Sarasota history, middens, indian wars, seminoles, william whitaker, john gillespie, bertha palmer, john ringling, bobby jones golf course, circus

Earliest Sarasota History

The geographic area of current-day Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto Counties on the edges of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico traces its inhabited history to prehistoric peoples dating as far back as 12,000 years.

Sarasota history, middens

Inidan Shell Mound, St. Pete, FL, turn-of-the-century postcard

Middens (mounds of shells, fish and wild game bone, pottery shards and various other refuse of these ancient peoples) along the Gulf Coast have been dated to 5,000 B.C.  Many of these mounds and their remnants still exist.  (Explore them throughout the area in protected State and County Preserves like Indian Mound Park,  , Sarasota County, and Portavant Mound and Madiera Bickle Mound in Manatee County among numerous others.)

Sarasota historyThe earliest inhabitants of the Florida peninsula  came to the Gulf Coast due to the great quantities of fish and shellfish found in the shallow waters.  Deer, bear, panther, opossum, raccoon, rabbit, buffalo, turkey, alligators, manatee, mammoths, wolves, and several varieties of birds and turtles were in abundance.  Only mammoths, buffalo, wolves and the Carolina Parakeet are not still found in Florida.

Next Came The Spanish

Spanish exploration and colonization began as early as 1528.  It took almost 200 years before an 1819 treaty with Spain ceded most of the Florida peninsula to the United States.   Not  long after, the “Indian Wars” began and continued until 1842 when the last of the tribes, the Seminoles, were suppressed.  Meanwhile, the relocation of most of the indigenous tribes to Arkansas took place with the promise of  “thirty dollars and a rifle.”  Although, troubles with some members of native tribes continued to flare-up into the 1850’s.

Shortly after passage of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 (precursor to the Homestead Act,) the first three (3) settlement claims for 160 acre plots were filed south of Tampa Bay and the Manatee River in present day Bradenton and Sarasota.

Recommended reading:

Non-fiction – Edge of Wilderness: A Settlement History of Manatee River and Sarasota Bay by Janet Snyder Matthews (Coastal Press)  Fiction – A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith (Pineapple Press)

Explore more Southwest Florida early history at these informative sites:

Florida Maritime Museum, My Florida – Seminole History , Florida Rambler, Florida Memory Project, Museum of Florida History, South Florida Museum.)

Statehood and Sarasota’s Original Resident

Florida became the 27th State in 1845 just two decades after becoming a United States territory.

By 1850, three families controlled most of the land and commerce on the south side of the Manatee River. Their land encompassed the area of Bradenton and Ellenton, and northern edges of Sarasota County.  The Gamble Brothers, the Braden Brothers and a William P. Craig all grew and processed sugar cane.  The size and success of their operations rivaled the great sugar producers of New Orleans.  Yet, their lives and those of their workers and slaves were always in a precarious position.

Natural Disasters and Indian Troubles

Hurricanes throughout the decade of the 1840’s took terrible tolls on inhabitants of the settlements and their field crops.  For instance, one of several 1848 storms brought fifteen (15) feet of water inland and all of the barrier islands were underwater.  Consequently, other industries and crops began to replace sugar and cotton.  One of those industries was commercial harvesting and shipping of cedar, live oak and palmetto logs to construct new wharves growing up along the Gulf Coast.  Meanwhile, sporadic Indian raids kept everyone on edge into the 1850’s.

Sarasota’s Original Residents

The first permanent settlement in “Zarasote” belonged to brothers William Whitaker and Hamlin Snell.  The site was “one of the most striking features … of the coast” for its bluff of yellow sandstone and coral. Whitaker’s children recalled his description of the Bay.  ” … the whole Bay as far as could be seen would glisten with mullet turning and flashing in the sun.  Oyster beds literally covered the bay bottoms.”  Source: One Man’s Family, A.K. Whitaker and  Sarasota history

William Whitaker planted the first orange groves in the region which became the first commercial citrus groves in Florida.  He successfully “grafted” Cuban oranges and named his “the Whitaker Sweet.”    Whitaker is also credited with being the first “cattleman” in the region to raise cattle as a commercial industry.


Not much happens in the region until after passage of the Homestead Act 1862 and the Civil War.  A “Vigilance Committee” ( was purportedly formed to protect the original settlers from unscrupulous developers and interlopers.  Subsequent, records and events showed otherwise with eight of its members convicted of murdering Sarasota’s first Post Master Charles Abbe ( in 1884.  Probably, this conflict’s end allowed for a new era in Sarasota history.

Fishing and New Industries

Fishing remained the primary industry through the end of the 19th century.   This slowly changed with the dredging of more channels and canals to improve shipping and commerce.  Cattle drives continued from inland to the coast.  The cattle industry in Florida experienced its high point during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Scottish immigrant Sir John Gillespie arrived in 1888, to promote land development through his Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. He also built the first hotel  – the Desoto Hotel (  and the first Sarasota golf course in present-day downtown.

Sarasota history

Sarasota’s first golf course near current day Main Street

Sarasota history

Sir John Gillespie

Sarasota history

Sarasota’s first hotel – The Desoto


The 20th Century Arrives …

Sarasota got its first newspaper and its first telephone lines in 1899. Additionally at the turn-of-the-century, the first rail link to Sarasota arrived (   Sarasota incorporated October 14, 1902, and declared “an official Florida City” May 13, 1913.  By this time, Sarasota had its second newspaper, a municipal water works, ice and electric plants, a new school, a yacht club and a cemetery.

