By Jerry Wilkinson
(Click on images to enlarge, then Back.)
If you are not familiar with the general locations, click HERE
for a basic area map.
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.
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. In Spanish "Vaca Marina" is the manatee or sea cow. This is my preference. 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
Shortly after Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821, Port Monroe
the attention of Commodore David Porter and his U.S. anti-pirate
Porter sent Lt. Rogers and six marines to maintain the law. A 1825
law mandated that all wrecked property be taken to American
(Key West and St. Augustine). This, in addition to the law enforcement
actions taken by Commodore Porter, just about doomed Port Monroe.
Appleby formed a partnership with a Solomon Snyder and they hired Silas
Fletcher in 1824 to construct and operate a store for mariners on
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."
Dr. Perrine wrote in 1840 that there were about 200 settlers on Key Vaca. This would make Key Vaca more populated than Indian Key. Of course, it is also many times larger in size. It appears that Perrine was relying on those settlers to help propagate his agricultural experiments.
Public records are a little confusing, but it appears that the General Land Office on September 12, 1845 declared the Marathon area (and much of the other Keys) as a Military Reservation. It was not released until 1878.
During this later time was when the settlement of 'Conch Town' was reported by passersby. It appears to have been on the northeast end of Key Vaca.
Of interest are excerpts from the Charleston Daily Courier dated January 10, 1858 of a voyage made to Knight's Key with Charles Howe: "...Commenced with Knight's Key, containing about one hundred and twenty-five acres of arable [plowable] 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...."
The Dade County Census of 1860 reveals Temple Pent Sr. (Mariner), wife Mary and sons John and David living on Key Vaca. Their elder son, Temple Pent Jr., wife Elizabeth and three children were also on the island. There were a total of six families listed and five bore the name Pent. The sixth family was John and Amelia (Pent) Skelton, who had five children. The total 1860 population of Key Vaca was reported as 26 residents.
Legend has it that shortly after May, 1865, Judah Benjamin rendezvoused with a ship in the harbor of Knight's Key to complete his escape to Bimini. Benjamin was the "retiring" Secretary of State in the Confederate cabinet. Using multiple disguises, he traversed the mainland of Florida and stopped over at Knight's Key on the 16-foot yawl The Blonde.
A U.S. census from the Act of 1866 revealed a complete depopulation of Key Vaca for reasons yet to be determined. Population zero. Everyone had moved away! The Pents went to Bamboo Key, the Russell's to Matecumbe, Beaseley to Coconut Grove, et cetera. Bamboo Key is north of Fat Deer Key and was reported to have had no mosquitoes. My standard reference census of 1870 also listed no one on Key Vaca and Temple Pent Jr. and 15 members of the Pent family on Bamboo Key.
Key Vaca remained almost uninhabited for years. Published in 1890, A Handbook of Florida by Charles Norton noted the community of "Conch Town" on the bay side of the east end of Key Vaca.
In 1893, George Adderly and his wife Olivia moved from Upper Matecumbe Key to Key Vaca and built a home of "tabby concrete." Tabby is a mixture of sand, gravel and lime and often was used as a mortar to hold rocks together for making a concrete wall, pier, etc. The difference was, instead of purchasing lime, they made their lime by burning and grinding seashells to produce homemade lime.
The next significant event for Key Vaca was Flagler beginning his construction of the Overseas Railroad. Key West was the primary goal; Knight's Key the secondary. From docks on Knight's Key, Flagler operated his Peninsular and Occidental (P & O) Steamship Company to and from Havana while awaiting the completion of the railroad to Key West.
The standard story for the derivation of the name Marathon has many variations, but most have to do with the speeding up of the railroad construction work, or its long duration of completion. The popular exclamation was, "What is this, a marathon?," or "This is getting to be a real marathon!" The marathon was of course the unrelenting, day and night struggle to complete the railroad to Key West.
In the Marathon area there were actually three railroad stations listed in the January 7, 1908 train timetable: Vaca, Knight's Key and Knight's Key Dock. Nine months later, the October 1, 1908 timetable listed the station as "Marathon," instead of Knight's Key Station. Carlton Corliss, formerly of the F.E.C., wrote "Knights Key station was simply renamed Marathon." As with most of the Keys communities, the railroad station's name established the name the community retained. Three months later, the Marathon post office was established which further established the use of the name.
An October 9, 1908 newspaper clipping in the Flagler Museum (no source indicated) reads as follows: "The extension [water] well on Key Vaca which has been in the charge of Mr. Ed Sheran has finally been abandoned after reaching a depth of 680 feet. The machinery has all been removed to a new location on Knight's Key where a final effort will be made to locate water. A large two-story fish house is just being finished at Marathon, Key Vaca on the Extension Railway. It is being erected by Mr. R. McCreary of Tarpon Springs. The two-story, 25-room boarding house being built at Marathon by the F.E.C. Railway for its large force of employees will be completed shortly. It has a beautiful location overlooking the Florida Bay. Mr. T. C. Ese is foreman of the work." It is obvious that the name Marathon was well established and recognized by the media by the end of 1908.
There was a post office established for Knight's Key on April 13, 1907 in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad; also for all the F.E.C. employees working for the huge railroad facility. The settlement of Marathon established its post office on February 23, 1909 and Knight's Key post office closed on January 30, 1912. Marathon soon became a bustling railroad town connected by a series of boardwalks. For some reason the Marathon post office was closed and services moved to Pigeon Key on May 25, 1923. It was re-established at Marathon on March 9, 1927.
Marathon History Continued on Page 2