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About:  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 in 1539.

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.

Mullet 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 12-inch mortars, 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.

Two 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 miles.

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 Room.

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.




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