The founding of the Manatee settlement

vmannix@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

The man came looking for a place to settle with his family and move his business. His name was Josiah Gates. The 39-year-old innkeeper, South Carolina native, husband and father of two moved his family from Fort Brooke, which is now Tampa, in 1842.

They were Manatee County's first permanent pioneers, and they made their homestead near the banks of the Manatee River around what is now 14th Street East.

Up to that time, the area, known as the "Manatee Lands," was inhabited by Spaniards and Seminole Indians.

"The idea of carving civilization out of the wilderness was attractive" to the likes of Gates, said Dean Dixon, supervisor of the Manatee Village Historical Park.

Indeed, Gates and his wife, Mary, a Georgia native, had lived a Florida frontier life for years, according to "Edge of Wilderness. A Settlement History of Manatee River and Sarasota Bay" by Janet Snyder Matthews.

"He was a typical pioneer -- weathered people used to living remote, hard lives," Dixon said. "He followed the military around a bit, staying on the edge of Indian territory."

Gates was among the many to take up the invitation of the federal government through the Armed Occupation Act of 1842.

The law was based on the assumption that the only way to subdue the Seminole Indians was to establish colonies to work the land and hold it.

Any head of a household could come to Manatee and receive 160 acres of land. The deal was the man had to clear five acres, build a house and live five years in the area.

Manatee County was vastly larger then. It encompassed all of Sarasota, DeSoto, Highlands, Hardee, Lee, Glades, Okeechobee and Charlotte counties, and stretched from central Florida to the Everglades.

"It was wilderness and the government was spending so much money to keep soldiers down here to protect settlers from Indians that they decided to pay people with land to act as protection," said Cathy Slusser, director of the Division of Historical Resources for the Manatee County Clerk of the Court. "The government had more land than they had money at that time."

It was a particular stretch along the Manatee River's south shore that caught the eye of Gates, as well as brother-in-law Miles Price, as they sailed up the Manatee River that fall more than 160 years ago.

According to Lillie B. McDuffee's "The Lures of Manatee," Gates and Price were guided to the site by three Spanish fishermen.

There were majestic live oaks, tall pines and a circular pool, which turned out to be a mineral spring.

There is a historical marker at that site.

Gates cleared, cultivated and built houses on his selected site, raising "corn, pease (sic), potatoes, rice, banana, melon ... "

Their new log house had six rooms. A second house had nine rooms on the second floor alone.

"He obviously had it in mind that others would follow," Dixon said.

Among the settlers who joined Gates in the settlement of Manatee were merchant Henry Clark, carpenter Ezekiel Glazier and Dr. Franklin Branch, to name a few.

They endured the rigors of the wilderness, from panther attacks and Seminole Indian raids to yellow fever and hurricanes.

"They knew there was a risk involved -- a price to be paid," Dixon said. "Anytime you step off that boat, there's that fear of 'make it or break it.' "

By the early 1880s, the settlement contained a Methodist church, five stores, three boardinghouses, a drugstore, an academy, a meat market and a post office.

In 1888, the town of Manatee was incorporated, 16 years after Gates' death at the age of 68.

But by the 1940s, the town was on the verge of bankruptcy. Municipal services were so expensive town officials began considering merging with Bradenton. The two cities were consolidated by the state Legislature in 1943 -- nearly 100 years after Gates' arrival.

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