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Fort Jefferson -- The History Of An Island
by Christine OKelly

In 1513, Ponce DeLeon discovered an island chain 70 miles off the Key West coast. He named them the Dry Tortugas because he found no fresh water there and because of the abundance of sea turtles or "tortugas", which provided him and his crew with plenty of food.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the islands were used a base by pirates bent on capturing and looting merchant ships. By the mid-1800s, that all began to change as the United States acquired Florida and the small island chain. The government decided to transform the island into a military base to combat the pirates.

The Beginnings Of Fort Jefferson

In 1821, when Florida was annexed by the United States, there was a vocal movement intent on stopping the pirate activity in and around the Dry Tortugas. The island chain itself was tapped by the government for a military installation to provide protection against piracy and as an advance post for Gulf Coast defense. Construction took 17 years to get off the ground, held up by planning, committee, and studies.

Finally, construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 and building continued for 30 years. However, the fort was never completed. Even so, it is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere at over 16 million bricks. It was designed as a massive gun platform that was heavily fortified and believed to be nearly impervious to assault with weapons so large they could destroy any ship that neared it.

The interior of the fort contained living quarters for soldiers and their families. However, the fort would later become obsolete as weaponry advanced and progressed. Even though the fort was no longer needed to ward off pirates in and around the Gulf of Mexico, the life of the fort was far from over as the Civil War breathed new life into it.

Use During The Civil War

Fort Jefferson served as a prison during the Civil War. It was primarily a prison for military deserters. At its peak during the war, the population at the fort was about 1,800 people. During the time immediately after the war ended, the prisoner and soldier populations shrunk to around 1,000 people. During its use as a federal prison, the fort was home to four men convicted of conspiracy in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1888, the U.S. Army shut down the fort and turned it over to Marine Hospital Services. The Army had decided that the cost of upkeep and its declining use did not warrant its remaining open as a military institution. During this time in history, it served as a quarantine station.

Becoming A National Monument

In 1908, the islands were designated as a bird reserve. Twenty-seven years later, President Franklin Roosevelt named Fort Jefferson a National Monument while visiting the islands by boat. Finally, the Dry Tortugas gained national park status in 1992. It is one of the smallest and most remote national parks in the nation.

About the Author

Christine O'Kelly writes for the experts at Best On Key West. They provide information on Fort Jefferson.

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