NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

Is it Purple Islands or our Island Home?

April 11, 2013 

William J. Krome circa 1904. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

Before there was Islamorada, there was Matecumbe, a community founded on the northern end of Upper Matecumbe Key. The early settlers constructed their homes out on the beach, facing the Atlantic, so that the breeze coming off the ocean could serve the dual purpose of cooling agent and rudimentary means of pest control.

One of the first to eventually settle here was Richard H. Russell and his wife, Mary Ann, who left the Bahamas in 1838, bound for Key West. After Key West, they moved to the Middle Keys, to Vaca Key. It was not the last Florida key the Russell family would call home. Sometime between 1850 and 1855, Upper Matecumbe became their permanent residence.

The Russells are one of Matecumbe’s founding families. The Pinders, too, are considered a founding family.

According to the 1870 census, Richard Pinder and his wife, Sarah, were residents of Indian Key where they farmed bananas. By the time the 1880 census rolled around, however, the Pinders had packed up, left Indian Key, and joined the Russells on nearby Upper Matecumbe. The Russells and Pinders helped to establish both a school and a church on the island. While the two buildings were simple one-room wooden structures, they helped to create a sense of community, the community of Matecumbe.

There is a third family, the Parkers, who are also considered a founding family. William Henry Parker and his wife, Amy, relocated from Eleuthera, Bahamas to Plantation Key, a couple of islands north of Matecumbe, before settling on Upper Matecumbe. They settled farther south along the beach than the Russell and Pinder families had.

The Russells and Pinders did the neighborly thing and moved the church and the school a little farther south, too, so that the structures remained a convenience for each family. The general location of those two buildings, both long since destroyed by hurricanes, is marked by a small graveyard on what is today the Cheeca Lodge property.

It would only be a few years after the turn of the century that the early community of Matecumbe would gradually begin to dissipate. It was not that the people went away. There are Russells, Pinders, and Parkers living in the area, still. Rather, the name itself, Matecumbe, fell into disuse as a direct result of the actions of one of Henry Flagler’s men, William J. Krome.

Krome had been hired by Flagler to survey the impending railroad’s right of way and was the head engineer responsible for mapping out the route ultimately taken by the Oversea Railway. Work introduced Krome to Upper Matecumbe and, in turn, Krome was introduced to John H. and James W. Russell, the two youngest sons of Richard Russell, from whom, in 1907, Krome purchased 15 acres of Upper Matecumbe land.

Krome built a house, surveyed the property, and divided his land into 22 lots. It was the thing he did next, however, that left the biggest impression. Krome registered his lots as the town site of Isla Morada. To commemorate the event, a faded newspaper clipping dated May 7, 1907, month and date handwritten in faded blue ink in the upper left hand corner of the document, reads: “On the north end of Upper Matecumbe Key a new town known as Isla Morada has sprung into existence… It is believed that Isla Morada will become an important tourist stopping place in winter as the location is beautiful and the fishing convenient and excellent.”

Post Office Islamorada was established in 1908, as was the Islamorada Depot providing telegraph service, railway express, and a waiting room. As the community grew, it adopted the name Islamorada or Isla Morada as it was originally intended. There is question, however, about the translation of the place name.

It is Spanish in nature. Isla means island. Morada, on the other hand, is a little trickier. When used as an adjective, morado means purple which explains why some have translated Islamorada to mean Purple Isles. While a colorful story, the islands were not named for the beautifully delicate rice-paper petals of the bougainvillea or the violet colored sea snails, Janthina janthina, professed to have once carpeted the islands’ shores.

When used as a feminine noun morada translates to abode or home as is the way Krome intended. The matter is explained in a letter written May 10, 1965, by Mrs. William J. Krome, Isabelle, to her friend, Mal Flanders. Isabelle wrote, “I was not a member of the family at that time and had no part in the selecting of the name, but Mr. Krome told me that it was derived from the Spanish isla and morada, meaning home.”

Today Islamorada is recognized as a village of islands including Plantation, Windley, Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe keys, as well as Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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