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Why would Tocobaga spirits want to protect Tampa Bay residents from hurricanes anyway? | Column
Their town reduced to ashes and their name wiped from the map, it’s hard to believe any spirits would have warm, benevolent feelings for those who came later.
An image of the Hammerton-Barnwell 1721 map shows the notation “Tocobagga Indians Destroyed 1709.”
An image of the Hammerton-Barnwell 1721 map shows the notation “Tocobagga Indians Destroyed 1709.” [ Provided ]
Published June 8

Hurricane Ian’s last-minute move to the east last year spared Tampa Bay the destruction unleashed on Fort Myers. It also gave renewed life to a legend that Tampa Bay was protected by the benevolent spirits of the Tocobaga, a Native people of the region. Residents of Tampa Bay should disabuse themselves from this notion.

First, there is plenty of historical evidence to indicate that Tampa Bay has not always been so lucky. Many residents are likely at least dimly aware of the 1921 hurricane that emptied the bay, only to later slam a wall of water back that caused considerable damage to our region. They are probably less familiar with the so-called “Great Gale” of 1848, which brought a 15-foot storm surge that destroyed much of Fort Brooke and the fledgling village of Tampa.

Tom Pluckhahn
Tom Pluckhahn [ Provided ]

The 1848 storm partially destroyed one of the last remaining physical remnants of the Native town of Tocobaga — likely represented by the Safety Harbor archaeological site in Pinellas County’s Philippe Park. The platform mound at the site — where the chief and his family likely had their home — still stands. Visitors to the park can walk a paved path to the mound’s summit. But the mound was considerably diminished in size by the storm — possibly by as much as one-third. If the “spirits” of the Tocobaga could not or would not spare their own former home from a hurricane, why would they save yours?

But there is also the larger question of why the Tocobagans would want to protect modern residents of Tampa Bay at all. Recent archaeological research indicates that Native people founded the town of Tocobaga around 1200 CE, about three centuries before Gov. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Jesuit priest Father Juan Rogel arrived on their shore in 1567. The Spanish established a mission fort with two dozen soldiers at Tocobaga. However, the Native people — especially the chief and his family — fiercely resisted conversion to Christianity. And Menéndez began soon hearing tales of other troubles at Tocobaga, from a lack of food to abuse of the Indians by undisciplined soldiers. Rogel returned less than a year later to find Tocobaga deserted and all the soldiers killed. The Spanish burned the town in retaliation.

By the early 1700s, the remaining Tocobagans were living on the fringes of the Spanish missions of northern Florida, maintaining an arm’s length from the Spanish and the Christian faith. But an attack by rival Indigenous groups wiped out all but a few survivors; an English map drawn a few years later bears the notation “Tocobogga (sic) Indians Destroyed 1709.”

Thus, Spanish colonizers reduced the town of Tocobaga to ashes, removed the Tocobagans from the landscape, and wiped their name from the map. But the indignities imposed on the Tocobaga did not end with the colonial era. As non-Native settlement of Tampa Bay picked up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mounds of shell that the Tocobagans and other Native peoples had constructed on the margins of the bay — some as high as 30 feet and reportedly visible for miles at sea — were mined for road fill. One such mound, a landmark for residents of Fort Brooke, formerly stood in the vicinity of today’s Amalie Arena. Another stood in downtown St. Petersburg, where Bayfront Health St. Petersburg (formerly known as Bayfront Medical Center) is now located.

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Other mounds in the region were destroyed in the search for artifacts by antiquarians and archaeologists of the era. In addition to the platform mound that still stands in Philippe Park, the Safety Harbor site also included a burial mound. However, this mound was completely excavated by archaeologists with the Smithsonian Institution in 1930. Many of the skeletons were carted back to Washington, D.C., but some were left scattered about; one local history recounts that some of the bones were used as fertilizer by local farmers. Today, a picnic shelter stands on the former location of the burial mound.

To make matters worse, historians and archaeologists have traditionally portrayed the Tocobagans as “lost” or “extinct” — denying any connection to modern Native peoples such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma on the basis that the ancestors of these groups were later migrants to the Florida peninsula. Today, however, many scholars recognize that the Seminole and Miccosukee likely formed from a coalescence of migrant Muskogean groups with Native peoples like the Tocobaga whose ancestors had lived here for millennia.

In short, the Native peoples of Tampa Bay have not been treated well by non-Native colonial settlers to the region, nor by more recent residents. To expect their spirits to protect us from hurricanes is not only illogical, but another in a long history of indignities and injustices.

Tom Pluckhahn is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. He can be reached at tpluckhahn@usf.edu.