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Searching for Lake Tallant in Camp Saw Grass

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Dan Hughes, former Sarasota County Archaeologist
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - Searching for Lake Tallant in Camp Saw Grass  photo

Driving past the Fruitville exit along I-75 and looking to the east, you may see the Fruitville library or even the South West Florida Water Management building. But if you had the ability to look into the past, you would see much more. You would see water. No, not the typical small wetlands that are found throughout the county, but instead a lake almost two miles long and a mile and half wide.

In September of 1935, an avocational archaeologist by the name of Montague Tallant (pictured) received the first clue that a lake had once existed. Tallant had received word that a large dugout canoe had been found in the Potter Palmer muck fields. Unfortunately, by the time he had arrived to investigate, the evidence had gone up in smoke. It seems that although the canoe was finely crafted on both ends and an exquisite specimen of Native American craftsmanship, its destiny was to serve as firewood.

After talking with a witness, Tallant was able to learn of the shape and length of the canoe. The canoe was shaped much like canoes are today, tapering at both ends and stretched to an impressive length of fourteen feet.

This discovery fueled Tallant’s interest in what was then called the “Muck Celery Fields.” He came back to Sarasota sometime in the next two months to investigate the fields and determine if any more archaeological remains could be found and if additional canoes could be identified before becoming firewood. Sure enough, two months after his initial investigation of the canoes, Tallant, in a letter to M.W. Sterling of the Smithsonian Institution dated November 1, 1935, wrote that he had discovered more canoes in the Muck Celery Fields. In addition to the letter, he enclosed a map showing the location of five canoes.
In the letter, Tallant speculated about the origin of the canoes and how they came to rest at the bottom of five feet of muck. He hypothesized that the prehistoric canoes had rested on a nearby landing site, perhaps a large sand ridge. As the wind blew or the rains came, the canoes had been either blown or washed over the surface of the lake, eventually sinking into the water, and then sinking still further into the soft material of the lake bed.

Tallant, in finding the canoes, had discovered evidence of a past environment that is completely different from today. By the time modern settlers had moved into the area, the lake had completely disappeared, leaving a low wet area that would be initially called “Big Camp Saw Grass” and later “Celery Fields.” The area at this time was still quite wet and contained a small pond in the northern end. However, drainage canals constructed in the 1920s and 1930s quickly solved this problem and opened the fertile lake bottom up to agriculture.

But what would this lake have been like? We know that by the time settlers came to this area, the lake no longer existed. We also know that at one time Native Americans used their canoes on the lake. As for a precise date, well, that is still a mystery.

Today the lake is gone. Changing environmental conditions, some natural and some not so natural, have caused the lake to permanently disappear. Nevertheless, the evidence provided by canoes buried in the earth gives us the opportunity to learn a little more about Florida’s past and about our ever-changing environment.
The next time you are out at the Fruitville Library, look to the south, and step back in time. Picture Lake Tallant and Native American hunters crossing its waters to hunt and fish in their large wooden canoes.

Information for this article was provided by Bill Burger of Burger Archaeology. Further information and exhibits on Montague Tallant are located at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.