Marathon began in historical times as Cayo de Bacas or Vacas. Vaca is Spanish for "cow" and general knowledge is
that there were no cows (bovines) on Key Vaca in early times. However, Bill Ackerman wrote in his 1957 book The
Florida Keys, "Key Vaca, or Cow Island, was so named for the Spanish cattle that once roamed here in a near-wild
state." Often when names appear in their plural form it includes a closely grouped set of smaller islands.
The earliest map that I have showing Cayo Vaca is estimated to have been made in about 1670 and it was a group of
islands. Conjecture has it named after Alavar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca who wrote a detailed account of the exploration
of Florida by Pamphilio Narvaez in 1528. His maternal ancestry was given the name 'Cabeza de Vaca' for guiding an
army against the Moors through a pass marked with the skull of a cow in 1212. In Spanish, 'Vaca' symbolized victory
against great odds and was proudly borne. Others say the name was after the sea cow.
The names of many of the Keys can be the subject of discussion. A U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey letter for project HT
156 (1935-1936) discusses many names. Page 2 of Sheet No. 17 reads "Knight Key: The Key was named after the
original settler and is locally called Knights Key."
Page 2 0f Sheet No. 15 Grassy Key: "Local information states that the Key was named after an old settler and not
because it was partially covered with grass." A note is that Grassy Key had that name in a 1855 wrecker's court record
for the burning of the ship Concordia. Page No. 3 concerning Key Vacas gives the pros and cons of using the final "s".
Anyway, Key Vaca and four small islands were granted to Don Francisco Ferreira by a Spanish Land Grant in 1814.
Ferreira sold Key Vaca to Isaac Cox for $3,000 on September 4, 1824, which was $1,000 more than the selling price
of Key West. Three years later, Cox sold Key Vaca to Charles Howe of Indian Key fame for $1,500. By 1835, Key Vaca
was considered one of Monroe County's three principal settlements, the other two being Key West and Indian Key. (In
1836 the Middle and Upper Keys were given to Dade County where they remained until 1866.)
In the Upper Keys, probably the oldest continuous family is the Russell family. They are descendants of Richard and
Mary Ann Russell who arrived on Key Vaca around 1838. In 1854 they moved from Key Vaca to Upper Matecumbe Key.
A February 10, 1823 "Notice to Mariners" was printed in The Floridian of Pensacola "Ship News" advising the public of
the settlement of Port Monroe, Key Vaca. It was probably on Knight's Key as the notice stated that fresh water is
available five miles away. Among other things the notice said, "At present there are four families residing at this place;
corn, potatoes, beans, onions, cotton, and all West Indies fruit thrives rapidly, and surpasses our most sanguine
expectations. JOSHUA A. APPLEBY, JOHN W. FIVEASH."
The above two men were apparently involved in some shady maritime activities. Shortly after Florida became a U.S.
Territory in 1821, Port Monroe attracted the attention of Commodore David Porter and his U.S. anti-pirate squadron.
Porter sent Lt. Rogers and six marines to maintain the law. A 1825 congressional law mandated that all wrecked
property be taken to American ports-of-entry (Key West and St. Augustine). This, in addition to the law enforcement
actions taken by Commodore Porter, just about doomed Port Monroe. Joshua Appleby formed a partnership with a
Solomon Snyder and they hired Silas Fletcher in 1824 to construct and operate a store for mariners on Indian Key.
It is said that Temple Pent Sr. was Key Vaca's first permanent European settler and was the beginning of the
settlement called Conch Town (presently the area of 109th and 112th streets). He had lived on Key Biscayne from
1810 to 1825, then in Key West until 1836, when he moved to Key Vaca. He had married Mary Kemp. He served as a
ship's pilot for Commodore David Porter and was one of the first licensed maritime pilots in Monroe County. He
probably selected Key Vaca because of the Indian violence in the Key Biscayne area. Capt. Pent 11th child, a son
named John, was born in November 1839 could have been the first white person born on Key Vaca. His first son,
Temple Pent Jr. could have been Key Vaca's first marriage when he married Eliza Bulward in 1840.
There are reports of shipbuilding on Key Vaca. The Pents were listed as mariners and Edmund Beaseley as a
carpenter. Two ships were constructed on Key Vaca -- the 13-ton schooner Laving and the 9-ton schooner Jane Ann in
1840 and 1841 respectively.
During the wrecking period, I found three other ships specifically listed with home ports of Key Vaca. These are the
schooner Amelia, Captain Joseph Bethel, 1835; the schooner Single Sailor, Captain R. Roberts, 1835, and the sloop
Vevilia, Captain Wood, 1840.
John Lee William's wrote in his (1837) The Territory of Florida, page 37: "The Vacas or Cow Keys are ten or twelve in
number, and extend about 15 miles in length. Some of them are four miles in length, while others are scarcely half a
mile long; some are covered with tall pines, some with hammock trees, and some almost entirely with grass. On the
north side of the group they are generally rocky, and bear many small palmetto trees. There are from 10 to 15 families
scattered over them. Knight's Key, the southwest key of this cluster, has a good house and cleared field, that appears
to great advantage from the water. Most of these keys possess good springs and wells of fresh water, and turtles are
abundant in the neighborhood."
HISTORICAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF THE UPPER KEYS
Jerry Wilkinson · Key Largo, FL
The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys meet at
Key Largo Library Community Room, second Monday of each
month. Most programs of a historical nature.
Page 1 of 4
Where possible this history will be presented in chronological order.
For an introduction, Marathon, like many of the Lower, Middle and
Upper Keys communities, bears a railroad name. Therefore, before
about 1908 the area existed under some other name. No doubt it had
a location name used by the early Native Americans. I have no
knowledge of this. Secondly, it appears to have simply been "Key
Vaca," the name given to it by Spanish cartographers, and used by
groups of fishermen from Mystic, Conn. This group soon centralized
their operation at Key West. Thirdly and around 1818, a settlement
known as "Port Monroe" was founded by what may have been the first
Keys developers (other than the Native Americans). There are records
of John Fiveash and Joshua Appleby placing newspaper articles
advertising a "large and spacious harbor" and a location for
"provisions of all kinds." This was short lived as the commander of the
new anti-piracy squadron at Key West and arrested Appleby. The
charges did not stick, but more of less Port Monroe as a community
was doomed. The fourth name associated was "Conchtown" and
somewhat justified by the 1850 census which shows almost all the
adults as Bahamians. Included were wreckers, primarily those lead by
William Bethel, and Bahamian fisherman occupied the eastern end of
Key Vaca. The Richard Russell and Temple Pent family were two of
them. More details follow.
Information about the Florida Keys and Key West