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Duck Key in the Florida Keys

An Information Guide to Duck Key in the Florida Keys



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Historic References to Duck Key

Duck Key is located about half way down the chain of islands known as the Florida Keys. Early references to the island occur on mariner's charts and journals and deed recordings of land transactions.
The information below provides a number of historic references to Duck Key. Some of the land transfer information may appear to be minutia, but besides being of interest to the history buff the data can also be of help to people interested in taking title to land on Duck Key. Local title researchers and insurers are familiar with the convoluted history of changes in land ownership on Duck Key and Marathon, but many title researchers on mainland Florida are not. Local researchers are familiar with the vagaries of title transfers, the confusion of past mistakes and inaccurate deeds, land grant petitions to the Spanish Crown and United States, and subsequent government decrees and settlements.

The ownership of the island changed hands a number of times, and the ownership of Duck Key becomes confused as it was mistakenly sold twice by the same person. Matters are further complicated by Spain giving over ownership of Florida to the United States in 1821. The debate over legal ownership goes on for quite some time but is resolved in 1899.

1814 - For a period of time land ownership of Duck Key and Knight Key, Boot Key, Key Vacas, and Viper Key which were part of a Spanish land grant of 1814 to Francisco Ferreira was not recognized by the United States. While Florida was controlled by Spain, Francisco Ferreira of St. Augustine petitioned ". . .his Excellency the Governor. . . . "to grant him ". . . in absolute property a Key situated among those called the Florida Keys, and is also know as Key Baca and also four small islands which are situated in the vicinity. . ." Ferreira's petition was approved. Duck Key belonged to Ferriera.

1821 - Florida becomes an American possession in 1821 and the Board of Florida Land Commissioners accepts Ferreira's claim .

1823 - Ferriera sells Duck Key to Sol Snyder on June 11, 1823. 

1824 - Ferreira sells Key Vaca to Isaac Cox for $3,000 on September 4, 1824.

1827 - Isaac Cox sells Key Vaca (all five islands) to Charles Howe of Indian Key fame for $1,500.

NOTE: Ferreira has now sold Duck Key twice, once to Sol Snyder and again to Isaac Cox

1830 - Ferreira's claim ( to Key Baca and also four small islands which are situated in the vicinity) is approved by an Act of Congress, May 26, 1830.

Others in the U. S. and Florida governments do not accept the claim and view the land as part of the public domain. Ownership of the five islands of which Duck Key was part is transferred under various programs.

1885 - Howe's son-in-law, Horatio Crain testifies to the land commission that "my father-in-law, Charles Howe, who had the salt works there and who subsequently sold to Willaim C. Dennis whose heirs hold the title."

1890 - In 1890 claimants made petition to the court to resolve ownership of Duck Key. This results in the sale of the island and issuance of a deed.

1899 - In 1899 the claim is patented and signed by President McKinley.

Ownership of Duck Key has changed many times since then.


Early Historical References to the Name Duck Key

Before 1722 - Historians credit the island with the name Duck Key but exactly when it was so named is unknown. In early Spanish charts, the island was unnamed and was part of the "Key Vaccas", or Cow Keys. In Spanish treasure recovery charts of 1733 is was unnamed.

1722 - William Gerard de Brahm's chart gives the island the name Reynold's Island. In De Brahm's guide to mariners which is published in The Atlantic Pilot in 1722, many earlier names appearing on Spanish charts are ignored. William Gerard de Brahm, a Swiss, gave many of the Keys his own names. He was the first Surveyor General for British East Florida.  De Brahm renames Biscayne Bay as Sandwich Bay after the Earl of Sandwich and Florida Bay as Grant's Lake after East Florida's first royal governor, James Grant.

De Brahm description of the waters off of Duck Key is a picture of beauty.

"Approaching Hawk channel, the water gradually changes from the stream's deep blue to a beautiful seagreen and at last into milk-white. The surroundings under the blue-coloured water are fine white marl under the sea-green, on the said marl, with white sponge coral, sea feathers, and tortoise-grass."

Twentieth century map scholars have praised DeBrahm's ability as a cartographer and surveyor. Scholar William P. Cumming has written "with De Brahm we turn from the amateur to the professional, from the general outlines of the region to topographical accuracy." 

