Imagine a place where nature abounds, where the sun rises over expansive prairies and green pinelands, where wildlife of all description delights the naturalist and the hunter. Here schools of fish are so dense that some are squeezed right out of the bay and land gasping in your boat. Crystal springs gush from the earth, and wetland saucers capture torrents of rain. Overhead, flocks of birds fill the sky, and at twilight, hundreds of roseate spoonbills match the color of the sunset. You are imagining Sarasota, just a few hundred years ago.
Those of us who discovered Sarasota in modern times still delight in the inland prairies, the dazzling beaches and the rosy sunsets, but these are only a fraction of the Sarasota we know. Our Sarasota is largely defined by sophisticated boutiques on St. Armands Circle, condo towers and cultural institutions along the bayfront, highways teeming with cars, and an infinity of houses on tidy pockets of land. People are more abundant than wildlife, and the star-spattered night sky is clouded by city lights.
We can hardly imagine the Sarasota the European explorers and pioneer settlers beheld. They gazed upon a land, wild and beautiful, inhabited only by scattered groups of Native Americans. Did any of those early discoverers realize that this paradise, which had endured virtually unchanged for many thousands of years, would—because of their presence—all but disappear within a few blinks of geologic time?
Sarasota was at the epicenter of European exploration of Florida’s west coast. Ponce de Leon investigated Charlotte Harbor in 1521 as a location for a new European settlement, and Hernando DeSoto landed in 1539 near the Manatee River. Like other early explorers, they viewed this new world through their own lens. To them, the graceful live oaks represented wood for shipbuilding, and the tall pines were a source of valuable naval stores, such as pitch, rosin and turpentine.
The explorers also found land suitable for cultivation, and they sounded the bays and rivers to gauge the potential of commercial navigation. Maps from this era give us our identity, naming
our deepest pass Boca Sarazota. Two hundred years later, a new wave of
surveyors would record the hydrography and topography of the native landscape and chart place names such as Rocky Point (Point of Rocks), Clam Island (Siesta Key) and the Rocky River (Shakett Creek).
When the pioneering settlers arrived by boats in the 1800s, they saw palm, cedar and oak hammocks looming dark above the bright ribbon of sandy Gulf beach. They entered the bay at Boca Sarazota, and selected elevated shell mounds along the shore for their homesites and gardens. They obtained both shelter and food from the abundant cabbage palm trees. Deer, turkey, rabbit, fox squirrels and myriad other wildlife were within easy reach, and the bays were filled with scallops, oysters and many species of fish. The settlers collected eggs from loggerhead turtle nests and honey from hollow-tree bee hives. Using the area’s natural resources, they built an economy around agriculture and fishing.
While the surroundings were beautiful and food was plentiful, life was not without its challenges—mosquitoes, hurricanes, wildfires and fevers would take their toll on these brave newcomers.
Thousands of years before their arrival, Native Americans had colonized these same shores, hunting and gathering on the prairies and woodlands and harvesting seafood from the bays. Prairie fires from lightning strikes rejuvenated the hunting grounds and provided an open expansive landscape unlike what we see today. The earliest people hunted with projectile points made of stone, but over the centuries, the Native Americans learned to use shells to craft fishing net sinkers, ladles and woodcarving adzes.
The relative ease of harvesting seafood allowed time for art, and pieces of shells were shaped and polished into elegant jewelry. Local clays provided a basis for making pottery, and additives such as coarse sand and plant fibers improved the strength and utility of ceramic vessels for cooking and food storage.
As the nourishing shellfish were consumed, the discarded shells formed low hills—middens—along the coastline; these provided elevation above storm tides and an enhanced view of the bay. In addition to middens, larger mounds were built, reaching heights of nearly 20 feet above sea level. One mound north of Whitaker Bayou was formed as a pyramid, with a long, sloping ramp providing access to the ceremonial platform at the top.
By the time Florida was discovered by Europeans, these middens and mounds lined most of the bay shoreline, from what is now the Ringling Museum to Indian Mound Park in Englewood. Major complexes were located at Whitaker Bayou, along Gulfstream Avenue, along Roberts Bay, at Spanish Point, and near the beach at Venice. Today, the same waterfront areas colonized by the Native Americans are among the most prized locations in Sarasota. The early people’s efforts to elevate their homes with piles of shells have been eclipsed by towering condominiums.
