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.

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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.

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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."

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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.