Fort Jefferson’s history includes having been an outpost, prison, and fueling station. Today it is a quiet sanctuary for wildlife and intrepid visitors.
The Dry Tortugas National Park lies in the Gulf of Mexico about 68 miles west of Key West, Florida. It was discovered in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce De Leon who recognized the Tortugas (“Turtles” in Spanish) as a strategic military site. Accessible today only by boat or seaplane, Fort Jefferson occupies 11 acres of Garden Key.
Fort Jefferson’s Construction
Named after President Thomas Jefferson, construction on Fort Jefferson began in 1845 when Florida entered the Union as the 27th state. The United States was still a young nation and the possibility of foreign powers like Russia and France laying claim to parts of the continent was a serious threat.
The fort was intended to be a physical manifestation of the Monroe Doctrine, a statement that North America was no longer open to colonization and that the United States would defend its territory. With its strategic location at the southern tip of Florida and natural deepwater harbor, it provided a good base to control shipping along the Gulf Coast. It was built along with a series of other coastal forts from Texas to Maine.
Fort Jefferson During the Civil War
The Union Army occupied Fort Jefferson before it was completed prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. While no battles were ever fought at the fort, it kept watch over the sea routes and prevented the Confederacy from gaining control of the shipping lanes. Some of the first black soldiers ever to serve in the US military were stationed at Fort Jefferson during the Civil War.
Fort Jefferson served as a military prison for deserters during the war and after the war housed its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd had been convicted as a conspirator in President Lincoln’s assassination after having treated the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.
After four years as a prisoner Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson because of the service he rendered during an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort. It was because of recurrent outbreaks of yellow fever and regular hurricanes that Fort Jefferson was decommissioned in 1873. It became a coaling station for the US Navy where the USS Maine stopped before continuing on its fateful voyage to Havana in 1898.
National Monument and Park
Fort Jefferson was made a national monument by President Roosevelt in 1935 and the Tortugas were named a National Park in 1992. It is a tropical marine reserve that over 200 species of migratory birds visit every year on their way between North and South America. The waters are filled with brain coral and giant starfish with buttonwood and coconut palm trees on the land.
More information on the Park including primitive camping opportunities can be accessed at the National Park Service website.
- Drye, Willie “The Fortress of the Dry Tortugas”, American History, Feb., 2002