While evidence suggests human occupation as far back as 500 BC, the first maps of the area date to 1542, when it was labeled “Las Islas Sabines” by a Spanish cartographer. An archaeological dig at Shell Mound, 9 miles (14 km) north of Cedar Key, found artifacts dating back to 500 BC in the top 10 feet (3.0 m) of the 28-foot-tall (8.5 m) mound. The only ancient burial found in Cedar Key was a 2,000-year-old skeleton found in 1999.
Arrow heads and spear points dating from the Paleo period (12,000 years old) were collected by Cedar Key historian St. Clair Whitman and are displayed at the Cedar Key Museum State Park.
The Cedar Keys were used by Seminole Indians, by the Spanish as a watering stop for ships returning to Spain from Mexico, and by pirates, such as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd.
Followers of William Augustus Bowles, self-declared “Director General of the State of Muskogee,” built a watchtower in the vicinity of Cedar Key in 1801. The tower was destroyed by a Spanish force in 1802.
Permanent historic occupation of the islands began in 1839, when the United States Army, led by General Zachary Taylor, established Fort No. 4, which served as a depot and included a hospital, on Depot Key (later known as Atsena Otie Key) during the Second Seminole War. This became the headquarters of the Army of the South. Cantonment Morgan was established on nearby Seahorse Key late in the war and used as a troop deployment station and as a holding station for Seminoles who had been captured or who had surrendered until they could be sent to the West. A hurricane with a 27-foot (8.2 m) storm surge struck the Cedar Keys on October 4, 1842, destroying Cantonment Morgan and causing much damage on Depot Key. Some Seminole leaders had been meeting with Army officers at Depot Key to negotiate their surrender or a retreat to a reservation in the Everglades. After the hurricane, the Seminoles refused to return to the area. Colonel William J. Worth had declared the war to be over in August 1842, and Depot Key was abandoned by the Army after the hurricane.
In 1842 the United States Congress had enacted the Armed Occupation Act, a precursor of the Homestead Act, to increase white settlement in Florida as a way of forcing the Seminoles to leave the territory. With the abandonment of the Army base on Depot Key, the Cedar Keys became available for settlement under the act. Under the terms of the act, several people received permits for settlement on Depot Key, Way Key and Scale Key. Augustus Steele, US Customs House Officer for Hillsborough County, Florida, and postmaster for Tampa Bay, received the permit for Depot Key, which he then renamed Atsena Otie Key. In 1843 he bought the buildings on the island, and built some cottages for wealthy guests. In 1844 he became the Collector of Customs for the port of Cedar Key as well as for Tampa. A post office named “Cedar Key” was established on Atsena Otie Key in 1845. The Florida legislature chartered the “City of Atseena Otie” in 1859.
Cedar Key became an important port, shipping lumber and naval stores harvested on the mainland. By 1860 two mills on Atsena Otie Key were producing “cedar” slats for shipment to northern pencil factories. As a result of the growth, the US Congress appropriated funds for a lighthouse on Seahorse Key in 1850. The Cedar Key Light was completed in 1854. The lighthouse lantern is 28 feet (8.5 m) above the ground, but the lighthouse sits on a 47-foot-high (14 m) hill, putting the light 75 feet (23 m) above sea level. The light was visible for 16 miles (26 km). Wood-frame residences were added to each side of the lighthouse several years later.
In 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminus of the Florida Railroad, connecting it to Fernandina on the east coast of Florida. David Levy Yulee, US senator and president of the Florida Railroad, had acquired most of Way Key to house the railroad’s terminal facilities. A town was platted on Way Key in 1859, and Parsons and Hale’s General Store, which is now the Island Hotel, was built there in the same year. On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived in Cedar Key, just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War.
With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, Confederate agents extinguished the light at Seahorse Key and removed its supply of sperm oil. The USS Hatteras raided Cedar Key in January 1862, burning several ships loaded with cotton and turpentine and destroying the railroad’s rolling stock and buildings on Way Key. Most of the Confederate troops guarding Cedar Key had been sent to Fernandina in anticipation of a Federal attack there. Cedar Key was an important source of salt for the Confederacy during the early part of the war. In October 1862 a Union raid destroyed sixty kettles on Salt Key capable of producing 150 bushels of salt a day. The Union occupied the Cedar Keys in early 1864, staying for the remainder of the war.
In 1865 the Eberhard Faber mill was built on Atsena Otie Key. The Eagle Pencil Company mill was built on Way Key, and Way Key, with its railroad terminal, surpassed Atsena Otie Key in population. Repairs to the Florida Railroad were completed in 1868, and freight and passenger traffic again flowed into Cedar Key. The Town of Cedar Keys was incorporated in 1869, and had a population of 400 in 1870.
Early in his career as a naturalist, John Muir walked 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Louisville, Kentucky, to Cedar Key in just two months in 1867. Muir contracted malaria while working in a sawmill in Cedar Key, and recovered in the house of the mill’s superintendent. Muir recovered enough to sail from Cedar Key to Cuba in January 1868. He recorded his impressions of Cedar Key in his memoir, A thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, which was published in 1916, after his death.
When Henry Plant’s railroad to Tampa began service in 1886, Tampa took shipping away from Cedar Key, causing an economic decline in the area. The fourth storm of the 1896 Atlantic hurricane season was the final blow. At approximately 4 a.m. on September 29, 1896, a 10-foot (3.0 m) storm surge swept over the town, killing more than 100 people. Winds north of town were estimated at 125 miles per hour (201 km/h), which would classify it as a category 3. The hurricane wiped out the juniper trees still standing and destroyed all the mills. A fire on December 2, 1896, further damaged the town. In following years, structures were rebuilt on Way Key, a more protected island inland, but the damage was done. Today, there are a few remnants of the original town on Atsena Otie Key, including stone water cisterns, and a graveyard whose headstones conspicuously date prior to 1896. There are also many of the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana subsp. silicicola) trees that originally attracted the pencil company, and for which the community was named.
Workers gathered outside E. Faber’s Cedar Mill in Cedar Key, Florida, circa 1890
At the start of the twentieth century, fishing, sponge hooking and oystering had become the major industries, but around 1909 the oyster beds were exhausted. President Herbert Hoover established the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge in 1929 by naming three of the islands as a breeding ground for colonial birds. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1952, just as the tourism industry began to grow as a result of interest in the historic community, but it remains in use as a marine biology research center by the University of Florida in Gainesville.
For a period from 1850 to 1885 the city of Cedar Key was the most important city on the west coast of Florida from the Panhandle all the way to Key West. It served as the main port for the region and was important in the logging, fishing and shipping industries. In 1852 Charles B. Rogers was born in Pittsboro, NC and moved to Cedar Key at 17 years old and began doing clerical work for the Florida Railroad. Several months later he went into the General Merchandise business named C.B. Rogers & Co. eventually growing into a large wholesale grocery house with even a headquarters in Jacksonville. The town and business flourished until 1896 when hit with a hurricane and soon after began slowly falling apart.
James Tucker managed this enterprise that supplied ships and area residents with a variety of goods and services, including transportation. Notes read, “redeemable at Tucker Gaston & Co. Cedar Keys, Fla. and N.S. Gaston & Co., Fernandina, Fla. in Cash, Merchandise or Transportation.”
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Notes & Currency
- 18__ Fernandina $3 Obsolete Note
- 1882 $50 Jacksonville Note Charter #3869
- 1902 $10 Punta Gorda Note Charter #10512
- 1882 $5 Palatka Note Charter #3223
- 1902 $5 Key West Note Charter #7942