The state of Florida has an interesting history that goes back much further than the famed Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth story.

The area of West Florida, which encompasses Sarasota, has had archaeological evidence of having been inhabited by natives as far back as the Pleistocene Era, which puts us back about 11,700 years ago.

The proximity of Sarasota to the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico and the temperate weather made it a perfect destination for settlement as the hunters and gatherers of that time had the best of both worlds – land and sea. The tropical climate allowed for vegetation and crops to grow while what would become Sarasota Bay delivered both food and transportation.

A Land Has a Name

Fast forward to our aforementioned distant Spanish relatives, it has been noted that the first Europeans set foot in the area around the 16th century. While not exactly in Sarasota, the first recorded contact came in 1513 from a Spanish expedition which set foot just south of the city – Charlotte Harbor to be exact. The namesake would not come to be known until two decades later when Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto arrived in South Tampa Bay and named the area ZaraSota which translates to “Radiance of Soto”. De Soto did not derive the name for bragging rights but formed the word from the Arabic word for Radiance, Zara, and Soto from the Latin word “saltus” which describes a large grassy area surrounded by wooden groves.

A City Booms & A State is Acquired

The proximity of Sarasota to the ocean made it the perfect location for trade and soon the small settlement was bursting with ranchos (fishing camps) and trade encampments through the late 1700’s. Although Sarasota remained relatively isolated due to its enclosed natural barriers, the acquisition of the territory in 1819 followed by its statehood in 1845 brought with it a wave of new settlements which would unfortunately be detrimental to the natives who had called Sarasota their home for hundreds of years. These indigenous natives such as the Tocobaga and Caloosa would perish due to the disease and epidemics unknown to their settlements, as well as the forced evacuation by US officials.

From Cattle Ranches to Tourist Attractions

The first family to settle into Sarasota County as we know it today was the Whitaker family from Europe, who escaped the famine of their home country for the promise of the Land of Opportunity. Towards the end of the 18th century, people were flocking south to escape the brutal cold of the north and to take part in the settlements popping up in the tropical paradise of West Florida. It was around the early 1900’s, we started to see Sarasota be marketed by entrepreneurs such as Owen Burns and Bertha Palmer as a tropical paradise destination in a time where most flocked to Europe. Much of Main Street, the Five Points, as well as Myakka State Park was purchased and owned by Palmer – the region’s largest landholder of the time (and a woman!). Her resort, as well as her winter residence, made Sarasota the vacation destination for her wealthy and social peers.


The second portion of Summertime in Sarasota Series: A History Part II (1900 – Today) will be featured in our next installment.

Works Cited
Wikipedia. “History of Sarasota, Florida.”,_Florida
Photo Pictured Above: Bertha Palmer, the largest landowner in Sarasota at the turn of the century, takes a stroll through Palmer Ranch.
Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive