Why Key Names?


It was a tired joke between my husband and me: “So, what is a ‘coppitt,’ and why is this one so BIG?” I’d always ask when traveling past Mile Marker 10. “You’re the librarian, why don’t you look it up?,” was his slightly amused response. Amused for the first dozen times, anyway.

If you’ve traveled the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, you’ll know I’m referring to Big Coppitt Key. Other curious key names: Arsnicker, Knockemdown, Bowlegs, and Saddlebunch. Who were Happy Jack, Black Betsy, Poor Craig, and Pretty Joe, and why were keys named after them? Luckily, to find answers to many of these curiosities, I didn’t have to look any farther than my good friend and colleague, Jim Clupper, Manager at the Islamorada branch of the Monroe County public libraries.

His comprehensive publication, Keynames, has been distributed to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the State of Florida Archives, University of Florida, and, of course, all of the Monroe County Public Library branches. In his introduction to Keynames, Jim describes its scope, “The list which follows consists of an alphabetical compilation of every place name for an island or key in the Florida Keys…keys included begin to the north with Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay, and end with the westernmost of the Dry Tortugas Keys. Also included are those keys located in Florida Bay and Everglades National Park north to the (mainland) Monroe County line.”

Jim documented the evolution of these names using 1600’s Spanish sailing charts, sea captains’ logs from the 1700’s, and survey and expedition logs from the 1800’s. He traced local lore, squinted at tattered charts, deciphered illegible diaries, and literally immersed himself in the Keys.

Now we know why all those keys are named after states, (Ohio, Missouri, Delaware, and Iowa keys were renamed by homesick Florida East Coast railway workers.) how El Radobob, Hospital, and, Jim’s favorite, Dump Keys got their names. Surprisingly, some keys are known locally by one name, but the official name is quite different. (See Christmas Tree, Key Haven, Sunset, Key Colony Beach, and Little Palm Island for examples.) Jim’s exhaustive work will satisfy almost every curiosity.

Almost, because, as Jim writes, “While this list may seem ponderous, it is undoubtedly incomplete, and will continue to undergo growth and refinement. Any suggestions for additions and/or corrections will be most gratefully accepted.” Alas, we still don’t know who Joe Ingram was, what The Contents contain, why Key Who, and, whatever happened to Pie Key.

While writing a library grant, I mentioned Keynames to the Assistant Director of Digital Library Services at the Florida Center for Library Automation, Priscilla Caplan. Priscilla suggested I look at a searchable web-based thesaurus for their Linking Florida’s Natural Heritage website. Could Keynames be delivered as a searchable web-gazetteer? This became my summer 2002 project.

Future plans for Keynames: The Website may include GPS coordinates, links to aerial maps, oral histories and perhaps a pronunciation key. (Hint: “BAY-ah HON-da” for Bahia Honda.)

Yet, the most exciting part of this project is yet to come: Do you know of Bamboo Key’s early settlers, the Pent family? Did your grandparents visit the Cocolobo Club on Adams Key? Ever hear hurricane survival stories mentioning Mango Key? These recollections, anecdotes and lore of the Keys are priceless. Please share them. Jim Clupper can be reached at mailto:clupper-jim@monroecounty-fl.gov and at 305-664-4645.

Technical questions and suggestions regarding the Keynames database will be gratefully received and answered at mailto:rice-anne@monroecounty-fl.gov.

Anne Layton Rice
Library Administrator
Monroe County Public Library
Key West, Florida
July 11, 2002