Sarasota is a city located in Sarasota County on the southwestern coast of the U.S. state of Florida. It is south of the Tampa Bay Area and north of Fort Myers. Its current official limits include Sarasota Bay and several barrier islands between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Sarasota had a population of 52,211 in 2012. In 1986 it became designated as a certified local government. Sarasota is a principal city of the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area, and is the seat of Sarasota County. The area is renowned for its beaches, resorts, connections to the Ringling Brothers, and architecture.
The islands separating Sarasota Bay from the gulf near the city, known as keys, include Lido Key and Siesta Key, which are famous worldwide for the quality of their sandy beaches. The keys that are included in the boundary of Sarasota are Lido Key, St. Armands Key, Otter Key, Coon Key, Bird Key, and portions of Siesta Key. Previously, Siesta Key was named Sarasota Key. At one time, it and all of Longboat Key were considered part of Sarasota and confusing contemporaneous references may be found discussing them.
Longboat Key is the largest key separating the bay from the gulf, but it is now evenly divided by the new county line of 1921. The portion of the key that parallels the Sarasota city boundary that extends to that new county line along the bay front of the mainland was removed from the city boundaries at the request of John Ringling in the mid-1920s, who sought to avoid city taxation of his planned developments at the southern tip of the key. Although they never were completed in the quickly faltering economy, those development concessions granted by the city never were reversed and the county has retained regulation of those lands ever since.
Fifteen thousand years ago, when humans first settled in Florida, the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico was one hundred miles farther to the west. In this era, hunting and gathering was the primary means of subsistence. This was only possible in areas where water sources existed for hunter and prey alike. Deep springs and catchment basins, such as Warm Mineral Springs, were close enough to the Sarasota area to provide camp sites, but too far away for permanent settlements.
As the Pleistocene glaciers slowly melted, a more temperate climate began to advance northward. Sea levels began rising; they ultimately rose another , resulting in the Florida shoreline of today, which provided attractive locations for human settlements.
Archaeological research in Sarasota documents more than ten thousand years of seasonal occupation by native peoples. For five thousand years while the current sea level existed, fishing in Sarasota Bay was the primary source of protein and large mounds of discarded shells and fish bones attest to the prehistoric human settlements that existed in Sarasota and were sustained by the bounty of its bay.
Early historical records
Europeans first explored the area in the early sixteenth century. The first recorded contact was in 1513, when a Spanish expedition landed at Charlotte Harbor, just to the south. Spanish was used by the natives during some of the initial encounters, providing evidence of earlier contacts.
Having been identified on maps by the mid-eighteenth century as Zara Zote, perhaps from an indigenous name, the sheltered bay and its harbor attracted fish and marine traders. Soon there were fishing camps, called ranchos, along the bay that were established by both Americans and Cubans who traded fish and turtles with merchants in Havana. Florida changed hands between the Spanish, the English, and then the Spanish again.
After the 1819 acquisition of Florida as a territory by the United States and five years before it became a state in 1845, the army established Fort Armistead in Sarasota along the bay.
The fort is thought to have been located in the Indian Beach area, and research continues there. The army established the fort at a rancho operated by Louis Pacheco, an African slave working for his Cuban-American owner. Drawings of the fort give a clue to the location as well, showing a significant landmark point that still exists at Indian Beach. Shortly before the fort was abandoned because of severe epidemics, the chiefs of the Seminole Indians gathered to discuss their impending forced march to the Oklahoma Territory. These were Native Americans who had moved into Florida during the Spanish occupation. Most of the indigenous natives of Florida, such as the Tocobaga and the Caloosa, had perished from epidemics carried by the Spanish. They mostly had maintained permanent settlements that were used from late fall through spring, moving to settlements farther north during the summer.
Soon the remaining Seminole Indians were forced south into the Big Cypress Swamp and in 1842 the lands in Sarasota, which then were held by the federal government, were among those opened to private ownership by those of European descent via the Armed Occupation Act passed by the Congress of the United States. Even Louis Pacheco was deported with the Indians to Oklahoma.
