Some question seems to exist as to a definite origin
of the name "Sarasota". Legend connects it
with Sara, reputedly the daughter of the conquistador,
DeSota. Some have wondered if the name may have originated
with an Indian word "sara-se-cota", meaning
a landfall easily observed. Maps in the 1700's showed
the area as "Porte Sarasote" and "Sarazota".
It is also said a fishing camp and Indian trading post
at the end of Longboat Key was called "Saraxota".
Use of the name "Sarasota" appears on the
first complete maps of Florida printed by the government
in 1839, 18 years after the Floridas passed to the
United States following ownership by both the Spanish
and the British.
Long before the name came into question, Indians had
discovered the lush area and knew the bounty of the
abundant wild fruits and game in the vicinity. Fishermen
and traders were not infrequent visitors to the area.
Clashes between the whites and Indians in Florida eventually
led to the ruinous seven-year Seminole War.
It was at the conclusion of the hostilities that Congress
adopted the Armed Occupation Act - deeding 160 acres
and six months provisions to any person who agreed
to carry arms and protect the land for five years.
Additional land was available at $1.25 per acre.
The first permanent white settler in the Sarasota
area was William H. Whitaker, who was deeded 144.81
on September 1,1851, on Sarasota Bay. Mr. Whitaker,
for whom the Whitaker Bayou is named, built his log
cabin at "Yellow Bluffs", so named because
of its outcroppings of yellow limestone. The Whitaker
cabin was burned to the ground by Seminole raiders
in 1865. During the Civil War, raids made life too
hazardous and the Whitakers moved northward to Manatee
where they stayed until the war ended.
The decade and a half between 1868 and 1883, resulted
in the initial "large scale" discovery by
outsiders of the richness of the Sarasota area. Acreage
was cleared by early settlers, orange groves and gardens
planted, and herds of cattle joined the Whitaker herd
on the rich grazing plains.
John Webb moved to the area during this period and
opened the first "manufacturing plant" to
refine sugar and to produce syrup. Webb also built
the first Winter resort with individual guest cottages
- advertised in northern newspapers as a special paradise
- Webb's Winter Resort on Little Sarasota Bay.
A small community grew up in Webb's neighborhood and
in 1884, he applied for a post office. The community
was named Osprey in accordance with his wishes.
The Jesse Knight family settled further down the bay
in the area that eventually became the sister communities
of Venice and Nokomis.
Isaac A. Redd, who had lived in the area in 1857 prior
to the war, returned 10 years later to become the founder
of Bee Ridge. In 1876, Redd led a movement to establish
a missionary Baptist church, which became the first
church built in what was to become Sarasota County.
Early in the 1870's, a community began to take shape
on the mainland between Hudson Bayou and Phillippi
Creek. A post office was established in 1878, and operated
under the community named "Sara Sota". It
was in this new community that Miss Caroline Abbe established
the first school with an initial enrollment of a dozen
students, all taught in private homes prior to a school
building being built.
In the late 1870's, the orange industry began to attract
attention and the citrus industry established a community
called "Fruitville", with Charles L. Reeves
as the first homesteading settler in 1876.
The Swampland Act, through a loophole, reduced drastically
the effectiveness of the Homestead Act and practically
halted the influx of settlers. By the end of 1883,
nearly 700,000 acres had been deeded to land speculators
for as little as 25 cents an acre. But with the halt
of the rugged pioneers, a new type of colonization
The Florida Mortgage and Investment Company of Edinburgh
purchased 60,000 acres and selected Sara Sota as the
key point for its development. Scottish colonists arrived
in December of 1885, but sorrow and hardships left
them disenchanted with their new land. In 1886, the
colony had dwindled to only three families, plus a
In that same year, John W. Gillespie arrived, and his
company, Florida Mortgage and Investment Co., Ltd.,
would make an attempt to revive the colony. Steamship
connections were established with Tampa. Mr. Gillespie
built the De Sota Hotel, and he laid out what was perhaps
the first practice golf course in America.
Fishing as an industry began to flourish. Channels
were dredged in a move to improve water commerce and
shipping. The Spanish-American War in 1898 added to
the prosperity, as cattleman drove herds to slaughter
to supply meat for the hungry soldiers.
Sarasota got its first newspaper in 1899. In November
of that same year, telephone service arrived. A line
from Manatee to Sarasota was installed by the Gulf
Coast Telephone Company. A year later the line was
extended to Fruitville and then Myakka.
The Seaboard Railroad extended its line from Tampa
to Sarasota at least five years earlier than it had
planned, motivated by the news that Ralph Caples, a
well-known railroad entrepreneur, indicated that he
planned to build the line himself following his honeymoon
vacation to Sarasota in 1899.
Sarasota was incorporated as a town on October 14,
1902, and Mr. Gillespie served as the Town's first
Mayor. He was subsequently elected to five additional
one year terms. In addition to the railroad connection,
the town boasted a yacht club, a new school, and ice
plant, a cemetery, theater, municipal water works,
electric plant, a second newspaper, and a sanitarium
opened by John Halton in 1908.
Sarasota Key was changed to Siesta Key in 1907, but
it wasn't until 10 years later that the new Siesta
Bridge opened up the island to any significant development.
Mrs. Potter Palmer and her family visited Sarasota
in 1910. They liked the location so much; they decided
to purchase some 80,000 acres in the area which was
at that time part of south Manatee County. She established
her cattle ranch called "Meadow Sweet Pastures" after
building her home named "The Oaks" on the
old Webb property on Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey.
John and Charles Ringling, of the famous circus family,
invested in Sarasota property two years later, just
a year before Sarasota was incorporated as a city on
May 13, 1913.
Tourists were now coming in a steady stream. This new
influx of tourism, and the extensive Palmer and Ringling
investments, stirred new interests among the residents
and thus began the drive to separate from Manatee County
and establish a distinct identity as a whole new county.
Sarasota County was established in 1923, through a
special act of the State Legislature. The City of Sarasota
was then designated as the county seat in an election
held November 18, 1924.
When the Florida land boom ended, Sarasota had three
large modern hotels, a high class business district,
scores of apartment houses, hundreds of fine new homes,
77 miles of paved streets, a municipal golf course,
a hospital, a good school system, bridges running from
the keys to the mainland, and improved rail and boat
In the tough years of the Great Depression, Sarasota
received its first Works Progress Administration (WPA)
project in 1935, which funded a drainage project for
the city golf course. Two years later, in 1937, came
the an even more valuable WPA project - development
of Bayfront Park and construction of the Municipal
Auditorium, and later, the Lido Beach Casino was opened.
Work on the Manatee-Sarasota Airport was started in
1938. The airport became a military airfield during
World War II, with 3,000 servicemen stationed there.
The end of the war served to open the area even further
through an ever expanding tourism industry.
Spectacular growth during the "Stunning Sixties" carried
through well into the seventies. The recession in the
late '70s resulted in tough times for some area businesses.
Sarasota's Downtown was hit hardest with many of the
existing stores closing their doors. However, in the
late '80s and especially the early '90s the economy
shifted and the Downtown began to prosper again. Sarasota
now boasts one the finest Downtowns in the State of