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Field trip was a journey in history

The bus pulled into a parking lot not 100 yards from the beach where white men first trespassed on the property of Florida Indians, 466 years ago.

The students climbed down blinking in the sunlight and moved up a wooded incline, which turned out to be a Tocobaga Indian mound.

"It beats sitting in a classroom," said one student.

"It keeps us off the streets," quipped another.

This was Karen Nevadunsky's Spanish language class at St. Petersburg High School, and they were a lot more interested than they let on. They listened silently to a lecture by historian I. Mac Perry and comments by Eric Anderson, son of Harold Anderson who has owned and protected the property from developers for more than half a century.

Afterward, there were questions from Perry, author of a book called Indian Mounds You Can Visit. The answers showed the students had retained about twice the information taken in by at least one adult member of the gathering.

Perry told of countless Indian civilizations in Florida, all now extinct. None, he added, had ties to the Seminoles who arrived in Florida only in the previous century.

The first Spanish expedition in Florida landed in 1528 in an area inhabited by some 300 Tocobagas, west of what we now call Park Street across the bay from John's Pass.

It was a shellfish civilization. Shells provided tools as well as food, and ultimately formed mounds that still exist, the shells peeping through lush vegetation at the foot of huge, centuries-old trees.

Panfilo de Narvaez, murderous even for a conquistador, commanded the Spanish expedition. Setting out, it consisted of some 600 men in five ships. By the time it reached the west coast of Florida, storms and desertions had reduced its number to four ships and 300 men.

Like many who would follow, the Spaniards found no gold in the Tampa Bay area. Forsaking their ships, they made their way northward to Appalachee Bay, losing men to illness and harassing Indians.

Narvaez had proved an inefficient commander. Now he decided to build new ships to cross the Gulf to Spanish settlements in Mexico. These ramshackled crafts were barely seaworthy but somehow managed to reach Pensacola Bay and then the mouth of the Mississippi River, before storms wrecked them.

In the end, only four of the men were to survive: the future leader, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (the name, Cabeza de Vaca, clung to proudly by the family to this day, translates into "head of a cow,") had been treasurer of the voyage; Captain Alonzo del Castillo Maldonaldo; Captain Andres Dorantes de Carranca; and the latter's slave, a black man known only as Estevanico.

The four, and about 75 others, were cast ashore on an island off the Texas coast. Most died of disease or failed attempts to leave the island. Some, including the slave and his master, were enslaved by Indians. Finally the four escaped to the Texas mainland.

They lived for years, sometimes as slaves, always precariously, among half-starved Indians. "These Indians lived off tree bark, deer dung, the rotting portions of logs and, for a couple of glorious months every year, the fruit of the local cactus plants," says historian Perry.

Finally Cabeza de Vaca got a reputation as a "healer," because of some successful praying over sick people, and the four survivors were promoted to godhood. They made their way south, then, followed by 3,000 Indians and, eight years after the landing in Florida, joined their countrymen in Spanish Mexico. "It was one of the most amazing ordeals in history," says Nevadunsky, "and around here hardly anyone is aware of it."