She's not the Sara in Sarasota
Herald Tribune, October 12, 2009
It is not unusual to get a call at the Sarasota County History Center inquiring about
the origin of Sarasota's alliterative name.
Some believe that it derives from Sara de Soto, daughter of the Spanish explorer, Hernando
de Soto. As the history specialist for Sarasota County, it becomes my responsibility to
inform that it does not. He did not have a daughter.
As local lore has it, though, on his quest through Florida, de Soto brought Sara along for
Said to be "lovelier than all the princess maidens of the Seminole camp," Sara
fell in love with Chi Chi Okobee, "the fleet and strong heir by blood and physical
prowess to the thousand tepees and stalwart warriors of Black Heron's Seminoles."
Their unrequited love soon turned tragic. Chi Chi became ill. He was ministered back to
health by Sara -- who's "love potion was more powerful than the medicaments of
medicine men" -- but she contracted the mysterious malady and died.
A bereaved Chi Chi then sought permission from Hernando to bury his daughter in Sarasota
Bay -- and to guard over her forevermore, he and a hundred warriors drowned themselves, a
gesture that was described as "peaceful and beautiful."
This story, penned by local pioneer George F. Chapline, was first enacted in 1916 -- with
George's brother, J.B. Chapline, playing the Indian prince, and Genevieve Higel, daughter
of Siesta Key developer Harry Higel, cast as the tragic Sara.
While the fictitious romance became the basis of an annual pageant which drew thousands
each year to Sarasota, it clouded the real derivation of the name.
As the Sarasota Herald reported in 1936, according to Mrs. Edna Mosely Landers, a map
dated 1776 noted the presence of Boca Sarazota. Mrs. Landers deduced that Spanish
explorers noted the presence of white sand Indian mounds which from a distance looked flat
and reminded them of the "Sahara."
The word "zota," she said, means clear, blue, limpid and beautiful. Mrs. Landers
deduced that the "zota" was added to the Sahara which eventually became Sarazota
and evolved into Sarasota.
Although this version lacks the bittersweet romance of the legend, and would not have
drawn many tourists to bolster the local economy, it is the best explanation yet.
And by the way, circus elephants did not help with the construction of the first Ringling
Bridge, nor did Mister John build houses for the "little people," who were a
part of his circus.
Sorry about that.
Jeff LaHurd is a Sarasota resident, historian and author.
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