Although Key West, Florida may be the southernmost point in the continental United States, the story of America’s rich cultural heritage expands beyond the zero mile marker of US-1. Located almost 70 miles off Key West is a cluster of seven coral reef islands that explorer Ponce de Leon discovered in 1513. Upon seeing the abundant population of sea turtles, he named the islands Las Tortugas (The Turtles), but when explorers and merchants learned that the islands lacked fresh drinking water, they soon changed the name to Dry Tortugas. Despite their name, the cluster of islands at Dry Tortugas National Park--which includes Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle Keys--is the site of events that have played an important role in American cultural and maritime history.
Following Ponce De Leon’s discovery of the Dry Tortugas, the islands immediately became a strategic location for Spanish explorers traveling along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Since these islands were between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish considered the Dry Tortugas an important navigational marker that signaled when their vessels should begin turning into the Gulf Coast. As other empires joined the race to colonize the Americas, the passageway at the Dry Tortugas became heavily trafficked by treasure fleets carrying goods to and from the New World. Unfortunately, the Dry Tortugas were also a “ship trap,” whose shallow and flat terrain claimed several European vessels that are shipwrecked there and lie beneath the sea. The first documented shipwreck occurred in 1622. Known by the Spanish as Nuestra Senora de Rosario, this 600-ton vessel fell victim to a hurricane en route from Cuba to Spain. Afer acquiring Florida in 1819, the United States built two lighthouses--one on Garden Key in 1825, and the second on Loggerhead Key in 1858, to help vessels navigate into the Gulf Coast. Even so, the shallow waters around the Dry Tortugas continued claiming vessels, including the Norwegian Avanti located at the Windjammer Wreck site on Loggerhead Reef, south of Loggerhead Key. Shipwrecked in 1907 and discovered in 1971, the Norwegian Avanti is a 1,862-ton iron ship the British built in 1875. The vessel lies in approximately 18-21 feet of water. Visitors are welcome to explore the Avanti and enjoy the unique marine life that inhabits the Windjammer Wreck.
Although many today are attracted to the islands’ sunken treasures, the most prominent historic feature of Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson at Garden Key. Established to control navigation into the Gulf of Mexico and protect the Mississippi River trade, Fort Jefferson is one of the largest masonry forts built along the coast of the United States during the 19th century. Fort Jefferson is significant for its defense of the U.S Gulf Coast and also for its role throughout the Civil War. Fort Jefferson served in the Union’s campaign to obstruct the Confederacy’s shipping efforts in the South. Throughout the Civil War and subsequent years, Fort Jefferson also served as a military prison that held Union deserters, as well as four men tied to the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Construction of this historic fortification began in 1846, but funding issues, periodic hurricanes, sickness, and lack of materials turned Fort Jefferson into a never completed 30-year endeavor. Many of the structures that African slaves and military prisoners constructed from the time of Fort Jefferson’s founding until its abandonment by the US Army in 1874 are still visible today. Among these are the remains of the Officers’ Quarters and Soldiers’ Barracks completed in 1870, two magazines built sometime between 1863 and 1872, the 1825 Garden Key Lighthouse, the restored hotshot furnace, and the cell of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was imprisoned at Fort Jefferson because of his role in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Mudd mended John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, after he murdered the president. Although never finished, Fort Jefferson continues to stand as a reminder of the enormous efforts of the United States to protect its coastal regions.
On arrival at Dry Tortugas National Park, tourists are encouraged to see the orientation program at the Fort Jefferson visitor center before beginning their tour of the military post and surrounding islands. Visitors can enjoy the historic sites and the natural scenery of these seven islands by kayaking, camping, snorkeling, bird watching, fishing, and taking ranger-led or self-guided tours.
Not all the islands are open to the public, and restrictions apply for all outdoor activities. There are several closed areas, including the Shark and Coral Special Protection Zones, and the Bush, Hospital, and Long Keys. Camping is restricted beyond Garden Key, and visitors can only swim and snorkel in designated areas of Loggerhead Key. Visitors wishing to kayak into Garden Key should have a permit, and boaters need to check schedules and regulations for anchoring and docking at Garden Key. Fishing restrictions also apply within Dry Tortugas National Park, and commercial fishing, spear fishing, and taking conch or lobster are illegal.
Dry Tortugas National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, FL. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file for Fort Jefferson: text and photos. The park opens year-round during daylight hours, except for Bush Key, which is closed from February to September. The visitor center opens daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm. Dry Tortugas can only be reached by ferry or seaplane out of Key West, or by private boat. For more information including transportation prices, schedules, and reservations, visit the National Park Service Dry Tortugas National Parkwebsite or call 305-242-7700.
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park is also featured in the National Park Service Along the Georgia-Flor the Floridaida Coast Travel Itinerary. The Windjammer Site (Avanti) is included in’s Shipwrecks: 300 Years of Maritime History Travel Itinerary.