The First Colonists

By staff November 1, 2002

Not too many years ago, buying Florida real estate could be iffy. During the Roaring '20s, that "era of wonderful nonsense," real estate agents with slick hair and slicker sales pitches fleeced wide-eyed speculators time and again, validating the claim that a fool and his money are easily parted. A popular joke of the time kidded that waterfront property was being sold by the bucketful.

But the suckers of the '20s were not the first to be taken for a real estate ride, at least not in Sarasota. That dubious distinction goes much farther back to a group of Brits and Scots who arrived on our shores in the winter of 1885; no group has been enticed to the Sunshine State expecting more and receiving less than they.

Known as the Ormiston Colony, they migrated from depression-ridden Scotland, convinced that a better life awaited them in Florida. Their newspapers had painted a lovely picture of an idyllic community bathed in perpetual sunshine. Awaiting them, they were told, was a veritable paradise where two crops of citrus each year, easily grown and sold, would make them gentlemen farmers.

Such was the dream on a cold and rainy November night in 1885 as families gathered on a pier in Scotland to say their good-byes. Awaiting them in the harbor was the chartered ship Furnessia, a daunting transatlantic voyage and, they hoped, a better life in far-off Florida.

One of the emigrants, Nellie Lawrie, later wrote that as they were about to leave, the crowd began to sing an old Scottish song that went, "Will ye no come back again? Better loved ye ne'er will be." And as the launch pulled away from the dock a rousing chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" could be heard. By the time the singers got to the last chorus, few could continue, "for there were tears in their eyes and a sob in their throats."

Although they may have been wide-eyed at the prospect of "a little Scotland in Sarasota," these were not rubes whose pockets were fuller than their heads. These were bright, stalwart people who had checked out the credentials of the sellers, the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, and found them to be first-rate. One of the company's agents, Selven Tate, was a nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and a board member, Sir John Gillespie, a well-known aristocrat with deep Scottish roots, typified the company's members.

But in fact, Sarasota was not a town at all. It was a harsh wilderness that offered little except tropical beauty and hardship, sparsely settled, difficult to reach, and with no roads, water supply or other infrastructure. All it had in common with the flowery advertisements in Scottish papers and company brochures was its location.

The Atlantic crossing would prove to be a harbinger of what awaited. The voyage took 12 days and was a cold one, with rough seas and engine problems. Finally the weary passengers reached New York and were put up at hotels arranged by the investment company. From there another voyage awaited them down the east coast to Fernandina for a night, then by rail-derided as two streaks of rust-to Cedar Key.

Lawrie recalled that the trip down was "terrible," with "no comforts on the train, no water to drink, dust, heat, sand and mosquitoes." Occasionally the train would have to stop for firewood for its engine, but the erstwhile settlers were unwilling to get off because they were frightened of rattlesnakes. After sunset the loud croaking of frogs in nearby swamps was unsettling.

The newcomers remained at the Suwanee Hotel in Cedar Key for two weeks, fraught with anxiety about what lay ahead. Word reached them that the lumber necessary to build their homes had not even left the sawmill, so Sarasota was not yet prepared to receive them. But with hotel bills piling up, they decided to wait no longer and left on the final leg of their journey aboard a boat called the Governor Safford.

Prior to leaving Scotland, each colonist had paid $14 for an acre of land, parcels of up to 40 acres outside of town to grow their crops and a bayfront lot for his new home. In the center of town was to be a large square around which would be built a school, church and their homes. But only the town plat had been completed, primarily to be used as a selling tool to prove that Sarasota existed at all.

To steam into Sarasota Bay after a harrowing journey and see from the deck only a dirt path, some planks of wood for a pier and little else must have been the newcomers' worst nightmares come true. Things did not get better after they were put ashore.

They landed on Dec. 23,, in temperatures that soon sunk to the coldest on record. With no housing awaiting them, canvas tents that a few had brought along were pitched and used for shelter. Lawrie recalled that some of the men slept on boxes or in the sand. She credited the kindness of the few area natives for taking in some of the colonists until temporary quarters could be erected.

In January, a light snow fell and bonfires were built to help keep the group warm. The colonists who ventured out to their 40 acres found the parcels difficult to reach and overgrown. As for the easy farming life, Lawrie mentioned, "A 'cracker' came along one day and Mother asked him how things were in the section and what success he had in raising vegetables and oranges. He replied, '.what them ants don't eat, the sandflies do, and what they leave the mosquitoes git.'"

Under such circumstances and with no improvement on the horizon, the distressed colonists began to leave. Most of them left for larger cities up North where they could make a living. Only one family returned to Scotland and only one other, the Brownings, remained in Sarasota. (John Browning, a descendant, still lives in Sarasota and is active in community affairs.)

With their venture in shambles, the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company sent John Hamilton Gillespie, son of board member Gillespie, over to revive the effort. Through his guidance and hard work, Sarasota finally began to come together, incorporating as a town in 1902 with its motto the hopeful: "May Sarasota Prosper." But this was of no comfort to his fellow countrymen who had come so far and sacrificed so much.

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