European settlers arrived in significant numbers in the late 1840s. The area already had a Spanish name, Zara Zote, on maps dating back to the early eighteenth century, and it was retained as Sara Sota. The initial settlers were attracted by the climate and the bounty of Sarasota Bay.
Sarasota has been governed by several different American counties, depending upon the era. Not becoming a state until 1845 Florida was acquired by the United States as a territory in 1819. Hillsborough County was created from Alachua and Monroe counties in 1834 and many early land titles cite it as the county governing Sarasota. Hillsborough was divided in 1855, placing Sarasota under the governance of Manatee County until 1921, when three new counties were carved out of portions of Manatee. One of those new counties was called Sarasota, and the city was made its seat. The boundary of the community once extended to Bowlees Creek, but that was redrawn to an arbitrary line in order to divide the airport so its oversight could include both counties. Property records and street addresses north of that new county line and south of the creek, however, remain as "Sarasota" due to established postal designations, although they remain governed by Manatee County.
Sarasota's first black settler was Lewis Colson. Colson came to Sarasota in 1884 to assist Richard E. Paulson, an engineer for the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, in surveying the town of Sarasota.A former slave, Colson remained in Sarasota throughout his life, contributing to the development of the community in many ways. The picture above is believed to be of Colson with his wife, Irene. It is among many unidentified photographs by Felix Pinard, who photographed Sarasota in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lewis and Irene Colson started Sarasota's first black community in 1910. It consisted of several families. The Colsons also helped organize Sarasota's first black church, the Bethlehem Baptist Church, by selling land to the church trustees for one dollar. The church was built on the corner of today's Seventh Street and Central Avenue in 1899, and remained there until 1973. The hub of Sarasota's first black community, which came to be known as Overtown, was at the intersection of Central Avenue and Sixth Street. According to early maps of the area, by the mid-1920s, a thriving residential and business district existed there. Businesses included a movie theater, pressing clubs, markets, lunch rooms, and grocery and general merchandise stores. Residences varied in size, but most were modest, one-story, wood frame structures with front porches. There was also a baseball park at 501 Lemon Avenue, according to the 1916 City Directory. The Colson Hotel was one of two hotels in the immediate area. Built by E.O. Burns and opened late in 1926, the hotel was for black tourists and residents. It was located on Eight Street just off Central Avenue. Described by the Sarasota Herald in an article dated December 15, 1926, the hotel was constructed of fine yellow stucco on hollow tile. The hotel contained 28 rooms and had a comfortable lobby with fireplace. Later it was named the Hotel Palm.
According to Annie M. McElroy in her book, "But Your World and My World," classes for blacks were first conducted in the Knights of Pythias Hall. The Knights of Pythias was a local fraternal organization at 404 Coconut Avenue in 1916. In 1925 the Sarasota Grammar School was built. This school was on Seventh Street east of Central Avenue. The school was renamed Booker Grammar School in honor of its first principal, Emma E. Booker.By 1930, classes for blacks had been consolidated on the Booker campus, and in 1935 Booker High School's first class graduated with four students. Over time, many in Sarasota's black community moved north to today's Newtown area. The Sarasota Times reported in 1915 that C.N. Thompson and his son, Russell, had opened a subdivision of four acres named Newtown three-quarters of a mile north of town outside city limits. According to the Times, the subdivision had 240 lots, a few of which were donated for a Methodist and Baptist church and school houses. The developers declared that the deeds would be given whenever the buildings were erected.
To recover from the debt the state incurred through defeat in the Civil War, the central portions of Florida were drained and sold internationally to developers in the North and abroad during the 1880s.
William Whitaker, born in Savannah, Georgia in 1821, was the first documented pioneer of European descent to settle permanently in what became the city of Sarasota. Before his arrival, both Cuban and American fishermen had built fish camps or ranchos along Sarasota Bay, but these were not used throughout the year. After time spent along the Manatee River at the village of Manatee, Whitaker built upon Yellow Bluffs, just north of present day Eleventh Street. He sold dried fish and roe to Cuban traders working the coast. In 1847, he began a cattle business.
