1. Pinellas

USF students seeking new answers to historic questions about Safety Harbor's Philippe Park

University of South Florida students dig one of 70 shovel pits they mapped out in Philippe Park as part of an archaeological excavation at the Safety Harbor site. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
University of South Florida students dig one of 70 shovel pits they mapped out in Philippe Park as part of an archaeological excavation at the Safety Harbor site. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jun. 16, 2019

SAFETY HARBOR — Odet Philippe had a storied life.

He has been credited with introducing citrus farming and cigar rolling to the Tampa Bay area, serving as chief surgeon of Napoleon's army, and receiving a treasure chest from a pirate whose illness he cured.

"There are so many legends," said Thomas Pluckhahn, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida. "It is hard to separate fact from fiction."

Pluckhahn and a team of his students hope to get to the bottom of at least one of the questions Philippe left behind: What was the layout of the sprawling waterfront plantation he established in what is today the community of Safety Harbor?

The USF team has spent the past few months excavating at Philippe Park, where the military surgeon established his plantation in the early 1800s.

The excavation might also produce a map of a Native American village on the site. The people who lived there left a temple mound made of sand and shells, 20 feet high and 150 feet across, and now recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

READ MORE: Archaeologists on Water Street project unearth the old so Vinik group can raise up the new

Combined with a short-lived Spanish occupation, Philippe Park stands as "one of the most important historic sites in the Tampa Bay area," Pluckhahn said, "if not the most important."

Since January, Pluckhahn and his students have focused on a square of property adjacent to the mound and measuring the length of about six football fields on each side.

They started with ground penetrating radar then began systematically digging holes a foot and a half wide, known as shovel pits, every 60 feet.

Through the first week of June, they had dug 50 of 70 planned pits and found artifacts in nearly all of them, including Native American shell tools and pieces of Philippe's structures.

READ MORE: They can't turn back waves, but USF and Seminoles are preserving Egmont Key in digital form

When the work is complete at the end of June, the areas where artifacts are found might help them understand more about the use of each section of the property and where people have lived there.

Researchers have long believed that the Native American village was built in the shape of an L, each leg extending from the temple mound. But some of the artifacts unearthed by the USF team were in areas away from the L.

"Was there a shift in the village?" Pluckhahn said. "Did it change over time?"

Historians say members of the Tocobaga tribe of Tampa Bay lived in the village from the year 1000 through the 1500s, thriving on the rich fishing grounds and wildlife in the area.

"The Spanish described being able to sail to the mouth of the bay right up to the chief's house and the chief's house would have been on the mound," Pluckhahn said. "There is no other site in Tampa Bay that matches that description so well."

The Spaniards arrived in the 1560s and built a fort and mission at the site. But they only occupied it for a year. They treated the Tocobaga cruelly, and the Tocobaga responded by slaughtering the unwanted immigrants.

Soon after, Spain sent reinforcements and burned the village in retaliation.

"And that ended the story of Tocobaga," Pluckhahn said.

In 1842, Philippe purchased 160 acres of land that included the site of the former village. He is believed to be the first permanent, non-native settler in what would become Pinellas County.

The Philippe Park website says several of his citrus trees remain on the property.

That assertion can be checked if the USF students find fossilized pollen, said Kendall Jackson, who is earning a doctorate in anthropology at the university.

Philippe died in 1869 and was buried on the property, according to the park's website, but no one knows exactly where.

The park, owned and operated by Pinellas County, has been excavated twice before.

In the 1920s, the Smithsonian Institution fully excavated a burial mound at the site. Two decades later, the University of Florida examined the temple mound plus a few spots around the village, Pluckhahn said, but no one has investigated the village area as thoroughly as his students.

"There is a lot we don't know about this site. We are searching for answers.

Contact Paul Guzzo at or follow @PGuzzoTimes.


  1. Sam Flores admires a new statue of his late brother, William Flores, Monday at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector, St. Petersburg. The statue honors William Flores, who helped save fellow crew members on the US Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn when it sank on January 28, 1980. Twenty three crew members died. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    A freak set of circumstances led to catastrophe the evening of Jan. 28, 1980.
  2. Booking photo of Donald Steven Dugray, charged trying to carjack a vehicle that was occupied by an undercover police officer. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Police say he ran into a police car, tossed a gun onto the roof of a diner and finally tried to carjack a vehicle an undercover officer was driving.
  3. Booking photo of John Robert Reichold, 48, who was arrested Sunday on a charge of scheme to defraud. He is accused of stealing more than $115,000 in jewelry from his employer, Hess Fine Art. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Police say he pawned the jewelry over a four-year period while working at the business.
  4. Renderings by Arquitectonica of the proposed Red Apple Group condo project in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Arquitectonica [Courtesy of Arquitectonica]
    $300 million. 45 stories. A little closer to existence.
  5. Residents and commuters are complaining about heavy traffic ever since the Florida Department of Transportation closed both northbound lanes on Nebraska Avenue just south of Hillsborough Avenue (U.S. 92) in Tampa on Jan. 6, to install new drainage pipes under Nebraska Avenue between Giddens Avenue and Hillsborough Avenue. [Florida Department of Transportation]
    Dr. Delay explores the latest backups aggravating Seminole Heights residents and commuters.
  6. A group of East Lake residents has erected signs protesting a 44-home development proposed by Tarpon Springs developer Pioneer Homes. Tarpon Springs commissioners recently voted to annex the site into the city. [Courtesy of Marc Washburn]
    The action targets a plan to build 44 homes on land between Keystone Road and Highland Avenue, double what was allowed in the East Lake District.
  7. social card for breaking news in crime, for web only
    The flames could be seen from the Howard Frankland Bridge
  8. Delvin Ford, 22, of St. Petersburg, is facing a second-degree murder charge after his accomplice, Marquis Golden, was shot and killed by a Pinellas deputy Thursday night, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says.  He says the men -- armed with an AR-15 and a handgun, shown right -- confronted the deputy. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    The deputy was confronted by two armed men in a St. Petersburg alley, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
  9. Erica Allums poses for a portrait behind the counter at Banyan Cafe in St. Petersburg while she was still the owner. Now, she's in the process of taking over the MLK spot once again. [Times (2018)] [Tampa Bay Times]
    The Central Avenue location will continue to operate as normal.
  10. A for sale sign is seen in front of a home in the Westchase area of Tampa. CHRIS URSO  |  Times (2013)
    And a spike in cash sales suggests investors were active in the market.