History of Sarasota, Florida
The presence of people, possibly Paleo-Indian, along the west coast of Florida dates
back to around 8,000 B.C. and there is evidence that native Americans lived along the
waterfront of Sarasota and southwest Florida more than 3,000 years ago. In the 1500's, the
first Spanish explorers, Ponce de Leon, Panfilo Narvaez, and Hernando De Soto landed on
the Gulf Coast in search of gold and silver. In 1821, the United States acquired the
territory of Florida and in 1824, the Armed Occupation Act allowed for private ownership
of land along Sarasota Bay, but only for incoming settlers. The native Seminoles were not
allowed to become citizens or own land and were pushed even further south. In 1855, the
settlers won their war with the Seminoles but it wasn't until the 1880's that development
In 1885, Sarasota was promoted in Scotland. Many families sailed to America expecting
fields of vegetables, housing, and citrus groves. They found only a stump-filled Main
Street and most of the colonists left. John Hamilton Gillespie, a Scottish aristocrat,
lawyer and member of the Royal Company of Archers, Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland, built
what is believed to be America's first golf course in Sarasota. Gillespie also built the
DeSoto Hotel on Main Street for tourists and prospective investors. In 1902, he was
elected as Sarasota's first mayor.
Scottish influence remains evident through the annual Sarasota Highland Games and Festival
and the Riverview High Kiltie band, which wears authentic kilts and features bagpipers and
Highland dancers. The Crowley Museum and Nature Center in eastern Sarasota vividly
demonstrates what life was like for Sarasota's first settlers in the late 19th century.
Sarasota began attracting wealthy Americans in the 1910's as it does today. Bertha Palmer,
widow of Chicago developer Potter Palmer, came to Sarasota and built extensive gardens on
her waterfront winter estate, Osprey Point, which is today's Historic Spanish Point.
Palmer also purchased a 30,000-acre ranch in eastern Sarasota which is now Myakka River
John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, made a mark on
the community of Sarasota in various ways. In the 1920s, he and his wife, Mable, built a
magnificent Venetian-style estate on Sarasota Bay named C d' Zan. Then they built an art
museum for their collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens and other 17th-century Italian
and Flemish art. In addition, John used his circus elephants to help build the first
bridge from the mainland to St. Armands Key, which he developed as a commercial and
The circus' winter quarters were moved to Sarasota in 1927, thus creating a new identity
for Sarasota as a "circus town." Now Sarasota is known as the "Circus
Capitol of the World" and is home to many circuses. In 1949, the gymnastics program
at Sarasota High School was expanded to include circus acts and the Sarasota Sailor Circus
was born. Sarasota County is the only public school system in the United States that
sponsors an after school youth circus program known as the Sailor Circus and is also home
to Ringling's Clown College
Sarasota became a mecca for modern architecture between 1941 and 1966 when a group of
architects came together to debate the philosophies of abstract expressionism in a
creative community with a cultural tradition ready to accept tenets of modernist design.
The result was a remarkable body of work known as the Sarasota School of Architecture and
their work is still enjoyed here today.
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