Above  all, the perseverance of key early settlers fueled the economic and social development into the early 1900’s.

The arrival of an inland rail connection and commercialization of post-war ports helped establish Sarasota/Bradenton/Venice as tourist destinations.  Gillespie’s Desoto Hotel and Ralph Cables’ dream of rail service to the region, ignited the concept of Sarasota as a winter destination for the wealthy and influential.  His idea proved right.  And, his friendship with the Ringling brothers didn’t hurt (

The Ringlings and Caples Influences

John and Charles Ringling bought the adjacent properties to the north of Caples, and John began construction of his Venetian-designed Ca’d’Zan (House of John)

Caples’ wife Ellen was a talented singer and was instrumental in establishing Sarasota as a haven for the “arts.” Her support for New College as instrumental in its establishment in 1960. Her home and property was bequeathed to the college in 1971.

Sarasota Key changed its name to Siesta Key in 1907. It took another decade to build a bridge.

Bertha Palmer

Bertha Palmer, widow of Chicago real estate and retail magnate Potter, is credited with changing Sarasota alongside the Ringlings, Caples and developer Owen Burns.

At one time, Bertha owned a third of Sarasota County.  She created her first ranch “Meadow Sweet Pastures” bringing in Brahma bulls for their resistance to heat and ticks after her original Herefords all died of cattle tick fever.  She was one of the first Florida ranchers in Florida “to dip cattle to eliminate the ticks.”  Her “experimental” farm crops included celery and watermelon.  Her properties live on in today’s Sarasota with “The Oaks” at Spanish Point and Palmer Ranch.  And, Meadow Sweet Pastures led to the creation of Myakka State Park ( )

Tourism, Real Estate and Land Development

Tourism and local investments in real estate and infrastructure grew through the teens and roaring twenties until the Great Depression hit.  Like many developing communities throughout the U.S., the Sarasota “boom” ended.  Sarasota experienced “booms and busts” throughout the 20th century.

The first couple of decades after the turn-of-the-century and into the “roaring 20’s,” saw rapid changes in Sarasota.  It built seventy-seven (77) miles of paved roads.  A “well-heeled” downtown business district took hold with the addition of three (3) luxury hotels.  The period also saw new schools, hundreds of new homes, a hospital, bridges to the Keys, and a municipal golf course. As a result, this also led to improvements in rail and boat transportation.

The Great Depression and WWII

The Depression took many a fortune from wealthy Sarasotans including that of John and Mable Ringling. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped build the local economy back through a series of infrastructure projects. The first was a “drainage system” for the Bobby Jones Municipal Golf Course and, two years later, the construction of Municipal Auditorium which was designated a National Register of Historic Places in 1995 (

Additional WPA projects included development of the Bay Front and the Lido Beach Casino.

Sarasota history

Lido Beach Casino torn down 1969

Construction of the Manatee-Sarasota Airport (SRQ) began in 1938.  It was used as a military airfield during WWII with over 3,000 service personnel stationed there.  Actually, wartime activities in the area helped to serve and encourage an ever-growing tourism industry.

The Modern Era

The decade of the 60’s became the “Stunning Sixties” for unprecedented growth that continued into the 1970’s.  Due to a recession in the late 70’s, many businesses did not survive.  Hardest hit was downtown Sarasota with many stores shuttered.  A business and tourism rebound in the 1980’s continued into the 90’s.  After brief set backs at the turn of the new millennium and with the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, Sarasota saw a dynamic and vibrant upturn in its economy throughout the past two decades.

Sarasota is now experiencing greater popularity than ever before.  Remarkably, all of this is seen in Sarasota’s celebrated Historic Downtown District, St. Armand’s Circle on Lido key, and on Siesta and Longboat Keys.

Dream Town: Sarasota, Florida – Cultured, creative, and cool, this white sand–blessed Florida town is ready for prime time. 

By Tracey Minkin

 “Culture & Coastline

Sometimes you give up big-city pleasures to enjoy life by the sea. But here on a gracefully curving bay south of Tampa, there’s been no such sacrifice. The remarkable reality—and surprise—of Sarasota is the pairing of a thriving arts and culture scene with world-class beaches – a combination made all the sweeter by the local, laid-back Gulf vibe.”

Also recommended in Coastal Living magazine:  Sarasota voted no.3 “happiest beach towns in America.”


 Any history of Sarasota is not complete without looking at the influences of “the circus.”  The Ringling Brothers founded their circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin, but it is Sarasota that is most synonymous with “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  Thanks to the brothers Charles and John’s decision to move the winter home of “The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus” from Bridgeport, CT in 1927, Sarasota became known as “circus town.”  Stars of the now “three-ring” circus like Emmet Kelly and The Flying Wallendas also made Sarasota their home.  Because of this, the circus, its performers and animals, became an integral part of both the social and economic life of the community. Finally, it is also part of what gives Sarasota its distinct personality.

Keeping the circus tradition alive

The Circus Arts Conservatory traces its founding and own history to the legacy of the circus and its performers in Sarasota.  Its mission is to preserve this heritage through performances, training, education and outreach. … as the “Circus Capital of the World,” Sarasota, Florida claims Circus Sarasota as its own resident hometown circus.