In 1851, Whitaker married Mary Jane Wyatt, a member of a pioneer family who had settled the village of Manatee, that was about to the northeast along the river of the same name. They raised eleven children on Yellow Bluffs despite the hardships faced by solitary pioneers.
Those hardships included a raid that destroyed their home. The raid was made by a formerly friendly Seminole chief, Holata Micco, dubbed Billy Bowlegs, after whom Bowlees Creek may have been named. They were not injured, but the house was burnt to the ground.
The Whitakers rebuilt and prospered. Unfortunately, their homestead site has not been preserved, having been developed in the 1980s. Their family cemetery remains, however. In the 1930s the Whitaker family gave the cemetery to the Daughters of the American Revolution on the understanding that any lineal descendants of William and Mary Whitaker and their spouses could be buried there as long as space remained. There are eighty-five plots in all, with thirty-nine taken to date.
In 1867, the Webb family from Utica, New York, came to Florida looking for a place to settle. After arriving in Key West, the pioneer family met a Spanish trader. He told them about a high bluff of land on Sarasota Bay that would make a good location for a homestead. When the Webbs arrived in Sarasota looking for the bluff, they described it to Bill Whitaker. He led them right to it because of the description. The site was several miles (kilometers) south of the settlement of the Whitakers. After settling, the Webbs named their homestead Spanish Point, in honor of the trader.
The Webbs had to travel quite a distance for their mail for nearly twenty years. In 1884, John Webb finally petitioned for a separate postal address for Spanish Point. They chose Osprey as their postal address, since federal regulations required the use of only one word for the new address. A separate town eventually grew around that postal address. Although there is no similar documentation regarding the name of Sarasota, that federal one-word rule for postal designations may be the reason that Zara Zota or Sara Sota became Sarasota.
Browning & Gillespie
In 1885 a Scots colony was established in Sarasota which was portrayed as a tropical paradise that had been built into a thriving town. A town had been platted and surveyed before the parcels were sold by the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. When the astonished investors in the "Ormiston Colony" arrived by ship in December they had to wade ashore, only to find that their primitive settlement lacked the homes, stores, and streets promised. They were even more disturbed by the snowfall that occurred a few weeks later.
Only a few Scots, such as the Browning family, remained in Sarasota along with a determined member of the developer's family, John Hamilton Gillespie. He was a manager for Florida Mortgage & Investment Company, and began to develop Sarasota following the plan for the failed colony. In 1887 he built the De Sota Hotel which opened on February 25 hosting a large social event and celebration. In May 1886 he completed a two hole golf course which is reported to be the first golf courses in America. By 1905, he had completed a nine-hole course to support his favorite pastime, golf. Eventually, tourists arrived at a dock built on the bay.
Rose Phillips Wilson and her husband C. V. S. Wilson founded The Sarasota Times newspaper in 1899. It was the first newspaper published in Sarasota and Rose Wilson continued publication of the paper alone until 1923 after her husband died in 1910. She participated in the leadership of the community through many organizations and provided editorial opinions on most early issues.
Well respected among her peers in journalism, the Tarpon Springs Leader ranked the Times under Rose's ownership as "the best weekly paper in the state". After the state legislature passed a bill to create Sarasota County, it was to Rose Wilson that the telegram was sent to announce it. When a referendum endorsed the split from Manatee locally, Wilson changed the name of her newspaper to The Sarasota County Times.
Rose Wilson lived through the World War I period, the 1920s boom period, the depression, World War II, and Sarasota’s second boom period in the 1950s. After her retirement from publishing in 1923, Wilson continued her community work with many local organizations, including the influential Woman’s Club in Sarasota, into the 1940s. She devoted much of her time as teacher and mentor for youth at First Presbyterian Church and lived to the age of 88 years old, when she died in 1964.