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 the ride.

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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