Fort Jefferson: Historic Excursions from Key West

It’s no secret that the Florida Keys are full of mystery and intrigue. From the silty ocean floor, littered with dilapidated cargo ships and vintage pleasure crafts to the nooks and crannies of Old Town Key West, this part of the world is alive with storied history. Key West is a tourist mecca for all sorts of reasons, most notably for its beautiful architecture, laid back feel and plethora of ocean activities, but if history is what turns your crank, and you’re in search of something to do that’s a little more than museum meanderings or tours of estate manors, book yourself a day trip to the Dry Tortugas and spend an afternoon wandering around Fort Jefferson.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a hop, skip and a jump from the shores of Key West. A 70 mile journey on the Yankee Freedom will bring you to one of the most unique biological environments in this part of the world, and it is here you will find Fort Jefferson, a gargantuan coastal fortress built ever-so-carefully on a teeny island. The fort itself is the largest masonry structure anywhere in the Americas and is made up of well over 16 million bricks! And if you look out over the soft turquoise horizon, you will immediately notice that materials to make brick certainly would not have been easy to come by!

Fort Jefferson is located on Garden Key. Sometime in late December of 1824, and early January of 1825, the U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter came to the Dry Tortugas on with the intentions of seeking out a lookout site for a naval station. Piracy in this part of the world was rampant, and the Americans wanted desperately to stamp it out. And though his initial report stated that this collection of islands probably couldn’t sustain much of anything, let alone a naval station, construction began on Garden Key in 1846, and continued onwards for nearly two decades.

Fort Jefferson was in active use from the 1860’s to the 1930’s. Throughout the Civil War period, the fortress remained at full capacity with a population of some 2000 people including soldiers, 22 black slaves, their families and administrative personnel. After 1865, the population of Fort Jefferson declined to 1,013 with 486 soldiers and civilians, and 527 prisoners. The most famous of these prisoners were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’ Laughlen, and Edmund Spangler. If those names sound familiar, it’s because they were the party accused and convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The was still under construction when the lot arrived, and continued still throughout the entirety of their prison sentence, and longer. Dr. Samuel Mudd had been instrumental in containing a yellow fever epidemic at the fort in 1867, and because of this, was later pardoned for his alleged crime by President Andrew Johnson.

These are just a handful of interesting facts you’ll learn if you come take the time to visit Fort Jefferson. Come learn about the region’s history, and explore the keys at your leisure. If you’re really keen, consider packing an overnight bag and some gear so you can camp out amidst the fort! And if not, just be sure to bring your camera, and a keen eye, because you never know what secrets you might uncover while exploring.

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