49. Conch Republic

Historic Marker 49 is located at 402 Wall Street.

Struggles for life and liberty are nothing new for the citizens of the Florida Keys. They have been claimed by the Spanish Empire after Ponce de Leon’s discovery in 1513, traded to England in 1765, taken back by Spain in 1783, sold to the United States as a territory in 1819 and received statehood along with the rest of Florida in 1845. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Florida Keys’ liberty was challenged by its own country.

Key West is a difficult place to make a surprise visit to. It has always been a tight knit, multicultural community with a great sense of pride. That, coupled with the island’s remote location nearly 146 miles from the mainland, has insolated its privacy for decades. Whether you travel by air, boat, or drive along the only road leading in and out of the Keys, you will probably be noticed long before you arrive at Key West.

In 1982, the Border Patrol decided to set up a check point at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City effectively cutting off the Florida Keys from the mainland. The Border Patrol stopped every vehicle leaving the Keys supposedly searching for illegal drugs and aliens attempting to enter the United States. The daily result of their actions was a 17 mile backup of traffic leaving the Keys.

The media soon started reporting on these unprecedented governmental actions. As the stories of the massive traffic jam poured out across the world, visitors started canceling reservations to come to the Keys. Hotels emptied, deliveries were delayed or stopped, and attractions in the Keys went begging for customers. The Keys were paralyzed.

An injunction against the government’s action was filed in federal court but the court essentially refused to prevent the Border Patrol from treating the Keys like a foreign nation. Something had to happen.

Harkening back to the island’s days of pirate lore, the mayor of Key West gathered the press to read a proclamation of secession from the United States. With many of the residents of the Florida Keys having Conch heritage, the new micro nation was named the Conch Republic. The Mayor, now proclaimed the Prime Minister of the Republic, commenced to break a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the federal agents at the gathering. After a minute or two, the Prime Minister surrendered to the agents and demanded foreign aid and war relief to rebuild the Republic after the long federal siege from the United States.

While the United States never formally recognized the secession or the foreign aid demands, the incident garnered enough media coverage to pressure the Border Patrol station to dissolve and stop the vehicle searches.

The Conch Republic’s motto is, appropriately, “We seceded where others failed”.