Few people who visit Key West truly understand the unique history that surrounds the island and the locals who call it home. However, the island did not just spontaneously become the fun-loving, carefree tropical paradise we know it as today, it has been a developing process that has taken place over many generations.
A Brief History
Most of the earlier inhabitants of Key West were loyalist immigrants from the Bahamas looking for a place to settle that was still governed by the Crown of England following the Revolutionary War. Over the decades, people from the surrounding islands and North American mainland traveled to Key West, eventually calling it home. This in part laid the basis for the culture-rich diversity that is still prevalent today.
The term “conch” was adopted in the late 19th century as a distinction for people of Bahamian origin who permanently resided on the island. Over the decades, variations of the term came to pass that are still used to describe residents today; particularly “salt-water conch” and “fresh-water conch”.
- Salt-Water Conch – The term used to describe a native: Someone of a permanent resident who was born on the island.
- Fresh-Water Conch – A term used to describe non-native residents who have since called Key West home. However, this title is not simply bestowed upon you when you decide to live in Key West, you must earn it! Only after being a resident for seven years will the title be granted.
Originating from a non-serious declaration of Key West’s secession from the U.S. on April 23, 1982, the Conch Republic is a term used to refer to the new-found solidarity of the island as a separate entity. Since 1982, the rest of the Florida Keys have been absorbed as part of the Conch Republic. While simply a tongue-in-cheek action, the secession of the island still holds steady as a popular tourist attraction, with the whimsical celebration of independence every year on April 23rd.
Life of a Conch
So, what is it exactly that gives Key West locals such an accepting, carefree attitude? Well, aside from the fact they live on such a beautiful island, their lifestyle tends to reflect a general admiration for the simpler things in life.
Traditionally, conchs live in houseboats or in conch style housing which has been commonplace since the turn of the century. The most evident difference between a conch style house and a modern home is the foundation. Conchs are generally built upon posts or piers to ingeniously allow for air to circulate underneath the floor.
Conchs are kept busy by the year-round tourism that frequents the island. They provide various services in the form of charters, fishing excursions and copious tours that both keep the historical aspect of Key West culture alive, as well as introduce visitors to the daily life of a local.
So whether you take Ernest Hemingway’s word for it or the words of a previous visitor, there is nothing like the hospitality and acceptance of Key West locals. However, the best way to know for sure is to simply experience Key West: Conch Style for yourself. But try not to get too in-tuned with the local culture, or you may find yourself a fresh-water conch before long.