Part 1 – Tampa Tribe Life
I would have to expect if one were to start blogging on the history of any region it’d be a fair assumption he or she’d look back even as far as to the paleo and prehistoric ages. Looking at the people who undoubtably resided in such regions. Well, voila! Welcome to a history (with maybe some artistic liberties taken) of Tampa’s first inhabitants. No, it wasn’t the European conquistadors or the Florida Cracker cowboy… Well surely it was those swashbuckling pirates Tampa has been so proud to embrace then, right? Nope. Getting warmer though. Those pirates and conquistadors no doubt came across the first indigenous people of Tampa nonetheless. Don’t we all just love a good story about Indians or as some might pronounce, “injuns” ? Maybe a better way to categorize this primitive history rich demographic is by classifying them Native Americans or the American Indian. Sadly, like much of Tampa’s storied past, in progress’s name much to do with the first people of Tampa would be only found in the pages of history and written journals of long long ago. A group of tribal people, who for tens of thousands of years called Tampa and moreover, Florida home. Let us take a more in-depth look at some of these genuine tribal trail blazers.
In much of American literature and folklore we think of Indians as the sordid guerrilla opposition against the handsome, gruff leathery cowboys of old tinsel town. Usually a stealthy, weathered, rowdy group of half-naked savages running around wielding bows and arrows, belting out high pitched blood curdling and cackled war cries. While I am sure the natives of Florida got to be a real pain in the tokus to the cracker cowboys of latter years. Many of Florida’s Indians were often a different sort than the ones we encountered in fiction or Hollywood adaptations and dramatizations.
Some of the earliest of Florida’s Indians were in fact content and well adjusted tribes and sub-tribes. Focusing much as we all do now on getting by and enjoying the best qualities of life the times and circumstances would allow. Simply put, living. Of course there were no air conditioners, iPhones, game consoles and 4K televisions loaded with thousands of channels but they lived well off the land and traded with other tribes and travelers from regions far beyond the swampland palmetto thickets and palm dotted coastlines. It has been said they were a curious, gregarious and very generous people. Sadly, that generosity and trust probably partly led to their demise. European conquistadors and Colonial rule would later impose their wills and the wills of the thrones they voyaged for. Bringing disease and turmoil that’d prove to be much more than the natives could weather. So who the heck were they already? Details please!?
It’s been recorded that Paleo-Indians first made Florida home at least 14,000 years ago. With fresh water only being available along rivers, in sinkholes and other watering basins. Most paleo-Indians made living encampments and set up home around these watering holes. To this day, excavations such as the Harney Flats site near modern Temple Terrace and the bypass canal, have yielded many artifacts around these regions or regions of this nature that may have changed over the thousands of years. It was believed that Tampa Bay was a fresh water lake in the Paleo era, so it makes sense that there is archeological evidence of these tribes near what we all now know as our beloved bay. We all need water right? With the melting of glaciers and rising sea levels, an abundance of the areas the Paleo-Indians inhabited are now under water. Making much of the history and artifacts pertaining to these tribes difficult to find and catalogue.
As sea levels rose and lands changed, the culture of the Paleo-Indian evolved into the Early Archaic culture. This culture or era accepted to be from 8000 to 2000 BC has been categorized as the Archaic Period or Meso-Indian Period. The Meso or Archaic Indian survived by economies fortified by the harvesting of nuts, seeds and shellfish. Around 5000 BC in the Middle Archaic Period these tribal people started building and living in villages near wetlands. These villages were probably closer to what we’d recognize as communities or developments as the Indians likely occupied these sites for multiple generations. Maybe too soon to say early Tampanians or Floridians but closer by our standards. Around 3000 BC or the Late Archaic Period is when we see the emergence of the Indian that inhabited Florida and the Tampa Bay area much as we see and know it now geographically. This is the period where the climate and weather became much as we still recognize it today. The native people lived and adapted both around fresh and salt water. These were the Indians sometimes referred to as the midden or mound builders. They got this classification because of their accumulation of shells, bone and discarded artifacts into mounds. Think of this as we might a modern waste dump site or landfill. Though we know there have been indigenous people who lived where many of us call home today. Our knowledge is limited still. I reckon we will continue to learn as we make and study new discoveries and find new sites. Happens often much by coincidence during construction projects. Other times it is people who study and devote their lives to these discoveries. Actively looking for new sites and studying the sites found during construction land moving (e.g. the Harney Flats site). Now we can talk about the earliest documented (at least by tribal names) Indians of Tampa and the surrounding Tampa Bay area.
