‘The city of Bones’ & The Above-Ground Cemetery
The earliest title given to the land that would later be known as ‘Key West’ was found in a Spanish document from 1681, under the title ‘Cayo de Guesas’. This document accounted of “the enemy” Pirates residing in the Florida Keys. Over time the name would be charted and changed, going through renditions like ‘Cayos de Guezo’, ‘Cayo Gueso’, and ‘Cayo de Huesos’. With huesos being the Spanish word for bones, the name set the foundation for 'Bone Island’. If you want to ‘dig deeper’, this article breaks down more specific transitions of the names.
A chart from 1790 noted a rendition similar to the name today, stating “Cayo Huesso commonly called Kay West”. Evolution of the name came about from gradually mispronouncing the name, morphing Hueso (pronounced way-so) to Key Wayso, West, Kay West, eventually landing on Key West.
But why was Key West considered a land of bones? Understanding how the island’s foundation was formed is important to the reason bones were so often likely to appear. The geographical foundation of Key West resulted in the reformation of polar ice caps, lowering the sea level enough to expose coral beds and limestone. Organic decay gradually produced soil, creating the base of what the island is built on today. With no base of solid earth to dig deep into, it’s understandable that nothing could be buried very deep underground… including the dead.
It's theorized that the bones on the island were remnants of decayed bodies due to acts of ceremony by the Calusa Indians. Of course this was speculation by the Spaniards, not understanding how the the foundation of the earth & weather could affect buried corpses over time. For many years the islanders would simply dig shallow graves for the departed, only to later have to re-bury any remains they may have found after large storms and hurricanes. In 1846, the Havana Hurricane would hit Key West, making a lifelong impact on how the islanders dealt with their dead.
The Hurricane of 1846 was the largest documented natural disasters in the island's history, destroying most of the existing buildings and churning up the earth in the process. Not only did this tragedy leave the bodies of the storm’s victims on the land, but it also turned the soil, revealing old corpses, bones, and coffins above land. The repercussions of this event inspired a new way of honoring the departed, by burying them… above ground!
The Key West Cemetery was established in 1847, only a year after the horrendous events of the hurricane. The cemetery today is a popular tourist attraction, where you can visit the above-ground stone coffins, tombstones, and statues.
The subject of burials and death is rather taboo in popular culture, but it’s a way of life for the residents of Key West… and from what history can tell us, they have a particular humor about it. The Key West Cemetery has become known for it’s humorous epitaphs marking certain graves (at request of its deceased residents, of course)! One of the most famously recognized is the tombstone of B.P.”Pearl” Robert, which quotes, “I told you I was sick.” Others include stones that read “If You’re Reading This, You Desperately Need a Hobby”, “I’m Just Resting My Eyes”, and “I Always Dreamed Of Owning A Small Place in Key West.”
Marrero’s Guest Mansion is only a few blocks away from the Key West Cemetery, making it an easy activity to plan for your itinerary. You can take a self guided tour which is downloadable here - you can also print off the map attached below.
In the mood for something spookier? Book a ghost tour with Ghost City - this historically accurate guide walks you through some of Key Wests most haunted locations. This company has two versions of the tour, one that’s family-friendly and one that’s for adults-only.
We hope you enjoyed this educational post about historical Key West. Thank you for reading.
The Marrero's Team
Traveling elsewhere in Florida? Visit our sister property in Treasure Island FL.