Today, on the Keys between Key West and the mainland, some 40,000 residents and thousands of visitors fish, swim, sail, and dive in the crystal clear waters off a tropical reef; relax in the sun and cooling trade wind breezes, and sleep in the air-conditioned comfort of their homes and hotel rooms. On these same islands, as short a time as 80 years ago, fewer than 300 inhabitants tried to eke out a living without benefit of electricity, running water, radios, or telephones.
Tormented by clouds of voracious mosquitoes and no-see-ums, broiled by the tropical sun, they lived in thatched-roof homes regularly flattened by hurricane winds. Weeks would go by before some passing sailboat brought them news of the outside world or their relatives.
Includes Don Diego, a Spanish-speaking native who led in shipwreck plundering in the early 18th century; Jacob Housman, an unscrupulous wrecking captain who amassed a fortune and lost it when Indians burned his town to the ground; Dr. Perrine, a scientist who was killed by Indians; the African Americans who made charcoal for the stoves of Key West; and the indomitable Lily Bow, who eked out a living on remote Cudjoe Key.
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