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Community Sunday Favorites: Dr. Branch

 Dr. Franklin Branch

BRADENTON -- Dr. Franklin Branch had planned to build a sanatorium just west of present-day Bradenton and utilize the healing properties of a famous mineral spring to treat his patients. However, with the onset of hostilities by the Seminole Nation, the buildings he constructed were instead fortified with sable palm trunks for protection against the natives. Instead of patients, residents of Manatee occupied the structures of what became known as “Fort Branch.” 

Dr. Franklin Branch was born in 1802. The area in where he grew up is questionable; “The Singing River” by Joe Warner claims Branch grew up in Connecticut, but according to the Manatee County Historical Society, he grew up in Orwell, Vermont and studied medicine in his home state at Castleton Medical College, minoring in ministry at the same time. He graduated in 1825. 

Branch met his second wife, Matilda Vashti Wilson, in Abbyville, South Carolina, according to Warner. The newlyweds first moved to Fort Brook (present-day Tampa) where six children were born; they also adopted one daughter, Mary Fife. At Fort Brook, Branch became acquainted with Josiah Gates, Manatee County’s first settler. Upon hearing Gates’ tales of a mineral spring, which Indian legend claimed had medicinal powers, Branch decided he would capitalize on the idea and build a sanatorium next to the spring, advertising the utilization of the water for medicinal purposes. 

The family migrated to Manatee in October 1846 and purchased land that included the mineral spring. According to a 1983 Manatee County Historical Society interview with historian Dr. Wentzel, Branch built two log buildings right near the spring for his sanatorium. 

But an underlying animosity erupted into violence. For a time, relations with the Seminole Nation had been on good terms. The homes and shops that made up the Village of Manatee (present day East Bradenton) often received friendly visits from the natives and traded with them regularly. However, after word spread quickly two attacks by Seminoles at nearby trading posts, settlers feared an uprising. While Seminole leaders maintained that the murders and raids did not reflect the views of their people, federal troops maliciously destroyed the prized vegetable crop belonging to Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs -- triggering the Third Seminole War (1855-1858).

The buildings he constructed were fortified with sable palm trunks for protection against the Seminoles. Instead of patients, residents of Manatee occupied the structures of what became known as “Fort Branch” for nine months. The crowded conditions at the fort, plus a shortage of food, encouraged disease. Whooping Cough and Measles broke out during the nine months of the "siege.” During that time several area homes were attacked. 

Branch treated a variety of ailments and delivered three babies during that time. 

One of them was Furman Chairs Whitaker, the first native-born resident of Manatee County to become a doctor and practice in the area. He was born on March 4, 1856, during the Third Seminole War. The Seminoles burned the home of his parents and killed their hired hand, an Irishman named Owen Cunningham; only his heart was found. 

After the war was over, Branch set up another sanatorium and purchased a store to sell prescriptions. According to Wenzel, the storeowner, Mr. Clark, had died. Purportedly Clark didn’t like the thought of being buried in low-lying land, so he gave his wife “special” burial instructions – she placed his body in a barrel of whiskey and shipped him north to wherever his hometown was. 

Branch became a prominent figure in the community. Not only was he a doctor, but his background in ministry allowed him to marry some of the early couples in the County. At one time he served as postmaster and he became the first master of the Manatee Masonic Lodge. However, following the death of his wife, he sold his landholding to Capt. John Curry of Key West. He also donated land west of Old Manatee Burying Ground, which became Manatee Village Historical Park, for a church and school. 

Branch and his family moved to Tampa to re-establish his medical practice. The Manatee River settlements were left without a physician all during the Civil War.


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