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, DeSoto. 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 acres 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. (Today’s Historic Spanish Point.) 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 was attempted.
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 few individuals.
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 Soto 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 transportation systems.
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 Florida.