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History of Fort Jefferson

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History of Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas National Park
Located on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Jefferson served as a military outpost and prison during the Civil War era. Read on for some fascinating historical tidbits about this “ghost town” located just 70 miles west of the bustling paradise of Key West, Florida.

In 1825, the U.S. government began building a 65-foot lighthouse and keeper’s cottage on Garden Key, to guide ships traveling through this area of tiny islands. In May 1829, Commodore John Rodgers surveyed the area and decided that the series of islands could be an important strategic asset. He recommended that the U.S. should occupy it, before anyone else had the chance.

After 17 years of red tape, construction of a military fort finally began on Garden Key in 1846. It was to be called Fort Jefferson, after former President Thomas Jefferson. The fort’s design included 6 sides, meeting at corner bastions. It was equipped with more than 400 mounted heavy guns, which could be trained on any approaching enemy vessels.

There were living quarters for soldiers and officers and their families, as well as civilian employees and laborers. There were also military prisoners and slaves living there to help construct the fort. During its peak years, there were more than 2,000 people living at the fort.

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the fort’s population dwindled down to about 1,000 people, with slightly over half of the population made up of military and civilian prisoners. Most of the military prisoners were there for desertion. In July 1865, four civilian prisoners were transferred to the fort after being convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The men were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen. O'Laughlen had died in prison in 1867, but the other three men were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released. In 1869.

Visitors to the fort today are told that Dr. Samuel Mudd was the fort’s most famous prisoner. He was the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, who broke it while fleeing the Ford Theatre after assassinating President Lincoln. Booth then stayed the night at Mudd’s house , but it is unclear whether he knew of Booth’s actions or not. Though he was pardoned, his conspiracy conviction was never overturned.

By 1888, Fort Jefferson was no longer desired as a military outpost, particularly since the maintenance cost was very high due to hurricanes and the corrosive salt air. The fort was transferred to the Marine Hospital Service to be used as a quarantine station. Then in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the site a native bird refuge.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the area and named it the Fort Jefferson National Monument. In 1970, it was listed on the Register of National Historic Places. Then in 1992, the entire Dry Tortugas area was named a National Park. (Learn about the State & National Parks in Miami.)

Today, many people visit the Dry Tortugas National Park every year, with Fort Jefferson as the main focal point. It is a haven for bird-watchers, with nearly 300 different species present. Seven species are found here frequently and nest within the park. They include the Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked Booby, Roseate Tern, and Mourning Dove.

If you’d like to visit Fort Jefferson, it is accessible by private boat, charter boat, or seaplane. There are ferries and seaplanes that travel to the island daily. Find out more in our Dry Tortugas National Park Visitors Guide.

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