Why Do They Call It "Sarasota"?
It’s the name of a bay, a county, and a booming, exhilarating city, but no one knows how the name “Sarasota” originated. The name’s origin is a mystery and will likely remain so. What’s certain is that by the mid-1700s, “Zara Zote” was appearing on maps of southwest Florida, yet no one knows precisely why. Several theories have been put forth, but arriving at a sure answer has proven impossible.
The most prominent myth is the easiest to debunk; “Sarasota” is not named for Hernando DeSoto’s daughter Sara. The Legend of Sara Desoto was an imaginative short story composed in 1900 by Sarasota settler George F. Chapline. In Chapline’s tale, DeSoto’s lovely daughter falls, romantically and tragically, for a muscular, attractive Seminole warrior. The fiction fails, however, when compared against the truth: the conquistadorè had no daughters, and no Seminoles were in Florida when DeSoto arrived. Nevertheless, the legend became the basis for the “Sara de Soto” Pageant, a civic festival observed in Sarasota for a number of years in the mid-20th century.
The name may have been a native name all along. “Zota” was a native word meaning “blue waters,” and the word “Zara” may have indicated to natives which blue waters. Yet one 20th-century researcher offered an alternative theory. In the 1930s, Edna Mosely Landers speculated that Spanish sailors spied the white sands of the barrier islands from afar and found them reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. “Sahara,” by this theory, became “Zara”; thus, “Zara Zota” meant “Sahara by the blue waters.”
Certainly neither theory will ever be proven. Did Spanish ships include sailors with knowledge of the Sahara? How did the natives specify which blue waters? What makes the matter more confusing is that it’s not even clear how the two words became one word. A 1776 map showed the name of the harbor waters as “Boca Sarazota,” yet when the first Post Office opened in the city in 1878, it was the “Sara Sota” Post Office. Some think the Postal Service either encouraged or required the one-word name “Sarasota,” but no documents exist to confirm or disprove that possibility.
What is certain is that as the 20th century opened, the one-word name was finally established. The Sarasota community was incorporated as a town under Florida law in 1902 and reincorporated in 1913 as a city. Its white sands and blue waters still attract adventurers and romantics from around the world.