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The land where Fort De Soto now stands was originally inhabited by the
Tocobaga Indians from approximately 1,000 AD to 1,500 AD.
Indian middens left behind by the Tocobaga were first identified by Spanish
explorer Panfilo de Narvaez when his expedition landed on Florida's west
coast in 1528. It was the Fort's namesake, Hernando De Soto, however whose
expedition is better known, and who is credited with the conquest of Florida
Recorded history of the island now referred to as Mullet Key and the home of
Fort De Soto dates back only to 1949 when the area was first surveyed by
United States Army Engineers, including the then Colonel Robert E. Lee. The
engineers studied Egmont, Mullet, and Passage Keys - later recommending
Egmont and Mullet Keys be utilized for military purposes due to their
strategic locations relative to the entrance to Tampa Bay.
Key and Egmont Keys saw their first military use during the Civil War, when
Union troops used the two islands as a blockade to spot and stop any
Confederates attempting to run the blockade into Tampa Bay. The troops used
the Egmont Key lighthouse as a lookout point.
The United States became involved in a military conflict in Cuba in 1898,
and this conflict led to the Spanish American War. The proximity of
hostilities prompted Tampa Bay area residents to demand military defenses.
During the war, Tampa became the port of embarkation for troops and supplies
headed for the Caribbean war zones. Construction began for the outposts on
both Mullet and Egmont Keys later that same year, thanks in a large part to
efforts of railroad magnate and historical Tampa Bay personality, Henry
Plant. The fortifications became known as Fort Dade on Egmont Key, and Fort
De Soto on Mullet Key.
The mortar batteries, Battery Laidley
and Battery Bigelow came on line in late 1903. There were eight
each requiring a 12 man crew to manually load and aim.
The crews could choose from 800, 824, or 1046 pound projectiles for firing.
These required powder charge bags weighing between 54 to 67 pounds to fire.
The minimum range of the mortar was 1.25 miles and a maximum range of 6.8
miles. The batteries were banked with native growth, making them extremely
difficult to spot from approaching ships.
3-inch rapid-fire guns were also on hand. Each fired projectiles weighing
15 pounds, fired at a maximum elevation of 12 degrees with a range of 4.5
Troops posted observers on the towers and at the top of Battery Laidley to
spot enemy approaches from the Gulf of Mexico. Information was relayed to
the Data Booths, and then to the gun crews via slate boards. The crews
would position the mortars, and the guns would then be fired from the Firing
Fort Dade on Egmont Key was more developed than Fort De Soto. Initially,
Fort De Soto was considered a sub-post of Fort Dade. Between 1899 and 1916
over seventy buildings were constructed on Egmont Key, and the outpost
resembled a small city with over 300 residents. Advances in the science of
armaments during the early part of the 20th century, however, quickly
rendered the outpost obsolete by the end of the First World War. The island
suffered significant damages during a hurricane in 1921, and the military
later made the decision to deactivate the outposts. The Secretary of War
wrote a letter to the Governor of Florida explaining that the Army would be
closing the forts:
"Modern developments in armament required considerable modifications in our
coastal defense plans and the defense of much of our coastline can now be
better accomplished by utilizing mobile artillery instead of fixed
armament.... the limited personnel for Coast Artillery purposes, the
question of future appropriations, and the damage wrought by the severe
storm in October 1921 were also considerations...." By May of 1923, both
forts were abandoned, with one caretaker left at each post.
After World War II, Mullet Key was sold to Pinellas County in 1948. Fort De
Soto Park was officially dedicated in 1963. The Fort De Soto batteries were
placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1977. The remains of
battery Laidley (shown left from the beach front) are still visible and
accessible to visitors today.
12/18/03, This page has been viewed