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New headstone to correct history of Odet Philippe

Odet Philippe, the first European settler in the Pinellas Peninsula, is going to get a new headstone, one that gets right his name, his date of birth and other pertinent details of his life.

The Safety Harbor Museum has just published a small history of the storied pioneer, and it plans to use the first proceeds to make the headstone as historically accurate as possible.

The current stone in Philippe Park reads:

Dr. Odet Phillipi. Born Lyons France. 1785-1869. Head Surgeon in Napoleon's Army.

His first name was Odet, and he did die in 1869. That much can be documented.

The rest of the stone is probably wrong, the product of more than a century of romantic tales about a man who may himself have glamorized his past.

No one even seems to remember who put up the headstone. Amy David, director of the museum, said the county parks department thinks a Daughters of the American Revolution chapter might have erected it in the early 1960s.

Whoever did it can't be faulted too much for the inaccuracies.

Just look around Safety Harbor. You can see his name spelled Philippe on the park and Phillippe on signs for the road that runs by the park.

And even this new history of Philippe acknowledges that there are lots of conflicting stories about the man.

He may have been born in France, may have been of the nobility and may have been a surgeon.

Or he may have been from what is now Haiti, may have been of mixed race and may never have studied medicine.

He might have arrived on the Pinellas Peninsula after being captured by pirates.

Or he may actually have been a "fence" for pirates when he lived in Key West.

J. Allison DeFoor II wrote a book, Odet Philippe: Peninsular Pioneer, after spending 10 years going through documents. DeFoor is a descendant of Philippe. He lives in the Keys and was Gov. Bob Martinez's running mate in a failed bid for re-election in 1990. DeFoor donated the book to the museum, which published it with grants from the state and the Pinellas County Arts Council.

He concludes that the story about Philippe being Napoleon's surgeon can't be true, based on the birthdate Philippe put on his American citizenship papers.

What can be documented, DeFoor said in the book, is that Philippe arrived in Tampa in 1839 and started, among other things, a cigar-making business. In 1842, he filed claim for 160 acres, including the area that is now Philippe Park, for his St. Helena plantation.

There, according to records, he introduced the cultivation of grapefruit to Florida and developed a plantation that was widely known for its beauty.

He died in 1869 and was buried on the plantation.

Whether he was buried in the actual spot where the headstone rests is also a matter of speculation. "We don't want to open that can of worms," David said.

David said she hopes the book and a new marker will get people interested in Philippe.

"It's just a slim little volume, but I'm hoping it's a starting point for more research," she said. Already she has gotten a call from a woman in California who claims to have an original letter from Philippe to one of his granddaughters. "There's a lot left we would still like to know."

Until something more definitive surfaces, the museum will work to create a headstone that reflects Philippe's life as accurately as possible.

DeFoor, in the final paragraph of his book, suggests a better epitaph for his ancestor:

Odet Philippe

Born Lyon, France, 1787, died at this site 1869; Introduced cigar-making to Tampa and became first European settler of the Pinellas Peninsula. At his plantation of St. Helena, now this park, he introduced grapefruit cultivation to Florida. His descendants peopled this frontier. He was said to be a doctor and of noble birth.

The pirates and Napoleon may have to get their due somewhere else.