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A Military Post on Sarasota Bay

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Bill Burger, former Sarasota County Archaeologist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Peabody Museum - Harvard University

Sarasota History - A Military Post on Sarasota Bay photo

By the early 1830s, tensions were building between Seminoles, homesteaders and U.S. military forces.

A lack of resources within the Indian Territory established by the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek had led to hunting forays outside the reserve boundaries. There had been no resolution of the issue of the return of runaway black slaves held by the Seminoles, and thefts of cattle by both Indians and homesteaders caused further dissention. The Second Seminole War erupted in 1835 with the ambush and massacre of Major Dade and his command.

In May of 1840, Brevet Brigadier Gen. Walker Keith Armistead assumed command of the Army of Florida. In order to more easily move against Indian camps south of Fort Brooke (today’s Tampa), he decided to establish a post closer to that area, a new southern headquarters.

In early November of 1840, the First Infantry, under commanding officer Maj. Greenleaf Dearborn, marched overland to the fishing station, or “rancho,” of Manuel Olivella, on Sarasota Bay in the area of today’s Indian Beach. Supplies and building materials were shipped from Fort Brooke for the construction of a new Fort Armistead.

A blockhouse, guard house and bake house were built, and a tent city established where by December more than 300 troops were billeted. Later, barns and warehouses were constructed to shelter supplies, and crops were planted. It is unknown if the fort was palisaded, but it unlikely, because the Seminoles did not engage in siege warfare. A trail was blazed north, leading to Fort Starke, a smaller post near the mouth of the Manatee River at today’s DeSoto National Memorial.

By the end of 1840, Dearborn had been transferred to Fort Starke and Lt. Col. William Davenport commanded Fort Armistead. Detachments of soldiers both marched inland and sailed south to press the remaining Seminoles into surrender and relocation to Indian Territory in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Fort Armistead became a base from which Indian delegates brought back from the Western Reserve tried to convince those still in southern Florida, to leave with them. At one point, some 90 surrendered Seminoles camped at the fort prior to boarding a steamer for the trip west.

Operations at the fort required large numbers of civilian workers, including carpenters, fishermen, boat pilots, wagon drivers and teamsters. Shallow draft sailboats and steamers were leased from private owners to transport men and supplies to and from the fort’s wharf. By March/April of 1841, nearly 600 troops and an unknown number of civilians and captive Seminoles occupied the post.

As increasing numbers of personnel fell ill to fevers and other sicknesses, the post quartermaster hired four civilians to build a hospital. Dr. Joseph Wright and assistant surgeon John Robertson reported deaths of 10 soldiers. Davenport requested that he move his regiment to the more healthy environs of Cedar Keys. After a May visit by Gen. Armistead himself, the post was abandoned. The general wrote to the War Department: “I extremely regret the necessity of abandoning the position at Sarasota. It is much nearer than Tampa to the bands on Peas Creek and in the Big Cypress, and served as a rallying point for those who were desirous of coming in.” Fort Armistead had been established, garrisoned and abandoned in about seven months.