Historians know little about the early instruments De Brahm's utilized to to conduct his surveys. Later in his career De Brahm used a sophisticated device called the Universal Equatorial Instrument made by Londoner Jesse Ramsden, a leading maker of astronomical instruments. This same piece of equipment it is interesting to note was later acquired by Thomas Jefferson. Believed to have been one of Jefferson's most treasured scientific instruments, it was used by Jefferson at Monticello after retirement from public service.


1775 - George Gauld chart shows name as Duck Kay. In Gauld's "Of the Watering Places on the Florida Keys." he describes the west end of "Duck Key" as a fresh water source. Gauld survey of the Keys ended as a result of the Revolutionary War of 1776.

1799 - Journal of Andrew Ellicott gives name as Duck Kay

1814 - Florida and Keys are under Spanish domain and Francisco Ferriera assumes title to Duck Key by land grant from the Spanish Crown. The land grant includes Knight Key, Boot Key, Key Vacas, Viper Key, and Duck Key .

Ferreira had petitioned the Spanish Govenor in 1814 " . . . to grant him ". . . in absolute property a Key situated among those called the Florida Keys, and is also know as Key Baca and also four small islands which are situated in the vicinity. . . . " The land was granted to Ferriera because of the services he rendered and ". . . in consideration of the great losses which he has suffered by the Revolution. . . . "


1820 - A set of sailing directions, referred to as a derrotero in Spain, is published in Madrid and uses the Spanish name Cayo de Holandes
( Spanish for Dutch Key)

1821 - Spain gives Florida to United States

1823 - Two years after the Treaty of San Ildefonso in which Spain give ownership of Florida to the United States, a deed shows one island, Duck Key as being sold by Ferreira to Solomon Snyder.

1824 - Another land transaction shows Ferreira selling the remainder of his land holdings, Key Vacas, Boot Key, Viper key, and Knight Key, to Newton Cox, a lawyer from St. Augustine.

1827 - Charles Howe buys a parcel of land from Isaac Newton Cox. Ferreira had earlier sold Duck Key to Snyder but the deed mistakenly includes Duck Key. The legal papers state that Howe is buying,

"All those five certain island or Keys situate, lying and being on the coast of East Florida and in the County of Monroe, in the Territory of Florida . . . said Keys have been known and designated by the names of Key Boca or Key Vacas, Boot Key, Viper key, Duck Key, and Knight Key."

1828 - In Piloting Directions for the Gulf of Florida, The Bahama Banks, and Islands, J.W. Norie writes:

"Duck Key - Some two miles long, low, rocky, and covered with mangroves; some small patches of good land with little timber. This land formerly salt works but they were transferred latterly to Key West, owned by Mr. Howe, who is also possessor of this Key" -
See Salt Pond )

1837 - John Lee Williams in his 1837 Territory of Florida references, "Duck Key is a narrow rocky islet, containing some fine salt ponds. Mr. Howe, from Charleston, made a considerable establishment on the island for the purpose of making salt, but having died since, the project has been abandoned. It is about two miles long." ( See Salt Pond for more information on Charles Howe)

1842 - Blunt's American Coastal Pilot make reference to " Dutch Key or Cayo Holandes "


1848 - Key West court proceedings, indicate that sailors from the sloop Empire had stopped at Duck Key on the way back to Key West, and some of the crew had left their part of recovered cargo on Duck Key. This information from an article by John Viele entitled "Mystery Settlement on Key Largo".

1846 - Blunt chart shows name as Duck Kay

1858 - Charleston Daily Courier excerpt dated January 10, 1858

Courier reports of a voyage made to Knight's Key with Charles Howe, ". . . Knight's Key, containing about one hundred and twenty-five acres of arable land, and has a comfortable house and cistern. On this Key we have twelve hundred cocoanut trees and about fifty thousand Sisal hemp plants, most of which are fit to cut and manufacture into hemp...." They sailed on ". . . Passed Duck Key, where much money was expended on forming a salt pond. . . ." 

Today - Hawk's Cay Resort is located on Duck Key and the island is sometimes referred to as Hawk's Cay.



Reservations at Hawk's Cay Resort through our sister site Florida Keys Best.




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