The Story of the Conch Republic

Where on earth is the Conch Republic?

Drive past Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon on US 1 in Florida City on your way to the Keys, and you just entered another country--well, sort of. That country is the Independent Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic.

The Flag of the Conch Republic
Citizens Proudly Display the Flag

Don't worry. You won't have to show your passport, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, at one time there was a roadbloack at this very spot, and people had to show proper documentation or they weren't allowed to pass.

The Now-Infamous Roadblock
For some strange reason, the U.S. federal government had deemed it altogether fitting and proper to establish a border-type roadblock 100 miles within U.S. territory to check for illegal immigrants, drug smuggling, and heaven knows what else. From what I understand, almost every car was stopped and searched, resulting in a 17-mile-long traffic jam. Getting to and from the Keys became one giant hassle, and tourism to the area took a nosedive.

In a sort of a Berlin Airlift, Eastern Airlines began a brisk business ferrying passengers who wanted to avoid the troubles on the ground back and forth between Miami and Key West.

The Reaction of Keys Residents
The Keys residents--who proudly refer to themselves as conchs--resented the fact they had to show evidence of citizenship just to travel within their own country--especially, I'm assuming, those that were here illegally. That, plus the lost tourism revenue from what they considered to be an idiotic abuse of power by the federal government was way more than the freedom-loving conchs were willing to put up with.

Being the good citizens they were, they looked first to the courts for relief, filing an injunction with the Federal Court in Miami, asking the government to take down the roadblock. Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow headed a three-man delegation to Miami where their case was presented before the court. After thoughtful deliberations which painstakingly considered all the issue's legal complexities, the court told them to buzz off.

The Last Straw
Faced with a federal government totally unresponsive to their plight, the idea of seceding from the Union, which hand been tossed around in the days prior, came to the fore. Back in Key West, Mayor Windlow presented the Conch Republic Proclamation of Secession.

This one-page document referred to historic Bahamians known as "Conchs" who'd rather eat conchs than live under the King's tryanny. Then the document stated plain as day "That's our flag. It has a conch on it. We secede from the United States." Further down in the document came wording to the effect that the secession was with some humor, but also with some anger.

This Means War
Wardlow, the new nation's first Prime Minister, then declared war on the United States. The total war effort consisted of pummeling a few federal agents with loaves of stale Cuban bread. As far as I know, no one was ever in any serious danger, since I've found no accounts reporting that anyone actually ate the stale--and don't you know, moldy--bread.

The Great Hope of the Post-War Era
After the Battle of the Bread, the Conch Republic immediately surrendered to the United States, and demanded post-war foreign aid. As of this writing in 2010--28 years later--U.S. aid has yet to arrive. My understanding is that to this day, the Conchs maintain a deep and abiding hope that someday, somehow, the U.S. federal government will actually do something helpful. Americans everywhere share in that hope.

Establishing Boundaries
The borders of the Republic were actually established by the United States. Since the Federal government chose to set up a border-type checkpoint by Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon, it just made sense that everything south of that border belonged to a foreign nation, namely the Conch Republic.

Last Chance Saloon
The Last Chance

So, the Republic's borders ran from Skeeter's all the way down to Key West.

A Most Clever Political Strategy
Humor became a focal point for the young Republic--the very center, it seems, of its clever political strategy. It is reported that on a state visit to Nassau, a Conch Republic Statesman announced to an official of the Bahamian Foreign Ministry, "Madam, the only anti-gravity device yet invented on this planet is levity. The world is in sore need of levity, so it is our function as the Conch Republic to be the Joker in the may not always wish to play with us, Madam, but we must be there, or you're not playing with a full deck."

The Coming of Civil Unrest
Some folks have the idea that the Conch Republic applies just to Key West, but in fact the other Keys have always made up the Republic's Northern Territories. In the last couple of years or so, however, some sort of brouhaha up in Key Largo has led to a supposed change in boundary lines.

It seems some of the Northern Territories back in 2008 got thoroughly ticked off with Key West and declared their independence from that capital city, establishing in the process the Independent Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic, complete with its own flag.

Its borders are said to run from Skeeter's up in Florida City down to Mile Marker 71. As far as I know, there is no DMZ between the two countries. To show they mean business, rumor had it they were going to sever ties with Key West by destroying a replica of the seven-mile bridge.

I'm not sure what the squabble was all about, but it might have had something to do with Key Largo wanting to have their own Conch Republic festival without having to pay some sort of fee to people in Key West. This article from the Key West Citizen may shed light on the topic

In any case, it seems a shame to split up this off-beat little Republic. Here's hoping they can inject a generous amount of humor into the mix and resolve the issue to everyone's satisfation.

As far as us American tourists are concerned, civil unrest or not, I hear we're welcome in either country. No visa or passport needed. Tourists other than Americans are certainly welcome, too. But you might need a passport and visa.

For the most complete information on the subject of the Conch Republic, check its official web site.

Welcome to Key Largo

A View of John Pennekamp Beach

Christ of the Abyss

SCUBA diver on a Key Largo Reef

Sign warning we play Jimmy Buffet music

A quaint Key Largo cottage

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