Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Corrupt politicians nothing new

Partial view of house built in Sarasota in 1850s
This Sarasota house was built in the 1850s and belonged to
the earliest settler, Bill Whitaker, according to Yesterday's
Sarasota
 author Del Marth. This photo appears on Page 12.
In case you think our country's political shenanigans are a modern phenomenon, rest assured the Florida frontier had its share of nightmares. One occurred in what is today the South Florida city of Sarasota.

In the 1880s, elite politicians and corporations literally stole homesteaded land from settlers who'd already proved their claims. How? Politicians changed the law in order to circumvent the Homestead Act of 1862.

The Homestead Act granted ownership of 160 acres of federal land to a person who built a home on the acreage, lived in it, and farmed the land for five years. The 1973 book, Yesterday's Sarasota, by Del Marth, tells what happened next to Sarasota-region homesteaders who'd proved their claims, meaning they'd fulfilled requirements and now owned their land. 

In 1881, Florida politicians dug and found a  pre-1862 law that "gave the state all swamp and overflow lands in Florida," Marth writes. So they rewrote the state's land classifications and designated 22 million acres as swamp. Almost 700,000 of those acres were in the Sarasota area. Practically overnight, people's farmland was suddenly being called swampland. And, surprise, much of that new swampland ended up in the hands of land speculators.

The region was hardscrabble wilderness at the time, not the upscale city that is today's Sarasota. Still, for some people, it was home. The area was called Sara Sota, and it had a post office, school, and about 100 families. Suddenly, many discovered they were living on "swamp" and that they no longer owned their land.

Things got darker. Twenty locals formed a vigilante committee with the intent to retaliate against the speculators. In 1884, they killed two locals suspected of  cooperating with the land raiders. One, the postmaster, was shot while out gathering kelp, Marth writes. The other was shot off his horse. Stories like this are why frontier Florida is said to have resembled the Wild West in behavior.

As so often happens when individuals are pitted against larger, more powerful forces, the settlers lost. Marth writes that tax records of 1888 indicated the newly designated 700,000 acres of "swampland" ended up in the hands of eight companies. Three were railroad companies. One was a British company that Marth says "ultimately founded the town of Sarasota" by luring Scottish settlers with promises of estates in paradise. Things didn't go so well at first, as you can imagine. But that story is for another blog post.