spain had provided refuge to escaped slaves. Therefore, from one day to the next, Florida became a slave state. Thousands of Blacks, escaped slaves as well as Black Seminoles fled Florida through the Saltwater Underground Railroad.

“There is a Southern Underground Railroad that is little known, not just to the average American, but also to many students of U.S. history. The Saltwater Underground Railroad headed south into Spanish Florida — a region which was really off the grid and close to other areas outside of the U.S. which might be havens for fugitive slaves. An underground from Georgia and Alabama, maybe South Carolina too, extended into Spanish Florida. Miami was likely the main escape point of the Saltwater Underground Railroad, more specifically Key Biscayne on the bay and ocean, seven miles southeast of Miami. With the Cape Florida lighthouse up by 1825, it was all over for that main escape route of the Saltwater Underground Railroad,” says George. “We tend to view history from a British vantage point. Thus, all things Spanish Florida at the time were overlooked. Ironically, the Saltwater Underground Railroad ends on the tip of Key Biscayne about where the lighthouse stands today.” Paul George (

The Second Seminole War started on 23 December 1835. On the 28 December 1835, the Seminoles won the Dade Battle. Two U.S. Army companies under the command of Major Francis L. Dade were obliterated in an ambush by Seminoles.

13 December 1825
John DuBose arrived on Key Biscayne as the first keeper of the Cape Florida Lighthouse. His wife, Margaret, and five children accompanied him. Two slaves that maintained the lighthouse were also lived on location.

Dr. Henry Perrine proposed that Key Biscayne be developed as health resort.
“We have testimony of the healthiness (climate) of Cape Florida in its most unequivocal form. The family of J. Dubose, consisting of eleven whites, and several negroes, has not had a case of sickness during the last seven years. The tenderest and most productive vegetables of the tropics are flourishing under his care. . . . The harbor at the cape . . . is easily accessible and a voyage to and from the northern states can be made easily. . . . Humanity requires that Key Biscayne should be made an available resort as soon as possible. . . . At Cape Florida, an association might be readily formed with a capital of a hundred thousand dollars, which would furnish the buildings, gardens, and other conveniences requisite for the most squeamish visitor, and keep a packet running every month with passengers and effects to and from the north. The most luxurious accommodations could be profitably afforded at half the price paid in Havana.” Dr. Henry Perrine

23 July 1836
“Seminole Indians attacked the Cape Florida lighthouse on Key Biscayne on this date. Assistant keeper, John W. B. Thompson, and a slave named Aaron Carter returned fire until evening. The two men were wounded and Carter eventually died from his wounds. The Seminoles set the lighthouse afire, and when a large drum of oil was punctured, the entire building appeared ready to burn. Thompson retreated to the top of the lighthouse to escape the flames. In desperation, he threw a keg of gunpowder to the bottom of the tower. The explosion rattled the building, momentarily suppressing the fire. The Seminoles were convinced that both men were dead and withdrew. Thompson managed to survive, although he was badly burned by the fire. He was rescued a few days later by the crew of the U.S.S. Motto, who had heard the explosion from about twelve miles at sea.”

James Deering purchased the Cape Florida lighthouse and surrounding property. Deering’s intention was to develop the area into a resort. As litigation slowed these plans down, Deering did fund the stabilization and restoration of the lighthouse.

Bill Baggs persuades the owners of the eastern part of Key Biscayne to sell their land and convinces the government to buy it. This is why the park bears the name of Bill Baggs

“A huge supporter of the local community and protecting the environment, Baggs helped convince Mrs. Elena Santeiro Garcia, widow of Cuban Sen. Jose Alemon, to come down on her price (from $6 million to $3 million) for the plot of land that is now the state park. He then had to persuade political heavyweights in Tallahassee to commit to the funding. Baggs had written Mrs. Garcia a note in 1967, which read: ‘Long after you and I have left this old green planet, children and their parents who cannot afford the private clubs will find a healthy and economical pleasure on the lovely beach front which is to become the property of the people. … You can save it if you want to.’ The park was named for Baggs in 1974.” Hillard Grossman, Islander News

This walk will be limited to the sites in close proximity to the Overtown Metrorail Station, which is the area covered by the Miami in Miami class. There are other places of historical importance in Overtown that individuals are encouraged to explore.

John William Bailly  16 March 2022

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