A County Governed by an Island

Thomas Paine once argued for American independence from Great Britain by declaring it was absurd for a continent to be governed by an island. Curiously enough, similar arrangements have occurred in Florida, albeit on a smaller scale and lacking the part about absurdity. Monroe County, for example, is headquartered at Key West, but possesses a great deal of territory on the mainland. If you count Amelia Island as a true island, you could say the same for Nassau County. What many folks don’t realize is that Dade County was once governed from an island as well.

A portion of J.H. Colton's 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

A portion of J.H. Colton’s 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

It’s hard to imagine Dade County without Miami at the center of its government, but that is indeed how it began. When the Legislative Council established Dade County with the Governor’s approval on January 28, 1836, it included all of the Florida Keys from Bahia Honda Key to the mainland. It also included a large chunk of the peninsula, with boundaries running from Cable Sable on the Gulf Coast north to Lake Okeechobee and then southeast to the Hillsborough River and the Atlantic Coast. Indian Key, which is located roughly between the Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys, became the inaugural county seat.

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Indian Key might be small, but surely you’ve heard what they say about dynamite in small packages. The island was already inhabited, primarily by people associated with a wrecking business belonging to a man named Jacob Houseman. The Keys were notorious for their shipwrecks, and men like Houseman made a living from salvaging their cargoes. In 1828, Houseman petitioned Congress to make Indian Key an official United States port of entry. His supporting documentation claimed there were 47 people living on the island: 21 white and 26 black.

An image from Herper's New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

An image from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

A serious calamity befell Indian Key during the Second Seminole War. On August 7, 1840, Seminole Indians attacked the island, killing several of its inhabitants and burning the buildings. With the county seat destroyed and abandoned, local government of Dade County essentially ceased. In 1841, the territorial legislature adjusted the jurisdiction of the Monroe County Superior Court so it could handle most of the cases arising in Dade County. The acting clerk of the Dade County Court wrote the governor apologetically in 1843, explaining that he had deviated from the law a great deal in conducting elections that year. The county seat was vacant, he explained, and hardly anyone was around to vote, let alone supervise a poll or canvass the results. Using his own money, then, the acting clerk procured a book, canvassed the votes, and made out the returns himself.

The legislature voted to legalize the clerk’s actions, but the lawmakers realized that something more had to be done. With Indian Key devoid of people or facilities for carrying on the administration of the county, the local government needed a new location. On March 9, 1844, the legislature voted to move the seat of Dade County to Miami, where it remains today.

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Indian Key is now reserved as a state park. Visitors can take a boat or kayak out to the island when the waves are calm. Park officials have recreated parts of the original street grid, and interpretive markers explain the unique history of the island.