But those builders of shell mounds, who inhabited much of Florida from approximately 5,000 years ago up to the time of European discovery, were not Sarasota’s first people. As long as 12,000 years ago, hunters and gatherers were living here—but in a setting utterly different from the one the European explorers encountered. It was the end of the last Ice Age; sea levels were some 90 feet lower than today, and Florida was twice as wide. Remains at Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Springs reveal a world where people lived among giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats and giant land tortoises. Mammoth and mastodon were among the giants of this late-Pleistocene-era landscape, and humans were already beginning to manipulate shells to serve their needs.
From the paleo hunter to newcomers in the 21st century, every wave of colonists has discovered a landscape rich in flora, fauna and beauty. Each group adapted to the resources at hand, and each group left an imprint on the land. Today’s bayfront condominiums are built upon the ancient shell middens. The warm spring where prehistoric men gathered in the Ice Age is now a spa, where international tourists bask in the mineral-rich waters. The farms and fields of the early settlers have become residential subdivisions and shopping malls. Under the ground we inhabit lie the roots of Sarasota’s heritage, revealed through artifacts, place names and stories.
Sarasota County parks and recreation director John F. McCarthy wrote “Night Magic,” about kayaking at night, in the Summer 2010 issue.
A time-traveler’s view of the world that was.
Cattle introduced by the Spanish grew into small herds managed by Seminole Indians and early settlers. The Cow Pen Slough area was among the many areas along the Myakka River that provided lush grassland for free-range grazing. During the Civil and Spanish-American wars, small fortunes were made from Sarasota cattle.
During the Seminole Indian wars of the 1840s, Fort Armistead was established near today’s Indian Beach. It served as the center of Indian relations between Tampa and Charlotte Harbor. While those who selected the site described it as a “healthy” location, the fort’s soldiers succumbed to yellow fever, and the site was abandoned.
Early pioneers frequently encountered rattlesnakes, panthers and black bears. Bears would often raid the nests of sea turtles on the beach, much as their smaller cousins, raccoons, do today. In the 1880s, surveyors encountered a bear while they were laying out the plat of Sarasota near what is today known as downtown’s Five Points.
One of the first African-Americans to arrive in Sarasota was Jeffrey Bolding, a runaway slave from North Carolina. Trying to reach the Everglades in 1857, he was found by the Whitaker family, who purchased Jeffrey from his owner. Following emancipation he remained with the Whitaker family as a free man.
Hurricanes have often reshaped the local landscape. The hurricane of 1921 destroyed most of the industrial docks along downtown’s bayfront, clearing the way for recreation areas and residential views. An earlier storm in 1877 tossed a sponging sloop 100 yards inland. When William Whitaker lost his fishing nets to a hurricane in 1848, he named the storm-carved channel New Pass.
St. Armands Key was formerly known as Deer Key, a name that appears on coastal charts from the 1880s. Other historic names that were reflective of the wildlife found here were Otter Key, Coon Key and the Bird Islands (today’s Bird Key).
Oranges were imported to Florida in the 1840s by the early explorers and settlers. Citrus groves became a common component of pioneer life and formed the basis for the pioneer communities of Fruitville and Bee Ridge.
Pleistocene-era mammoth and mastodon bones were found in Venice in the 1920s and along Phillippi Creek in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1970s, human remains were discovered alongside Pleistocene remains of ground sloths and giant land tortoises, all remarkably well preserved deep in the waters of Warm Mineral and Little Salt Springs.
With an abundance of sandy beaches, early Sarasota supported a large rookery of nesting marine turtles; those turtles were staples of the Native American and pioneer diets. In the 1890s, Key West fisheries began coming here to harvest the large, defenseless reptiles, severely reducing the population that had nested here for centuries.
Since the galleons of the Spanish explorers could not enter the shallow bays, they carried with them sturdy auxiliary craft that were fitted with oar and sail. These boats were used to sound the harbors, bays and rivers along Florida’s coastline. In the early years of the 20th century, pieces of an ancient longboat were exposed by erosion along the beach of what is now known as Longboat Key.
In the 1840s, Florida’s surveyors learned local place names from settlers and Seminole Indians. Many of these names were recorded on maps and then lost to local memory. One such place, “Locha Notia,” meaning “sleeping turtles,” along the Myakka River, has been preserved in the name of a riverfront nature preserve.
While most people think of Florida as a tropical jungle, the landscape settlers saw in the 19th century was mainly open prairie and pine flatwoods. These habitats were maintained and rejuvenated by wildfires that raged from lightning strikes, which helped nurture a wide range of plant and animal species.
Tocobaga Fishing, by Hermann Trapman, featured in the exhibition Obscured by Time: The Magic of Florida, at Avon Park’s South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Arts and Culture, Jan. 12-24.