James M. Denham


Once Spain transferred Florida to the United States in 1821, Americans moved to secure the sparsely settled island at the end of the Florida Keys. Key West's exposed position atop the Caribbean required enforcement of United States authority. Establishing a federal presence was essential to protecting its commercial interests in the Caribbean. In 1822 the island became home to the U. S. West India Squadron's four-year campaign against piracy. The scourge was all but wiped out but there were still challenges. Key West attracted mariners and interlopers from the West Indies. Florida's close proximity to Spain's Latin American colonies encouraged trade with the Caribbean. Inhabitants of those colonies lived in Key West at least part of the year, as did fisherman and turtlers from the Bahamas. There was also frequent travel between Key West and Cuba. At that time the island town's population fluctuated between 600 and 200 inhabitants, and dangerous reefs surrounded it. Accordingly, the town was a center for extensive wrecking and salvage activity, and the commerce required close regulation. An incoming criminal element also required immediate attention, and, through most of the 1820s, law and order was conspicuous by its absence. Violators of the law often escaped punishment because they had to be transported to St. Augustine for trial.

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