History of Indian Key Festival

On August 7, 1976 the first Indian Key Festival was held to honor the long history of a small island off the eastern coast of Islamorada. Five years previous, the State of Florida purchased Indian Key and designated it a state historic site a year later. The island features a dock, pavilion, walking trail and observation tower and is a part of the Florida State Park system. 

Indian Key Festivals, generally slated the first weekend in October, held various interesting exhibits through the years such as in 2001 when island tours highlighted work conducted by University of Pennsylvania and University of South Florida conservation and archaeology students. Students had excavated and stabilized the site of a former warehouse and launched similar work on the kitchen foundations of the key’s residences. Kayak competitions also were part of the festival. The traditional festival will not be held this year as the island’s dock needs repair, said a park ranger. But, anyone who participated in the decades of festivals remembers the special experiences.

In 2004, the festival’s theme was “Three Centuries of Indian Key History,” and the organizers showcased the 18th century story of the sinking of the treasure-laden Spanish galleon San Pedro in 1733, which lies just off Indian Key’s shores. The festival that year also shared the fascinating story of Jacob Housman’s 1830s settlement and the 20th century life at a fishing camp, with highlights including hurricanes that affected the area and the building of the famous Oversea Railway. Round-trip boat rides to Indian Key, tours of the island guided by docents, historical photographs and reenactments were part of the festival.

The festivities at about mile marker 76 oceanside were largely orchestrated and carried out by a dedicated group of volunteers known as Friends the Islamorada Area State Parks in conjunction with state park staff. The Friends sought to showcase Islamorada’s beauty and share its history.
Established in 1987, the Friends support six state parks in the Florida Keys: San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve, Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological, Indian Key, Lignumvitae Key Botanical, Long Key and Curry Hammock. The Friends conduct environmental clean-ups and fundraisers to help provide financial support for the parks, such as the Lignumvitae Christmas Festival and the Curry Hammock Car Show. The group welcomes new members.

Situated .75 miles from Islamorada’s Lower Matecumbe Key, the 11-acre Indian Key counts prehistoric aboriginal people among its first inhabitants. In the early 19th century the island boasted a thriving wrecking community and the largest population between St. Augustine and Key West. By the mid-1830s, Dade County had taken control of all territory east of Bahia Honda Key, and Indian Key was declared Dade’s government seat.

Jacob Housman, a controversial character, bought Indian Key in 1831 and set out to build a wrecking empire to compete with the monopoly in Key West. At this time, wrecking or salvaging cargo from shipwrecks was both legal and extremely lucrative. Housman’s Indian Key settlement included a store, hotel, dwellings, cisterns, warehouses and wharves. Known for his shady business practices, he constantly feuded with other salvagers.

In 1836, in an effort to become independent from Key West, Housman had the Legislative Council establish Indian Key as the first county seat for Dade County.

Then, during the Second Seminole War in 1840, Housman told the United States government he would rid the area of Seminoles at a rate of $200 per head. The Seminoles learned of his scheme, and more than 100 of them paddled to the island and burned all of its structures to the ground. Indian Key never regained its population.

In 2003, the Indian Key Festival’s theme was A Bounty of History and incorporated eight historic re-creations to share the island’s history. Among them were an actress, “Mrs. Howe,” who imparted island hospitality to newcomers who arrived at the dock, heralded by a sharp blast from the cannon of the Yankee schooner. Howe’s two sons provided lessons on the production of sisal (hemp) rope and conducted entertaining hermit crab races. Other actors portrayed a fisherman’s story of the 1935 hurricane, Hester Perrine and Mrs. Perrine who lived on the island, and a courtroom jury as Housman was tried for criminal mischief in the wreckers’ court. Then, passing by the tamarind grove, visitors heard dulcimer players strumming songs dating to the 1800s on their antique instruments. Other volunteers showcased native hand tools and palm weaving techniques utilized by early Native Americans. Ten park rangers and 40 volunteers made the day a success, said volunteer coordinator Susi Baldwin. Nearly 600 people attended the festival weekend.

For years, the Friends worked countless hours to ensure Indian Keys history was remembered and appreciated. 

Currently, the dock at Indian Key is in need of repair so the tour boats that used to depart from Robbie’s Marina are no more. However, kayakers can still paddle to the island. 

In yesteryear, kayak competitions with eight- and three-mile courses along and Elite/Open, Sit-On-Top and Surf Ski divisions ensured more access and fun at the Indian Key Festival with trophies awarded to winners. It takes a lot of effort to produce such a festival, and maybe someday, it will be resurrected. 

Contributed By: Ann Winters

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