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Sarasota County’s first residents preceded our well-known pioneers by centuries – tens of thousands of years, in fact. Evidence of these first Floridians is apparent in several of our county’s most famous sites, including Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Springs as well as dozens of other sites scattered throughout present-day Sarasota County. Numerous mound and midden sites throughout Sarasota County continued to represent life of these early Floridians all the way up to European contact and their eventual demise. Through archaeology and careful monitoring of development projects, we continue to learn more about our first residents as new sites are discovered and studied every year.

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Many of Sarasota County’s first settlers arrived to find an incomparable natural beauty paired with great hazards. From disease-carrying mosquitos to mounting tensions with the neighboring Seminole tribe, the lives of early settlers were full of difficult work. Many lived off of the abundant sea life of Sarasota Bay or the rivers that still carve their way through our county. And many more began to bring in cattle and livestock to raise and sell – beginning the burgeoning cattle industry of Florida. Attracted by the stunning views of Yellow Bluffs, William H. Whitaker and his family settled in Sarasota in 1843 and set up a homestead spanning more than 100 acres at Indian Beach. Like many others, they settled near the water and introduced a herd of cattle as early as 1847. However, their idyllic homestead was short lived due to a Seminole raid in 1856 that led to their home being burned down and forcing them north to a fort to ride out the attack. Yet, upon the end of the raid, the Whitakers and many settlers like them, returned to rebuild their homes and begin again, branching out and planting the first citrus grove in the area. Similarly, John and Eliza Webb settled in Osprey along with their family in 1862 and almost immediately planted their own citrus groves, shipping their products to northern markets.

As more people arrived, local populations grew, and settlements were established throughout present-day Sarasota County. Throughout the late 1800s well-known settlers, such as Isaac A. Redd, founded settlements like Bee Ridge, and families including the Knights and the Goffs began to arrive in present-day Venice, Nokomis and Englewood. One of the largest groups of settlers arrived from Scotland in 1885. Known as the Scots Colony, these settlers arrived in search of a promised “Little Scotland” under the management of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, but found the small and weathered village of Sarasota instead – a veritable wild west in the Sunshine State. The arrival of John Hamilton Gillespie to fix the broken promises of one of our county’s earliest development companies led to greater increases in population, booming land sales, and the inevitable boom period soon to follow.

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In the roaring twenties, development throughout Sarasota County was fast-paced and often difficult to follow as properties changed hands multiple times and prices rose and fell constantly. Developers such as Bertha Palmer and the Ringlings began work on large-scale subdivisions and farming projects such as Palmer Farms and Ringling Estates. Although much of the structures and development projects completed during this era have since been demolished, these developments opened alongside smaller areas that are still recognizable today such as Burns Court. Additionally, this period of prosperity led to the completion of several large municipal and infrastructure projects, including the Sarasota County Court House (completed in 1927), the opening of the Tamiami trail (1928) and Ringling Causeway (1926), and the construction of both the Southside and Bay Haven schools (1926).


Unfortunately, the boom was followed quickly by a bust and the associated economic hardships of the Great Depression. Thankfully, due to the still abundant waters off the coast of Sarasota County, some residents who lived through these lean years found that they never starved. Despite increasingly limited access to goods and food stuffs, Sarasota County survived the depression years through the late 1930s and braced itself for a second world war.

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Over the course of World War II, Sarasota County played host to several military installations and welcomed hundreds, if not thousands, of America’s servicemen and women as the natural beauty of Sarasota County enticed many soldiers, sailors and airmen throughout Florida to return and set up home in the sunshine.  The increased availability of cars made the mobility of tourists and travelers the new norm and gave birth to what became known as our very own “Tin Can Tourists” – families and groups of people who arrived in Florida pulling travel trailers and setting up temporary homes in a variety of popular spots throughout the county, including directly next to Payne Park and the endless excitement of spring training.

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As more people arrived in Sarasota County, more attention was called to the inequalities in society. Civil rights work and demonstrations throughout the county led to the desegregation of local golf courses such as Bobby Jones Golf Course, the demand for equal access to local beaches including Lido Beach, and the integration of local schools and libraries. Against the backdrop of a heavily segregated Sarasota County, these changes were not always met with acceptance. Nonetheless, members of the black community continued efforts to gain equality throughout Sarasota County and tackled issues from integration to voting rights well into the 1970s and 1980s.

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Over the past 20 years, population growth and development have continued throughout Sarasota County. As more and more people flood into the area during what has become known as “season,” the area’s once diverse range of industries have all but disappeared in the face of our prevailing economic driver – tourism.  

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Image by Tony Williams
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