Hurricanes in the Florida Keys have been occurring as long as man has kept records. Spanish fleets were destroyed in 1622 when the treasure galleon Atocha sank near the Marquesas and again in 1733 when more than a dozen ships were lost along the Florida reef launching a massive search, rescue and salvage operation from Havana. When you live on the coast in Florida, hurricanes are as much a fact of life as wildfires in California or tornadoes in the Midwest. Like it or not, they just happen and during the fall you keep an eye on the weather channel. Over 30 hurricanes are reviewed in our new book on the Florida Keys beginning in the early 1800s when the Keys were first settled. In 1846 all but eight of six hundred homes in Key West were destroyed, virtually all of the boats in the harbor sank. In 1906 a hurricane washed a vessel housing men working on the Over-Sea Railroad out to sea, killing dozens. In 1935 that same railroad came to an end as the great Labor Day Hurricane shredded the tracks and killed over 400, making it the deadliest storm ever recorded in the Keys. The U.S. started naming hurricanes in 1953 and no one can forget the name "Irma". That category 4 hurricane hit the lower Keys on September 10th, 2017 with winds over 130mph and a storm surge of 8 feet destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, over 700 boats either sank or floated away. I'm an Ocean Engineer and have been cleaning up after hurricanes my whole career. Marinas and shorelines often need to be rebuilt and we're called in to re-design and manage the work. In a sick kind of way hurricanes are good for business, but Irma badly damaged my own home and I got to experience the heartache myself enduring months of clean up and rebuilding. It's not really the storm that gets most people, I actually found it interesting, it's the aftermath working in the heat of south Florida without power and struggling to get supplies and rebuild. The trauma is very real and my friends in the Keys went through a lot of it. For more information on this history of the Florida Keys, check out our latest book The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps. Also check out our custom maps of Florida, the Caribbean, and other coastal regions! If you have any questions regarding our products or would like to place a custom order, call 239-963-3497.
I occasionally give history talks and often start with how Florida was formed underwater in shallow seas, emerging as dry land when sea level fell. People's eyes start to glaze over so I quickly add, "Did you know elephants once roamed Florida?" Well they did, mastodons were elephant like creatures that probably walked as far south as the Florida Keys some 10,000 years ago. The air was much colder and sea level at the time was well over 100 feet lower than today, so the Keys would have been attached by land to mainland Florida. As sea level rose, the Keys archipelago appeared as land around the higher individual islands flooded. The mastodons were long gone but animals like deer became trapped on islands with dwindling habitat and food sources, hence Key deer, America's smallest deer species. You often hear how man created sea level rise, not true. We may well have increased the rate of rise, but sea level has been going up for over 20,000 years. The rise and fall of sea level has historically immersed the Florida Keys underwater and then been so low that the shoreline along the Gulfstream might have looked like Ireland, with cliffs hundreds of feet high beside the sea when sea level was hundreds of feet lower. These cliffs would have been where today's reef line is adjacent to deep water. The land you walk on today in the Keys was formed underwater in different ways. In the upper Keys the land is often fossilized coral reef. In the lower Keys it wasn't coral but another type of sea bottom that became rock. The lower Keys rock is less porous than the upper Keys, so water is able to collect and you get the trees you see on Big Pine Key. Those pine trees would not survive in the upper Keys due to lack of fresh water. Hopefully I've tricked you into learning something about geology and the evolution of the Keys. Next time you see a shell in the side of a rock on dry land you'll know how it got there, when the rock was part of an ancient sea bottom still soft enough for the shell, later hardening into the rock you see in front of you. To learn more about the Florida Keys and its history check out our latest book The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps. Also check out our dozens of customizable, decorative maps of Florida, the Caribbean and other coastal areas! For questions please call 239-963-3497 and we'll be happy to assist.
Who discovered Florida? That's the question we ask at the beginning of our new book on the Florida Keys. Who indeed? History tells us the story of Ponce de Leon, the search for the Fountain of Youth and his 1513 discovery of Florida. It's been an accepted story for generations. Really? Not so fast! I collect antique maps as does my The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps co-author Brian Schmitt. We came to realize that Spanish explorer de Leon couldn't have discovered Florida since there were several maps that pre-dated 1513, they clearly show the Florida peninsula. When I asked a renowned map dealer why the world's experts hadn't tried to correct history, he said "good question, why don't you do it". I'm not a map expert, just a collector who knows enough to be dangerous, but all of a sudden the burden of changing history was upon me. At the time Brian and I were using maps to write our history of the Florida Keys, why not simply use the maps that prove Ponce wasn't first. In recent years an ever increasing number of antique maps have been digitized and displayed on line which made it easy to show a couple dated prior to 1513. A one-of-a-kind 1502 map in Italy clearly shows the Florida peninsula northwest of Cuba with a scattering of islands that could easily be the Florida Keys. Brian has a rare 1511 map that shows Florida north of Cuba and since that map is Spanish, Ponce likely knew about Florida before he got there. The 1511 map not only shows Florida and Cuba but also the coasts of south and central America marked with geographical names. The new world was already being accurately mapped by the Spanish, how could they have missed north America! The world's most expensive map also proves the point. The 1507 Waldseemuller map was bought by the U.S. Library of Congress from a German man for $10 million in 2001. It's recognized as the first map to have the word "America" on it. It too shows the Florida peninsula northwest of the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. That makes at least 3 maps showing Florida before Ponce arrived; 1502, 1511 and 1507. By 1513 a number of nationalities were exploring the area including Italians, Portuguese and the Dutch. With other nations sniffing around maybe Spain announced an official discovery date by Ponce de Leon for the purpose of claiming it as a possession. Ponce returned to settle Florida in 1521 which would have given him personal claims to any riches found, but he was killed by Native Americans. While he may not have discovered Florida, his name will remain on streets, schools and monuments for years to come. If you're interested in learning more about the history of Florida and the Caribbean check out our three history books and a variety of custom maps! For questions regarding custom orders or to simply learn more, call 239-963-3497.