While the name Richard Fitzpatrick might not sound familiar, it is a name associated with significant change in the Florida Keys. To say his work was far-reaching would not be hyperbolic. Fitzpatrick was born circa 1792 in Columbia, S.C. He is thought to have arrived in Key West around 1822 and was reportedly authorized as a wrecking auctioneer. Fitzpatrick also invested heavily in land. By 1835 he had purchased about four square miles surrounding the Miami River and one square mile surrounding the New River. He purchased the roughly 3,300 acres for 81 cents per acre.
Fitzpatrick also entered into the territorial political scene, serving as both a justice of the peace and as a powerful member of the Territorial Legislative Council. In 1836, Fitzpatrick not only represented Monroe County at the legislative session, but also served as president of the legislative council. It was during this session that Fitzpatrick presented a petition signed by residents of Key Vaca, Indian Key, and Cape Florida, requesting the creation of a new county.
The first signature on the petition was Indian Key’s notorious wrecker Jacob Housman – the petition had likely been Housman’s idea. When the petition was first drafted, the proposed name for the newly created county was to be Pinckney County.
The petition was unanimously passed Jan. 28, 1836, but the name was changed to Dade County in honor of Major Francis L. Dade. Dade and his Company B had departed Key West aboard a military transport on Dec. 21, 1835. The company arrived at Tampa Bay’s Fort Brooke and two days later a regiment of more than 100 men began their march to Fort King near present-day Ocala. The column was attacked on Dec. 28. Three men survived what history remembers as the Dade Massacre. Fort Dallas was created on Fitzpatrick’s Miami River property.
Fitzpatrick designated the county seat of the newly created Dade County at Indian Key. The Legislative Council appointed three justices of the peace: William Cooley, whose family had been killed by Seminole Indians just weeks prior on Jan. 6; Lemuel Otis, recognized today as Monroe County’s first sheriff; and the former mayor of Key West, William Whitehead, who had since moved to Key Vaca. Dade County’s principal communities were at Key Vaca, Indian Key, and Cape Florida. Key West’s Fitzpatrick Street is named for Richard Fitzpatrick.
Brad Bertelli is curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center.