Conch Republic

On April 20, 1980 the first boat that was part of what was to be known a the Mariel boatlift arrived in Key West, Florida. The boatlift was ended, by mutual agreement between Cuba and the United States, in October 1980.

On April 18, 1982, without prior notice, the United States Border Patrol established a roadblock and checkpoint on U.S. 1, just north of the merger of Monroe County Road 905A / Miami-Dade County Road 905A, just south of Florida City, in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon. The only access point by land from the Florida Keys to the mainland was closed. Residents and tourists leaving the Florida Keys encountered an unexpected delay.

The area had seen an influx of immigrants from Cuba since the Mariel boatlift. The Border Patrol claimed that the checkpoint was to stop “illegal” immigrants from entering the mainland United States from the Florida Keys. Although they were not crossing a national border, the Border Patrol required those claiming to be U.S. citizens to verify their citizenship. Ostensibly a checkpoint to catch illegal aliens, agents were also using the roadblock to check for drugs, searching the entire car. Who knows, maybe some of the little aliens could hide in the glove compartment and under the seats.

This despite the fact that they were not at an international border. A traffic jam didn’t take long to develop. Different sources give 17 to 19 miles as the length of the backup.

Eastern Air Lines saw a “window of opportunity” and started flying between Miami International Airport and Key West International Airport, for those who wished to avoid the roadblock.

The media started reporting the incident across the nation. A roadblock/checkpoint within the U.S. was at that time mostly unheard of. Tourists started cancelling plans, and reservations, to come to the Keys.

Key West community leaders began to gather around the mayor, Dennis Wardlow, to decide what to do.

Wardlow contacted the chief of police of Key West, the sheriff of Monroe County, the Florida state representative from the district, and Gov. Bob Graham to find out who had ordered the checkpoint. Nobody knew, but nobody wanted to take responsibility for facing down the border agents.

Wardlow finally went directly to the captain of the Border Patrol. The captain told Wardlow that the roadblock was “none of his business”. That didn’t sit well. The mayor was quoted as saying “Don’t tell a Conch it’s none of your business”. The words/actions of the captain essentially galvanized the “Conchs” into action.

Wardlow considered the actions of the border patrol to be “an attack on Key West’s sovereignty”. The mayor took counsel from community leaders to decide what to do. At the urging of attorney David Paul Horan, the legal route was chosen as the first step. They sought an injunction from the federal district court in Miami to stop the actions of the border patrol.

The Key West City Council complained repeatedly about the inconvenience for travelers to and from Key West, claiming that it hurt the Keys’ important tourism industry.
In the eyes of the council, since the U.S. Federal government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if they were a foreign nation, they might as well become one.

At the urging of David Paul Horan, the legal route was chosen as the first alternative and an injunction was filed against the government’s action in Federal Court in Miami. On April 22, the mayor and a small delegation from Key West flew to Miami in Horan’s plane. But U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue the injunction.

The first act of defiance occurred even before they reached Key West. The pilot of the plane, attorney Horan, buzzed the roadblock on their way back.

“By establishing that border they have declared us a foreign nation”, he told reporters. “We’re tired of the U.S. Government picking on little Key West.”

He vowed to negotiate only with Pres. Ronald Reagan or Vice Pres. George H.W. Bush. “I guess they think we’re kidding, and we’re not”, he exclaimed. “We serve notice to the government in Washington to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land”, he said. If we’re not equal, we’ll get out. It’s as simple as that … big trouble has started in much smaller places than this.”

A new government was quickly organized. Federal agents were sent to Key West to monitor the situation.

At noon the next day, April 23, 1982, they lowered the Stars and Stripes from the flagpole and raised the blue and yellow flag of the Conch Republic. The mayor then read the “Conch Republic Proclamation of Secession”.

This was followed by a declaration of war against the United States, symbolized by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of someone dressed in a naval uniform.

There ensued a brief naval battle, known as the Great Battle of the Conch Republic. The Schooner Western Union, under command of Captain John Kraus, went into the harbor and attacked the US Coast Guard Cutter DILIGENCE with water balloons, Conch fritters and stale Cuban bread. The DILIGENCE fought back with fire hoses. Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered and demanded foreign aid from the United States.
Citizens of the new republic began lobbing stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personal in attendance.

Approximately one minute after declaring war and firing a “verbal shot” at the U.S., Wardlow surrendered to a nearby naval officer and requested $1 billion in foreign aid to compensate for “the long federal siege”.

[Note: they asked for foreign aid. I’ve never heard that any part of the keys ever “rejoined” the state of Florida, or the United States, like the southern states did after the Civil War.]

The publicity given to this incident was enough to get the roadblock/checkpoint removed soon after.

It is said that the incident “should not be viewed as a revolution against the United States of America. Rather, it was quite the opposite… it was a protest against the folly of zealotry resulting in the people of the Florida Keys being literally alienated as Americans.”

A major text site can be found at

Videos can be found here

1 Like

Extending the history of US-Conch Republic relations beyond
the initial secession:

[NOTE: What follows is a mishmash of quoted material, sometimes one resource being quoted inside another quote from a completely different resource.]

