Key Biscayne, Florida's southernmost barrier island, was occupied by the Tequesta Indians of the Calusa Nation who fished and hunted with success. Juan Ponce de Leon found fresh water, called the island Santa Marta and claimed it for the King of Spain in 1513. The King of Spain granted the island to Pedro Fornelis, a native of Minorca.
Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ann Davis of St. Augustine purchased the island from the Fornelis family for $100. The Davis family sold three acres to the U.S. Government for a military reservation for $225.
The lighthouse was first lit on December 17, 1825 by John Dubose, the first keeper. The lighthouse signal was an important navigational tool that aided and protected ships along the Florida coast. On July 23, 1836, Indians forced into South Florida by the Seminole Wars attacked and burned the Lighthouse and caretaker’s home. Fortunately John Dubose and his family had fled to Key West. Only two men were present. John Thompson, who was at the top of the lighthouse, survived the attack tbut his assistant Aaron Carter was killed. The U.S. military built Fort Dallas next to the burnt out lighthouse in 1838. The fort included a hospital for the Army, Navy and Marines. The lighthouse was rebuilt to its current height of 95 feet and relit on April 30, 1847.
The Davis family laid out the first town on Key Biscayne in 1839. A few lots were sold, but development was slow. Pirates used the fresh water and vegetative cover on the Key to raid ships in the shipping lanes. A substantial pineapple plantation and groves of coconut palms were planted. After eight lighthouse keepers, the lighthouse was replaced by the Fowey Rocks Light southeast of Key Biscayne in 1878.
The Cape Florida lighthouse was leased to Ralph Munroe and the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. Disputes about legal ownership of the Key were long-lived and made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. James Deering, who had purchased the land from the Davis family, prevailed. Waters Davis repurchased the lighthouse and property from the U.S. Government in 1903 for $400.
William John Matheson, a successful industrialist, purchased land in 1902 in Coconut Grove and built a home. In 1908 he started accumulating land on the Key from the northern line of the Davis property to Bear Cut. Leaving the northern half undisturbed, he developed a coconut plantation and experimental fruit groves in the southern section. W.J. brought down his son, Hugh, to manage the plantation activities. Tropical plant introductions and experimentations were done with the assistance of David Fairchild. Importation of the Maylay (now Malay) Dwarf coconut from the Federated Maylay States was was financed by W.J. Matheson. This disease-resistant palm has proven to be a significant introduction. The Mathesons created a community on the plantation. Schools, a commissary and a zoo were maintained on island and daily transportation to the mainland was available. W.J. built a home for entertaining called “Mashta House” on the western tip of Mashta island. Social notables came from everywhere to the fantastic social events on their yachts.
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