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A Brief History of the Conch Republic

If you’re a first time visitor to Key West or any of the Florida Keys for that matter you may be surprised at just how many flags and items you see emblazoned with the two words “Conch Republic”.

You may be forgiven if you’d assumed that the Florida Keys much like other areas of the United States such as California or Texas had once been their own independent nations before eventually becoming just another state in the nation. However, the story behind the Conch Republic is both very recent and a massive joke that soon became inseparable from the identity of Key West and the numerous surrounding islands.

Conch Republic

The story of the Conch Republic begins in the early spring of 1982. The Federal Government set up a roadblock and inspection area along US 1 just north of Key West along one of the only roads that lead in and out of the city. Border Patrol agents stopped any cars driving into and out of the area and searched them for narcotics and illegal immigrants.

Many of the local residents began to complain about being searched any time they wanted to leave the city as well as the detrimental effects that the roadblock was having on the local tourist industry. Despite the numerous complaints the Federal Government was receiving daily from the residents their plight was ignored.

Dennis Warlow

As part of a joke and as a form of protest then-mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow declared Key West an independent nation that if the government wanted to treat them as a foreign nation then that is exactly what they would become. Locals referred to as Conchs began to rally around the idea and declared themselves the appropriately named Conch Republic on April 23, 1982. Wardlow was declared the Prime Minister and jokingly declared war on the United States after breaking a piece of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed as a US sailor before surrendering after just one minute and asking the Federal Government for a billion dollars in foreign aid.

Key West

The elaborate joke quickly became nationwide news and tourist interest in Key West began to spike. The situation for Key West and many of the other keys became a win-win scenario, the roadblock was promptly removed and many tourists began to visit the area in droves.

The identity of the Conch Republic didn’t just end there, however, as the area would make nationwide news yet again in a little over ten years. In the fall of 1995, the US Army Reserve planned an exercise in which they would simulate landing on a foreign island. The 478th Civil Affairs Battalion planned on landing in Key West and treating the locals as if they were foreigners. In the entire planning of the mock exercise, however, they forgot to inform the local officials of their plans.

Wardlow quickly took the opportunity to bring the Conch Republic back into the national news and began to prepare for another media stunt. Wardlow and other Key West residents jumped aboard the old schooner, Western Union, and approached a Coast Guard ship sailing in the direction of the island. The Western Union began hurling conch fritters, water balloons, and stale Cuban bread at the ship before the Coast Guard returned their shots with fire hoses bringing a prompt end to the battle.

The Coast Guard complained to the Department of Defense for not informing the residents of their plans. In the following days, the leaders of the 478th Battalion jokingly surrendered to the Conch Republic officials stating that they never meant to challenge the sovereignty of the nation.

The Conch Republic still remains today as a popular rallying cry for residents of Key West and the surrounding area, whenever they wish to protest the State of Florida, the Federal Government, or simply wish to raise money for local community projects.

Conch Republic items are one of the most popular souvenirs in the local area with fake passports, license plates, flags, and coins being sold by several local vendors. If you decide to take your next vacation to the Conch Republic then you’re certain to get a sense of what makes both the present and past history of Key West so special.

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