In 1994, Joe and Meri-Lynn Britz wrote the national anthem for the Conch Republic, “Conch Republic”. It was recorded by the Key Lime Pie band and voted on and accepted by the city of Key West City Commissioners.

Conch Republic officials were invited to the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994, and Conch representatives were officially invited to 1995’s Florida Jubilee.

On September 20, 1995, local radio station WPIK reported that the U.S. Army’s 478th Civil Affairs Battalion planned to conduct a mock invasion and occupation of an island. The Army didn’t notify Key West officials about the operation, and the latter took that failure as an assault on their sovereign nation.

Island officials contacted pres. Bill Clinton, the U.S. Army and the Navy to advise them that they would oppose the planned “invasion”. The Conch Republic Armed Forces mobilized and a call went out for residents to “defend the nation.”

On September 21 the Conch Republic Navy – a modest fleet of fireboats and private vessels – attacked Navy and Coast Guard ships in Key west Harbor with water hoses, water balloons and volleys of stale Cuban bread and conch fritters.

The attack caught the Naval command off guard, at least from a public relations perspective. The local commander “surrendered” his ships and ordered his men to lay down their arms.

U.S. Ground troops attempting to enter the island by bridge met a similar fate, when a force of 200 locals blocked their path and refused to let them pass until they formally requested permission.

The leader of the 478th issued an apology the next day, saying they “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic”, and submitted to a surrender ceremony on September 22.

Only a few months later, tensions simmered again as a partial shutdown of the federal government led to the closure of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. The closure of the fort cost the Keys an estimated $30,000 a day in tourism revenue.

After learning that the fort cost only $1,600 a day to operate, city officials and business leaders offered to raise the money to run the park. Inspired by efforts of the Smithsonian Institution to keep its museums open by private donations, local residents had raised private money to keep the park running (as a closed park would damage the tourist-dependent local economy), but could find no one to accept the money and reopen the park.

The Republic sent a flotilla of Conch Navy, civilian, and fire department boats to Fort Jefferson, located in Dry Tortugas National Park, to reopen it. The action was dubbed a “full-scale invasion” by the Conch Republic.

An elite Conch air force unit landed at Fort Jefferson to “declare the fort open in the name of the Conch Republic.” They found the park rangers and offered them a check to reopen the fort. The rangers refused, issued the Conchs a citation for trespassing on federal property and told them to leave.

The islanders retreated to Key West, and the feds later dropped the charges.

Relations normalized after 1995, with only a brief flare up when the Conch Republic “annexed” the abandoned Seven Mile Bridge in 2006. On January 4, 2006, fifteen Cuban refugees reached the bridge, but were returned to Cuba by the U.S. Border Patrol because the U.S. Government had declared the bridge a “wet feet” location under the wet feet, dry feet policy. The rationale was that, since two sections of the span had been removed and it was no longer connected to land, it was not part of U.S. Territory subject to the “dry feet” rule, and thus the refugees could not stay.

On January 13 Peter Anderson (the defendant in the Dry Tortugas case from 1995 to 1996) purported to annex the abandoned span of Seven Mile Bridge, which had been replaced by a parallel span in 1982.

Anderson, seizing upon the U.S.'s apparent disavowal of the abandoned span, claimed it for the Republic. He expressed hope to use the bridge for affordable, ecologically friendly housing. In response, Russel Shweiss, spokesman for Florida governor Jeb Bush, declared, “With all due respect to the Conch Republic, the bridge belongs to all the people of Florida, and we’re not currently in negotiations to sell it.” The refugee decision was later overturned, but only after the refugees had been returned to Cuba.

Anderson led a landing party of Conchs who staked miniature flags along the bridge. “Since the federal government decided in its infinite wisdom that the old Seven Mile Bridge is not territory of the United States, the Conch Republic is very interested,” he told reporters.

Anderson led a landing party of Conchs who staked miniature flags along the bridge. “Since the federal government decided in its infinite wisdom that the old Seven Mile Bridge is not territory of the United States, the Conch Republic is very interested,” he told reporters.

The federal government “chose not to defend” the bridge from the Conch invasion. “It could be a model green community,” he said, “with composting toilets, wind and solar power, rainwater collection, like living on a boat, really.”

In another protest, beginning in 2008, the northern keys including Key Largo formed a separation of the Conch Republic known as the Independent Northernmost Territories of the Conch Republic. Proponents claim this separation is a result of disagreements over the definition and use of the term “Conch Republic”.

Since then, the term “Conch Republic” has been expanded to refer to “all of the Florida Keys, or, that geographic apportionment of land that falls within the legally defined boundaries of Monroe County, Florida, northward to ‘Skeeter’s Last chance Saloon’ in Florida City, Dade County, Florida, with Key West as the micronation’s capital and all territories being referred to as ‘The Northern Territories’”.

As of 2022, the southernmost point buoy mentions the Conch Republic.

Information about the Conch Republic military, all branches, can be found here.

1 Like