Written by Christopher Hendrix. Research conducted by the staff of Manatee Village Historical Park and the Manatee County Historical Resources Library. All sources are available upon request.
Research into the Bradens is ongoing and this article may be updated as new information is uncovered. When the Braden family left the Manatee area they did not leave behind many records. Here is what is known.
Dr. Joseph Addison Braden was born sometime around 1811, possibly in Loudoun, Virginia. He was one of the younger children in the family and had 8 other siblings. There are few sources from Joseph’s childhood and young adulthood and we do not know when or where he gained the title of Doctor.
One of Joseph’s siblings, Hector, moved to Tallahassee in the winter of 1825 or 1826, establishing himself as a businessman and land owner. One advertisement Hector took out in a newspaper (the Charleston Daily Courier) in 1833 suggests he was trying to sell large portions of land around Tallahassee to potential plantation owners. This enterprise seems to have failed during the Money Panic of 1837, though. In the 1830s, Joseph joined his brother in the panhandle and married Virginia Ward on April 17, 1837.
The exact date Joseph and his growing family moved to Manatee is unclear, but it is believed they were in the area by 1846. When he moved, he brought with him his wife and three children as well as a large population of enslaved people.
Dr. Braden established a large plantation, measuring over 1100 acres, on the west bank of what is now called the Braden River. This plantation grew a variety of crops including tobacco, rice, and oranges, but eventually they settled on sugar cane. More enslaved people worked this plantation than anywhere in the area, except for the Gamble Plantation north of the Manatee River. The experiences of the enslaved people at Braden Castle are unfortunately unknown at the time of this writing.
Hector moved to the area either with or not long after his brother. Unfortunately, he would not live to see the plantation house finished, as he died in a storm in early October, 1846. This date lines up with the impact of the 1846 Havana Hurricane, a category 4 storm that hit Cuba, Key West, and the West Coast of Florida. Sources disagree about how or where he passed, but it is commonly thought he either drowned in a river, or was stuck in quicksand somewhere around the greater Tampa Bay area.
The Braden plantation consisted of more than just land. Braden added a wharf and stockade along Old Main Street (12th St. W., today), which became known as Fort Braden or the Braden Stockade. He hired Ezekiel Glazier and Edmund Lee to oversee the construction of his sugar mill and house, the labor of which was most likely conducted by the enslaved populations. The exact location of the mill has been lost to time, but locals believe it was located around the 2700 block of 26th Ave. E. in Bradenton, along Sugarhouse Creek. The residence was located on the west bank of the mouth of the Braden River.
The Braden residence was supposed to match the grandiose look of the Gamble mansion, on the north side of the Manatee River. The house was to be made of tabby, a substance similar to concrete, consisting of lime, sand, shells, and water. This material is similar to the major buildings and forts in St. Augustine. The walls were said to be 20 inches thick and the floor plan consisted of two stories, each floor with four rooms measuring 20 feet by 20 feet, with a hallway between the rooms. The structure had four chimneys, eight fireplaces, wood floors and a wood roof. Construction began in 1850 and was completed in 1851. While it did not quite rival the Gamble Mansion, it still was an impressive structure and the largest house south of the Manatee River. It would become known as the “Braden Castle.”
The Braden Castle was soon put to the test. On the night of March 31, 1856, a party of seven Seminoles approached the castle while Dr. Braden, two guests, and his family were inside. As primary source documentations states, “the girl that attended to the baby,” noticed Seminoles approaching the house, and alerted Dr. Braden to their presence. Dr. Braden sent the occupants of the house to the second floor, and exchanged gunfire with the Seminoles outside. The Seminoles fled, with no party reporting any casualties. After the brief skirmish, the Seminoles absconded with several mules and enslaved people from Dr. Braden’s plantation. It is possible that Dr. Braden scared the group away because he borrowed a nine shot repeating rifle from Major Gamble, which Maj. Gamble believed made the Seminoles fear there were more people inside than there was.
Most of what we know about this event comes from a letter written by Sarah Gates to her sister the day after. Sarah detailed the experience, occupants of the house, how it was defended, and even the names of the enslaved people the Seminoles left with. Sarah's description serves as the only firsthand account of this incident known to us.
A week later, a party of Florida Volunteers tracked this group of Seminoles to the banks of Big Charley Creek. The mules and enslaved people were taken back to the Braden Plantation after a brief skirmish. Several Seminoles were killed and one was captured but later executed.
In 1857, the Braden Castle was foreclosed on. Dr. Braden moved to Lagrange, Georgia, where he passed away from dysentery in February 1859. During his short residence there he evidently became a respected member of that community. At this time, it is not known what happened to his wife, children, or the enslaved population, after his death.
After Dr. Braden left the area, his residence was mostly left empty. In the late 1860’s, Mary Pelot, the wife of Dr. John Pelot, purchased the Braden Castle and land for $2,000. She gifted it to her father, Major General James G. Cooper. The Coopers lived in the house until General Cooper died in 1876.
After General Cooper died, the house was left vacant and it became a local meeting spot. Families living in the area would picnic on the grounds, schools would visit, and young couples would meet in the ruins. Most of the historic photographs of the Braden Castle come from this time period, some of which can be seen here. This series of four photographs from circa 1900 show a few young people enjoying each others company in the ruins of the Braden Castle. This was typical of the time, and can be seen in many photographs from the era.
In 1903, the wooden portions of the abandoned Braden Castle, including the floors and roof, burned down in a brush fire. In 1924, the Camping Tourists of America purchased the ruins and surrounding land, and turned it into campground. Used by out of state tourists as a seasonal vacation area, it was frequented by the Tin Can Tourists, who began visiting the campground after their normal vacation park in Tampa was closed.
Now called the Braden Castle Park, the land surrounding the ruins is filled with a combination of mobile and constructed residences, beautiful waterfront views, a small marina, and is a National Historic District. The ruins are still visible, however they’ve mostly fallen. They are fenced off, and are marked with a Historical marker.
Braden Sugar Mill, c. 1900, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection
Braden Castle, c. 1880-1903, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection
Sarah Gates Letter about Braden Castle Attack, MVHP Staff Photo
Two Young Couples at the Braden Castle, c. 1900, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection
Braden Castle Postcard, 1909, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection