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What is a Key West Conch?

conch fritter stand

When people speak of the Key West Conch, they may be referring to the large sea snail that lives in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico surrounding the Florida Keys. But most often the term refers to Key West natives—the first settlers and the long-time residents of Key West.

Americans loyal to the British crown after the war, Tories, were not very popular, so they fled the southern states to the next British colony, the Bahamas. Unfortunately, the British Parliament started taxing the Bahamians on their food just like they taxed Bostonians on their tea. The Bahamians said they'd rather eat conch than pay taxes and that is just what they did. They came up with 27 different ways to eat this animal.

Throughout the years, many came to know and use the term Conch to describe the locals, and those who made the island their home were proud to be nicknamed Key West Conchs.

The story continues when in April of 1982, the city of Key West declared itself the Conch Republic. This historic event was an act of protest against the United States Border Patrol when a blockade was set-up on US Highway 1, just north of the entrance into the Florida Keys. Visitors and residents alike were stopped, asked for identification and forced to prove their American citizenship. An uproar ensued—how could the United States shut-off the only land route into the Keys? Key West tourism suffered and as such the economy in the Keys began to decline.

Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow and several determined Key Conchs went to Federal court in Miami to seek an injunction to stop the federal blockade. When their plea was denied, the Mayor told TV reporters that the following day the Florida Keys would secede from the Union. The next day, as promised, Mayor Wardlow stood in Mallory Square and led the Conch Republic Rebellion which lasted approximately one minute and was followed by a surrender to the US Navy Admiral in Key West.

Although these events took place nearly 26 years ago, the name Conch Republic stuck and those who live in the Florida Keys officially hold dual citizenship—they are American Citizens and Conchs!

Today, visitors to Key West are likely to meet an assortment of interesting Conchs out and around town - and if you’re in the mood for even more adventures, stop by a local watering hole for a refreshing cocktail and a smoldering bowl of authentic Key West Conch chowder. And don't miss the best conch fritters which you can find at Mallory Square.

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