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The History of the Conch Republic and the Key West Flag

Many towns have their own flags, just like countries, states, and counties do. A flag is a symbol of your individuality and your sovereignty, of what makes you different. 

However, the Key West flag story is more than just a yarn about a giant snail on a flag. The story of the Conch Republic is one for the history books. For a few hours in 1982, Key West was a sovereign nation. Here’s the fascinating story.

Setting the Scene — Wild South Florida in the 1980s

The early 1980s were a very different time in South Florida’s history. If you’ve ever watched Miami Vice, Cocaine Cowboys, or Scarface, you might have an idea. It was an era of smuggling, drug lords on private islands, and the government’s “War on Drugs.”

If you went fishing back then, it wasn’t unheard of to come home with a “square grouper” or two—what the locals call floating bails of pot or coke. Florida is a natural stopover along the way to and from South America. Some remote places in Florida saw a lot of action. 

At one point in 1983, the tiny town of Everglades City was the site of one of the biggest drug busts in US history. The small fishing village, situated far from big cities and on the edge of the Everglades wilderness and the Gulf of Mexico, saw 200 agents sweep into town. Turns out, the fishermen knew the backwaters of the Ten Thousand Islands pretty well, and they were moving an estimated 75 tons of Columbian marijuana into the country—every week! Most of the town was in on the scheme, and a sizeable portion of its population went to prison for it.

But that’s just one story of the shenanigans that were going on in South Florida. Plenty of “stuff” was going on in the Keys, too, and the Feds were cracking down. A year before the big bust in Everglades City, the Feds tried to put a check on what was going on in the Keys. It was easy to do since there is only one road in and out. Roadblocks and checkpoints were established on US 1 at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City. Every vehicle coming into the county was checked for drugs and illegal immigrants. 

As you might imagine, local residents were not impressed by the Federal overreach. Traffic was snarled, and people stopped coming to visit the island for fun. Tourism was a big deal back then, and illegal searches and seizures weren’t good for the tourism industry.

The City of Key West protested and asked for the roadblocks to be lifted through all the usual channels, but to no avail. They tried to get a court injunction, but that failed, too. 

As far as the city council of Key West, Florida, was concerned, the US was treating the island like a foreign country. So, what’s their next move? Mayor Dennis Wardlow declared Key West’s independence on April 23, 1982. 

Long Live the Conch Republic!

Now that Key West was an independent nation, it was time to address the matters at hand. Mayor Wardlow (now Prime Minister) got to work quickly. He:

  1. Declared war on the United States of America by smashing some stale Cuban bread over a U.S. Naval officer’s head
  2. Surrendered one minute later to that same Naval officer
  3. Applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid from the US government

It didn’t last long, but it was a hell of a ride. The move made the national news (obviously!), and the roadblocks were lifted shortly after.


Why the 'Conch Republic'?

So, what’s up with the name? The Queen Conch is a species of enormous sea snail that lives in Keys waters. 

For as long as anyone can remember, people born in Key West have been called “Conchs.” There’s even a tradition at some Keys hospitals that the parents receive a souvenir conch shell when a baby is born. 

Conchs appear everywhere in the Keys. Their beautiful pink shells decorate signs and buildings. The critters are fairly tasty when battered and fried, put in chowder, or chopped into a ceviche-style salad.

So, calling the new country the Conch Republic was a natural step.

The Conch Republic and the Key West Flag Today

Today, the Key West Conch Republic flag has become synonymous with Key West. 

There is still a consulate in town, and, believe it or not, you can get a souvenir Conch Republic passport. There’s still some disagreement about the exact borders of the short-lived nation-state.

If you ask someone from Key West, it was just the city included. However, most people in the rest of the Florida Keys want in on the fun. Since they’re also called Conchs and were affected by the roadblock, they’re usually included as citizens. In 2008, the northern Florida Keys and Key Largo formed the Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic.

In Key West, Independence Day is celebrated every year on April 23rd, with a week-long festival on the island. The motto these days is to seek a “sovereign state of mind…with humor, warmth, and respect.”

Today, you’ll see the Conch Republic flag of Key West used all over town. There’s also a Key West Pride Flag featuring the original Rainbow Flag with the Conch Republic’s banner in the upper corner.

Avoid the Checkpoints, Get Out On the Boat!

Keys folk still take the Conch Republic story pretty seriously, even if the whole affair was an elaborate but well-played PR stunt. But in the end, it worked, and the history and the flag now add more color and character to this special island.

The number one way to see this island, though, is to avoid all that hassle on US 1 and head out on a boat! On the Casual Monday, Captain Zak will show you the backwaters. It’s a little more laid back these days, of course. So, plan on a relaxing day of snorkeling, sandbar hopping, or light tackle fishing. Maybe you’ll even pull up one of those square groupers from years ago.

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