When you get to Key West you’ll see “Conch Republic” flags and signs all over the place. This isn’t just because there are lots of conch snails in the waters around the island, but because there was a time in 1982 when Key West seceded from the USA and became its own country for a hot minute. It’s both a fascinating story and one that really shows off much of what makes Key West such a unique place to visit, standing out from the rest of Florida.
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What is the “Conch” in Conch Republic?
The conch shell, which is the large, spiral shell of the queen conch mollusk, has been a symbol of Key West for centuries. In the early days of settlement, conch shells were used by the indigenous Calusa people as tools and musical instruments. Later, when Bahamian immigrants arrived in Key West in the 19th century, they brought with them their cultural affinity for conch. Conch became a staple food source and a significant part of the local economy, with conch fishing and processing becoming major industries. The abundance and importance of conch in Key West’s history led to the city being affectionately referred to as the Conch Republic.
Today, conch shells can be seen all around town as décor and souvenirs. You’ll see conch chowder and conch fritters on menus, and if you’re looking for wildlife in the Florida Keys, you’ll find conch slinking along the sea floor.
Why the Conch Republic Became Official
Beyond its association with the conch industry, the nickname “Conch Republic” also represents Key West’s independent and rebellious spirit. In 1982, the city seceded (symbolically) from the United States in response to a dispute with the federal government over a roadblock on the only highway connecting the Florida Keys. This literally alienated the people of the Keys from the rest of the country. In an act of protest and to bring attention to their grievances, Key West declared itself the Conch Republic, raising a flag and demanding “independence.”
Although the secession was short-lived and meant as a loud statement about the people of the Florida Keys and Key West being alienated from the rest of the USA, it highlighted the unique character of Key West and its residents’ determination to maintain their own identity and preserve their island way of life. Today, the Conch Republic name serves as a symbol of Key West’s individuality, charm, and enduring spirit of independence. Key West may not have the official Conch Republic navy anymore, but countless boats around the island fly the flag with pride.
Does the Conch Republic Still Exist?
Absolutely, yes! If there’s one thing about Key West that is constant, it’s that it will always do things its own way and will put the good of the many before the good of the one (PS: I love Star Trek). When you arrive in Key West, you’ll see a healthy mix of residents on bikes, tourists on food, and chickens wandering the streets. The people who live in Key West are as diverse as the fish out on the reef.
The immigrant population in the Conch Republic is solid, and is integral to the city’s culture. The LGBTQ citizens and visitors to Key West really highlight the openness and welcoming nature of the town. The food is unique and not all fried like the rest of Florida. Key West does everything its own way and they make sure it stays this way.
Politics in the Conch Republic
While I would love to say that Key West is 100% a welcoming, laid back utopia, just like anywhere there are issues. From loud individuals still spouting MAGA talking points in the streets to underlying community tensions relating to developers and the changing landscape of Key West, the Conch Republic still has political issues to overcome. We always feel comfortable here though.
For visitors, these tensions and current issues rarely show their face or have an impact on the visit, but they’re there. How can YOU help the Conch Republic continue to be unique and stand out as a forward-thinking, do-it-your-own-way beacon for the future? When you visit Key West and the Florida Keys, always do so remembering that you’re a guest and you do not know everyone else’s story. Kindness, shopping locally, chatting with the people you meet, and seeking out unique experiences is a great way to experience what makes the Conch Republic so special and will help to sustain it as Key West tourism grows and grows.
If you have experiences you’d like to share about visiting the Conch Republic, or maybe if you were living in Key West in 1982 when the secession happened, we would love to hear your story and share it! Please leave a comment or send us a note so that we can keep the story, the vibe, and the unique personality and history of Key West alive!