The little island group may have been formed by a meteorite in the distant past leaving a round water body known as Mooney Harbor, some four miles in diameter. The area is known for great fishing and diving and as recently as 1980 was used for target practice by the military (after clearing out fishermen and tourists). It’s now protected within the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
There was a 50-foot-tall lighthouse called Cosgrove Shoal Light from 1921 to 1935. Prior to construction, many ships sank and the area is littered with shipwrecks, ten or more within a couple miles of the islands and another very famous wreck further west.
The Marquesas were named after the Marquis de Cadereita, commander of the 1622 Spanish Treasure Fleet that was partially sunk in a hurricane en route from Havana, Cuba to Spain. Three treasure laden galleons were among the fleet including the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora del Rosario. The Atocha sank west of the Marquesas with only five survivors of the 265 aboard. The galleon broke up gradually as the hurricane pushed her across the seabed, depositing the valuable cargo on the bottom along the way. Three sailors and two slaves–survived by holding onto the remains of the mizzenmast which stayed above water. A Spanish merchant vessel rescued the survivors so the location was known, but salvage at the remote site was never accomplished until recent times.
In 1985, chicken farmer turned treasure hunter Kane, Mel Fisher’s son, radioed in, “Put away the charts, we’ve found the main pile!” He had located remains of the treasure west of the Marquesas after his father, family and crew spent sixteen years looking. Tragically in 1975, Mel’s son Kirk, Kirk’s wife Angel and diver Rick Gage were killed when their steel salvage boat capsized at night and sank.
The now famous Atocha cargo included: 24 tons of silver in 1,038 ingots 18,000 pesos in silver coins 582 copper ingots 125 gold bars and discs 350 chests of indigo 525 bales of tobacco 1,200 pounds of worked silver A horde of emeralds smuggled aboard to avoid Spanish taxation
For more history on the Marquesas Keys and the other Florida Keys, check out The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps! If you have any questions or wish to see more products from Island Map Store, including our antique map, check out our website here or call 239-963-3497.
In 1909 two brothers, Charles and George Chase, namesakes of the railroad’s nearby Chase Station, bought land on Sugarloaf and proceeded to pioneer efforts to grow sponges in the Keys, beginning in Sugarloaf Sound. The community of Chase was born, complete with a post office, housing and commercial buildings but the sponging venture failed and the town disappeared after the First World War. The name Sugarloaf likely came from a variety of pineapple once grown in the Keys, the “Sugarloaf”, or a nearby Indian mound resembling an old-fashioned loaf of sugar.
The Saddlebunch Keys, just west of Sugarloaf, are comprised of mostly mangroves and then there are small, uninhabited islands both north and south of the Highway until one arrives on Big Coppitt Key. The name Coppitt is said to be a derivation of the Old English word coppice, meaning “thicket.” Geiger Key is south of Big Coppitt at the southeastern corner of Boca Chica. An early Keys settler, Henry Geiger, obtained the land under the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, which was as an incentive to populate Florida if one met certain conditions to settle and remain on land for specified amounts of time to gain title, “Armed” because Indians were still a big threat to settlers.
Boca Chica is Spanish for “small mouth,” which may have referred to the narrow channel on the island’s western side now adjacent to Naval Air Station Key West (NAS Key West). Boca Chica is mostly salt marsh and mangroves but it’s home to a state-of-the-art training facility for air-to-air combat aircraft of all military services. Driving through the Keys one can often spot jet aircraft overhead and I’ve marveled at seeing some climb vertically into the sky.
Stock Island is the last island stop before entering Key West. The name comes predictably from herds of livestock that were once corralled there. Much of the island was altered by railroad crews recruited from adjacent Key West when jobs were scarce. They used the combination of “men, mules, dynamite and wheelbarrows” to prepare the land with fill and build up the roadbed for the coming railroad. The work was completed in 1907 with 200 men whose goal was to “complete 50 feet of fill per day” in preparation for the arrival of Flagler’s train in 1912. Stock Island was home to the Keys pink shrimp fleet and now has several nice marinas. Many commercial fishing boats still operate from there along with please boats.