"Sarasota" comes from the Calusa Indian language. While its exact meaning is unknown, it may mean "Point of Rocks." Native Americans settled in Florida at least 12,000 years ago. Over the millennia native Floridians developed complex cultures and some societies began to farm.
In April 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon led the first European expedition to the peninsula. He named it La Florida in recognition of the lush landscape, and because it was the Easter season known as Pascua Florida (Festival of Flowers). Ponce de Leon's fleet explored both east and west coasts, and though the exact locations are in dispute, he may have come ashore in Charlotte Harbor about 50 miles south of Sarasota.
Sarasota's location on the west coast, protected by barrier islands, created an ideal marine environment for fish. As early as the mid 18th century, fishermen from Colonial America and Cuba established seasonal fishing camps in Sarasota Bay.
The Territory of Florida, established in 1821, attracted American settlers and speculators drawn by real estate opportunities. By 1840 the population exceeded 54,000-nearly half being African-American slaves-with most settlement found in the north. In 1845 Florida became a state.
Ranching expanded throughout Florida in the 1840s as cattlemen migrated southward and opened new range in the upper St. Johns River basin, the Kissimmee Prairie, and the Peace and Caloosahatchee river valleys. Tampa, 58 miles north of Sarasota, became a shipping port for 1,000 cattle per month.
In 1898, national attention focused on Florida during the Spanish-American War. Tampa served as the primary staging area for U.S. troops bound for combat in Cuba.
In the Sarasota area, the ranching industry grew quickly in the early 20th century, and thousands of cattle roamed the swamps and the countryside. By the 1920s, cattlemen began fencing in their property to protect livestock from disease; some of these ranches still exist.
Sarasota was incorporated as a city in 1913. In the early 1920s Sarasota began to enjoy the overall real estate boom sweeping Florida that was facilitated by an improving transportation infrastructure and a strong U.S. economy. However, much of the boom was fueled by land speculation and by 1925 the bubble burst and Sarasota fell into an economic depression.
Despite the locale's financial woes, the mild climate led businessman John Ringling in 1927 to make Sarasota the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers' and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The move provided performers with a reprieve, while Ringling and other managers planned new shows. Other circuses followed Ringling's lead, and soon Sarasota was dubbed "Circus City, U.S.A."
During World War II, the U.S. Army identified Florida as an ideal location for military flight training, due to its year-round good weather and abundance of flat, open terrain. The army operated two air stations in Sarasota County. The Sarasota Army Airfield, near the border with Bradenton County, opened in spring 1942 to train bomber pilots; it transitioned into a fighter station later in the year. The Venice Air Base opened in December 1942 as a training school for fighter pilots. Over the course of the war, over 6,000 personnel were stationed at the two installations. Soon after the armistice, both bases were deactivated and turned over to local governments.
Florida's population tripled between 1950-1980 as retirees flocked there for the warm climate, and as immigrants arrived for employment opportunities. Sarasota County shared in the expansion. While agriculture and ranching continued to be an important part of the local economy, the service sector grew considerably.
With the passage of the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish six new national cemeteries. A demographic study of the nationwide veteran population identified the Sarasota area as lacking burial options. NCA considered three southwestern Florida sites before purchasing from J. Arlin Hawkins, in 2007, acreage that was operated as a family-operated ranch since the 1870s. Sarasota National Cemetery was formally dedicated in 2008 and opened for burials the following year. It is the sixth national cemetery established in Florida and the 127th in the national cemetery system.