When you visit The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, you are treated to one of the most unique National Parks in the world. These seven islands are a rare combination of natural and historic resources. Not only are you surrounded by a vast expanse of sea, sky, sandy beaches, and coral reef, but you step into a park rich in history including a 19th century fort, The Civil War, and its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Ponce de Leon discovered the Dry Tortugas in 1513 when he caught over 100 sea turtles there. Subsequently the islands were referred to as the "Tortugas" (turtles). During the 1600s and 1700s the area around these islands was used by pirates as a base for attacking merchant shipping in the Gulf.
After the War of 1812 a group of forts from Maine to Texas was envisioned to provide defense for the United States of America. Fort Jefferson was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River. The fort was planned to be the greatest of these.
Fort Jefferson itself is a six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks. In 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to provide warning to sailors about the dangers of reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas.
In 1908 the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture. On January 4, 1935, it was designated by President Franklin Roosevelt as Fort Jefferson National Monument, the first marine area to be so promoted. On October 26, 1992, the monument was upgraded to national park status in a bill signed by President George Bush.