Jumping into the Deep End of the Florida Political Pool: The Early Years

By Jim Schnur

The relationship between politics and access to navigable waterways and potable water resources has shaped Florida for centuries. During the early years, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries made first contacts with indigenous populations where water met land. In time, early settlements at St. Augustine and Pensacola hugged the saltwater coastline near artesian sources of drinking water. Missions and outposts established from the mid-1500s into the 1800s often sat in close proximity to rivers or other water sources.

As more settlers came to the greater Tampa Bay region in the early 1800s, they usually arrived by boat and stayed close to shore. In January 1834, territorial leaders approved the creation of Hillsborough County and designated the then-tiny settlement of Tampa as the county seat for lands that extended all the way to Charlotte Harbor and Lake Okeechobee and west to the Gulf of Mexico.

The creation of Manatee County in 1855 brings the water story closer to home. The valley around the Manatee River and the narrower Braden River that feeds into it east of present-day Bradenton offered areas for early farmers to homestead. By comparison, fewer settlers cultivated lands along the swampy shoreline of the Myakka River.

Although farmers exchanged crops with others in the Tampa Bay region, large-scale agricultural activities did not occur until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. Some settlers moved inland away from navigable waterways, and in 1866 the seat of county government moved from the Manatee settlement (east of downtown Bradenton) to Pine Level.

Hamilton Disston’s purchase of 4 million acres of Florida land for $1 million in early 1881 accelerated settlement in the region. Substantial tracts of the Disston Purchase occupied acreage in the greater Tampa Bay region. Samuel C. Upham’s 1881 Notes from Sunland focused on Disston’s lands in Manatee. At a time when Disston sold lands in the area for about $15 to $25 per acre, Upham proclaimed that “insects are neither numerous nor troublesome. I have been worse annoyed by mosquitoes in the City of Philadelphia than in this part of Florida.” He later added, “alligators are not numerous in this section, and are comparatively harmless.”

Upham’s claims of a land largely devoid of black clouds of mosquitoes certainly differed from what folks in Manatee encountered at that time. Indeed, by 1887, approximately 1,000 cases of yellow fever led to panics, quarantines, and many deaths in Tampa as this mosquito-borne disease ravaged a community just a bay away.

Soon, settlers moved even farther inland but stayed close to the river. Boats navigated the narrow Peace River to an area where phosphate was found in the early 1880s. Within a couple of years, the settlement that became Arcadia had a post office and plans were in place to bring in a railroad to haul phosphate and farm goods out of what was then eastern Manatee County.

The distance between coastal Manatee around a site then known as “Braidentown” and the phosphate and farming enterprises near Arcadia led residents to seek legislative approval to bisect Manatee County in 1887, a year after Arcadia was incorporated and the railroad had arrived. Overnight, the tiny settlement of Pine Level went from being the county seat of Manatee to the seat of DeSoto County. A year later, in large measure due to its location on the Peace River, Arcadia became the seat of the newly formed DeSoto County.

Just as Manatee had bisected Hillsborough County in 1855 when local residents sought closer governance of natural resources, and DeSoto bisected Manatee 32 years later, the expansion of agricultural and phosphate activities in Florida led other communities between Tampa and Lake Okeechobee to seek political autonomy that provided greater say over the management of water and natural resources.

As the land boom redefined coastal areas of Tampa Bay, legislative acts modified the political landscape. On April 23, 1921, in a single day, the legislature subdivided DeSoto County to create four new counties that gave residents closer access to those governing the use of many natural resources. On that day, Charlotte, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands counties were formed. Less than a month later, lawmakers once again bisected Manatee by creating Sarasota County.

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