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Sunday Favorites: Namesakes of Manatee

From 1763 to 1783, several expeditions surveyed the West Coast of Florida to determine possible commercial ports that would accommodate the 22-foot-draft of British capital ships.

MANATEE COUNTY – The period of British rule over what is now considered Manatee County was brief, but residents are reminded of it everyday. From 1763 to 1783, several expeditions surveyed the West Coast of Florida to determine possible commercial ports that would accommodate the 22-foot-draft of British capital ships – an unachievable aim for the shallow waters of the Gulf. The Brits gained little from the tumultuous journey, but left a legacy of naming rights for the region that many Manatee County citizens now call home.


In 1763, Spain traded Florida to the Kingdom of Great Britain in return for control of Havana, Cuba, which had been captured by the British during the Seven Years' War. It was part of a large expansion of British territory and almost the entire Spanish population left the area, taking with them much of the remaining indigenous population --- all but a few fishermen remained. 


Many of the natives that remained in Florida, were not indigenous to the area. They became known as Seminoles, a British corruption of the Spanish word cimarron, which meant wild. The Seminoles were mostly Muscogees and Creeks that had been driven out of their ancestral homelands in Georgia and Alabama. 


The first British surveyor to arrive in the area in June of 1765 was 32-year-old George Gauld. His sole purpose was to locate a deep-water port to receive the British fleet. He sailed aboard a 683-ton, 32 gun man-of-war called the H.M.S. Alarm with a crew of 22. Gauld used a little schooner named Betsey to navigate the shallow waters of Tampa Bay. He charted the keys near the mouth of the bay and as far south as present-day Sarasota Pass. He labeled the historic island at the mouth of the bay Egmont Key for John Perceval, a British politician, political pamphleteer, and genealogist. Perceval is noted for holding the office of First Lord of the Admiralty and was known as the second Earl of Egmont, a title presented to him by the British monarchs of Ireland.


 Fishing huts like the one pictured above dotted the west coast of Florida, housing Spanish fishermen who thrived on the fishing industry.

On the upper arm of the bay, Gauld named a river Hillsborough to honor Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough and president of Florida’s colonial board of trade. The north end of Long Island (present-day Anna Maria) was originally called Grant’s Point, for James Grant, the king’s appointed governor of the East Florida colony. Ten years after the Gauld expedition, Thomas Jeffery’s 1775 map labeled the inlet between Long Island and Palm Island as Longboat Inlet. Across from Palm Island the mainland that was originally noted as “Zarazote” had become Palm Sound (Cartographer Jose Eligio del Puente is the one who finally changed it to Sarasota).


The survey group spent nearly a month in the area, despite the difficulties they faced. Fourteen of the crew died from disease-born illnesses that were intensified by the scorching summer conditions. Two men received a dozen lashes each for drunkenness and neglecting duty during the survey. 


Interestingly, Gauld’s survey did not map the Manatee River. When he returned with the final illustration, the West Florida Governor George Johnstone reported that Tampa Bay was “in every respect superior to Havana.”


Later that year Guald and a small survey party went ashore to a wooded area with smoke rising from above the tree line. Several Spanish schooners were anchored off the shoreline. It was here that Gauld first observed a fish camp and documented the long established fishing industry in the area.


“They begin by pressing the fish with a great weight and pressing the fish after it is split and salted, then hang it up to dry,” he wrote. “The last operation is to pile the fish in the huts ready for loading. They supply the Havana and other Spanish settlements in the West Indies in the Lent season, in the same manner that New Foundland supplies those in the Mediterranean.” 


Gauld also noted that it was a very lucrative trade. It never dawned on Gauld that the peaceful fisherman could be considered a menace to the British crown, but it did however occur to his successor. In 1769, Bernard Romans arrived in the Manatee area. He spent six weeks with his survey team on Tampa Bay and named the Manatee River.


Like Gauld, Romans reported on the thriving fishing industry. He estimated that during season, there were as many as 400 Spanish fishermen up and down the coast, living in palmetto huts and depending on the seas and forests to provide them with food. 


Romans observed as the fishermen built their new huts or refit the one from the previous year. They carefully constructed their nets of silk grass. The fishermen worked on shares, the captain of the vessel receiving the greater majority. All the fishermen and boys shared the expenses of nets, lines, provisions and curing salt, the latter of which had to be purchased at a high price from Spanish officials in Cuba. Exports included sole, trout, drum, pompano, carp, turtle, shark oil, trout glue and smoked roe.


Romans was against allowing the industry to continue as it had existed before. Florida was covered with hundreds of the fishermen, and he saw them as a threat to the economy. He wanted officials to absorb the industry. The fisherman had indicated to him that they would be willing to trade with the British if salt were supplied. British naval officers told Romans they had better things to do than tear down a bunch of fishermen’s huts. 


And so fishing huts continued to dot the west coast, but the industry came under scrutiny again because the Spaniards continued to trade with the natives, many of whom were Seminole and a few indigenous tribes. Some colonial officials worried that such regular association could result in an uprising. However, an official review by Florida’s British authorities called the industry harmless, but fishermen were still under the watchful eye of officials as the chance of conspiracy still lingered in the humid air. 


In 1779, Spain declared war on England and battles raged on for four years resulting in Spain taking ownership of La Florida once again.


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