The Conch Republic
When traveling, you inevitably come across historical accounts of places you have probably visited many times, yet haven’t given their actual histories a second thought. The Conch Republic is a great example of this. I have been coming to the keys since I was a child. Over the years I have heard some Keys natives refer to themselves as “conchs” and have seen the Conch Republic flag, sporting a pink conch shell in the middle of a blazing sun, flying proudly on many boats. I have even eaten at the restaurant that bears the name Conch Republic. But I had never really given any thought to what the Conch Republic represented or why people embrace it, other than possibly being a fan of Keys’ laid-back lifestyle.
On this trip I learned that the Conch Republic was established in 1982. Apparently, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a blockade on US 1 at Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon, in Florida City, which is just north of the Florida Keys and on the only road into and out of the chain of islands.
Even though they were not crossing a national border, agents required everyone leaving the Keys to verify their U.S. citizenship and allow their vehicles to be searched, a practice reserved for national borders only. The roadblock was ostensibly an effort to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. through the Keys, the number of which had increased significantly following the Mariel Boatlift (approx. 125,000 Cubans/Haitians). The agents also searched for illegal drugs, again a practice reserved only for those crossing of a national border.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Scheina, Robert L.. U. S. Coast Guard Operations During the 1980 Cuban Exodus. U.S. Department of Homeland Security., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2750556
Again, since US 1 is the only road into and out of the Keys, these roadblocks backed traffic up for miles. While there was no doubt that drugs were coming in through the Keys and immigration was becoming a political and economic challenge it was really the impact on tourism that provoked a prompt and enthusiastic response from the Keys natives. The roadblock was causing tourists to avoid the Keys altogether and the islanders were displeased, to say the least.
Key West’s mayor, Dennis Wardlow took immediate action, confronting the Sherriff of Monroe County, Florida Governor Bob Graham and even the U.S. Border Patrol where he was told that road block was “none of his business.” When his attempt to seek an injunction against the roadblock failed, Mayor Wardlow, accompanied by pilot and attorney David Paul Horan and some fellow conchs assembled the press on the Federal Courthouse Steps in Miami and announced: “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union.” The first act of rebellion happened as they returned to Key West, and buzzed the roadblock in their plane. Wardlow, indicating that he meant business, said that he would only negotiate with President Ronald Reagan or V.P. George Bush.
Mayor Dennis Wardlow with the Flag of Secession 1982
The next day in Mallory Square, Mayor Wardlow read the proclamation of secession, proclaiming that the Conch Republic was a separate and independent nation and began the civil rebellion by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in the U.S. Navy uniform. The conchs lowered the Stars and Stripes and raised the royal blue Conch Republic flag. Once Prime Minister Wardlow declared war, citizens of the new Republic lobbed Cuban bread and conch fritters at federal agents and Navy and Coast Guard officials who were keeping an eye on things.
One minute later, Wardlow surrendered to the nearby Admiral of the Navy Base at Key West, demanding “One billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief to rebuild our nation after the long Federal siege!” No Federal aid was forthcoming but the micro-nation was successful twice over when the roadblock was removed and the attendant publicity succeeded in re-establishing the flow of tourists to the Keys.
Secretary General of the Conch Republic, Peter Anderson created an official passport which has reportedly been accepted by 13 Caribbean Nations as well as in Germany, Sweden, Havana, Mexico, France, Spain, Ireland and Russia. Over 10,000 of these passports have been issued, with only one possible blemish, which has yet to be confirmed by the FBI. The Miami Herald reported that the FBI was investigating the possibility that Mohammad Atta (one of the 9/11 hijackers) used a Conch Republic Passport to enter the country after gaining the passport in 2000. Again, the names may be similar but the identities have yet to be established as identical.
The United States and the Conch Republic have enjoyed a mostly peaceful coexistence with only a few minor skirmishes over the ensuing years. The flag continues to fly high over the Keys, drawing people from all over the world to celebrate its unique culture of grit, persistence in the face of adversity and a “party-till-you-drop” attitude toward life.
We have enjoyed being here and sharing the Conch Republic’s hospitality and hope to carry it forward with us as we move around the country. Now I just gotta get a flag to bring with us and maybe a passport if I can find one!
The Symbolism of the Conch Republic Flag:
Designer: Claude D. Valdez
Blue Field: The blue of the Keys’ water and skies
Pink Conch – symbolizes the natives of the Keys
Blazing Corona – symbolizes the always present sunshine in the Keys.
1892, the year in which the City of Key West and Monroe County (all of the Keys) were incorporated.
2 Constellations – 5 stars are the Northern Cross (a navigational guide) and the 4 stars are the Southern Cross ( can be seen at certain times of the year from Key West) – these crosses as symbols of many faiths, acknowledge the gratitude to “our maker for the many blessing bestowed upon these islands.
Fabulous, educational, and totally enteraining. Thanks for that conch tale.
I was working for Air Florida at the time of the event, and our Key West based employees and equipment were part of the demonstration. Although this was a serious matter for our local government, many of the participants involved carried on in good humor. I have very fond memories of this time in Florida history
Thanks for sharing that with me, Jolaine!