When Hernando DeSoto landed in Florida, his beautiful daughter, Sara, fell tragically in love with a Seminole warrior named Chichi-Okobee, and the city of Sarasota is named for this young girl and the legend of her romance.
That’s the first myth researchers debunk when they investigatehow Sarasota got its name. Even though the legend became the basis for the “Sara de Soto” Pageant, a civic festival observed in Sarasota in the mid-20th century, it’s entirely fictional. The legend is derived from the short fiction piece The Legend of Sara Desoto, written by Sarasota pioneer George F. Chapline in 1900. So how did the city get its name?
By the mid-1700s, the name “Zara Zote” appeared on southwest Florida maps, but no one knows for sure how the name originated. Sarasota’s historians have put forth several possibilities. It’s quite likely that the name was indigenous all along. “Zota” was a native word for “blue waters.” The name “Zara” may have told the natives which blue waters, but one Sarasota researcher offered another speculation. Edna Mosely Landers theorized in 1936 that Spanish explorers saw the white sands on the barrier islands from a distance and were reminded of the Sahara Desert. “Sahara,” in this theory, became “Zara” so that “Zara Zota” meant “Sahara by the blue waters.”
Surely neither theory will ever be confirmed. How did the natives indicate to one another which blue waters? Did Spanish crews have sailors with experience of the Sahara? We may never know. It’s not even clear how the two words became the one-word “Sarasota,” known today around the globe. The 2-word name was used as recently as the late 1800s; the first Post Office opened in “Sara Sota” in 1878. Some historians believe the Post Office mandated the use of “Sarasota” as one word, but no documents have been found to verify that theory.
As the 20th century opened, the single-word name “Sarasota” was firmly set. The community of Sarasota was incorporated as a town under Florida guidelines in 1902, and the town was reincorporated in 1913 as a city. Although the origin of the name remains a mystery, Sarasota’s white sands and blue waters are still attracting adventurers and romantics today.