Some of the earliest of the documented or well known tribes among historians and Tampa history enthusiast were tribes or sub-tribes from the Manasota and Safety Harbor cultures. Spanning from roughly 500 B.C. until 700 A.D. The Tocobaga tribal territory was the region identified as the home to the Tampa Bay area’s own Indian tribes. The name Tocobaga was a name loosely used to identify all the tribal people of the Tampa bay area during the first Spanish colonial period (1513-1763). Now, if you’ve been the observant type, you may notice that a few times I have used the words “sub-tribes“. This is because the Tocobaga territory is believed to have been divided into three, possibly four different chiefdoms, or in layman terms, kingdoms. Each chiefdom governed over specific parts of Tampa as we currently geographically understand it.
The history of these independent tribes was what seems to have been very tumultuous to say the least. This do in large part to the introduction by the invading europeans of Spaniard enslavement, cultures and religion. Namely Christianity and its mission of conversion. Capture, tame, educate and convert the primitive savages so to speak. Keep in mind that the Spaniards claimed any and everything they came across as property of Spain. Including native peoples. Colonial rulers and the introduction of the historic conquistador. European colonization under kings and queens is a whole different and complete history lesson. This story does briefly mingle into it however. I’d imagine the tribal people were a proud people and some funny looking dudes with funny hats (Spaniards) speaking a funny sounding language telling them to change their ways didn’t sit well with most of them. The drama which ensued as a result seems to me could have rivaled HBO’s “Game of Thrones“.
The noted tribes of Tampa’s Tocobaga territory were recorded to be the Tocobaga, Uzita, Mocoso, and the Pohoy or Capaloey in particular. The Tocobaga chiefdom was located at the northern end of Old Tampa Bay near Safety Harbor in Pinellas County. Uzita chiefdom’s territory was the south shore of Tampa Bay, from the Little Manatee River to Sarasota Bay. The Mocoso chiefdom controlled Tampa Bay’s east side. Particularly the river areas of the Alafia and possibly the Hillsborough River. An interesting side note is the ‘Alafia’ is an Indian name meaning “River of Fire”. It is believed was named river of fire due to the red-ish brown river color caused by algae spores. On earliest maps of Tampa Bay the Spanish labeled the river only as Hunting River. As a Tampa native. Had I been around in these times. Based on where I was born and reside, I’d more than likely identify as Pohoy or Capaloey. The Pohoy lived off of the Hillsborough Bay region. From what I can find, the Pohoy peoples may have lived in the areas we now know as the south Tampa peninsula, Fort Brooke downtown area, Port of Tampa, etc… There are a few other tribe names that I have read about and though little had been recorded on them I want to pay homage. These tribes (in the Tampa area) were said to be visited and recorded by the Hernando de Soto expedition in 1539. Tocobago, Uzita, Mocoso, Pohoy, Guacozo, Luca, Vicela, and Tocaste. It’d be a safe assumption there may have been others. Sadly, much of the history may have been lost, or waiting to be discovered yet.
From this point on, keep in mind we are going to loosely use Tocobaga to encompass all aforementioned tribes unless we are talking about specific tribal interaction or tribal european interaction. Let’s get to know the Tocobaga regional Indians lifestyles and traits.
Home Is Where The Heart Is
It is said the natives lived in small villages under their subservient chiefdoms. Under the rule of an Indian chief who was regarded as, well, king or god-like. The shell mounds were not only the landfill of the day, they also were used for burials among other things. One of those other things was a central temple mound on which the chief lived. The chief’s home is mentioned to have been high enough to overlook Old Tampa Bay. I’d imagine it was a vantage point that also aided in security as well as governing. As ‘the god’, you see all from above. Plus, naturally now the Indian villagers looked up to you now both figuratively and literally. A true ‘class’ structure we will visit in a bit. Villages were usually built around that central chief’s mound. There was also a central public area, or meeting area around the chief’s residence. On the outskirts of that were the villagers and their huts or homes. Huts and shelters were generally round and made of wooden poles supporting thatch palm roofs. Was said the hut’s roofs were built high enough and vented to allow the summer heat to escape. The support posts or poles were formed from native slash pine trees.
I can envision the chief coming out on high to address the Indian plebs who are gathered below in the meeting area. Maybe as the sun is setting to cast a golden almost supernatural hue over him and his adornments. The sun glistens off of the mass of shells he has built his temple upon. It looks like diamonds and jewels. As the chief emerges in full chief regalia. Probably draped in gold acquired from trade with other foreign chiefdoms or travelers. Sun casting a god-like glow on strong, tan, decorated body. The crowd is hushed by his introduction. Voice booms over and through the silent tribespeople who’s eyes are affixed in an awed gaze on their lord. Heck, maybe I’ve watched one too many movies but I digress… Had to have been spectacular none the less.
Keepin’ It Classy
History records that the Tocobaga had a highly developed class system and also practiced slavery and slave trade. It’s been compared to medieval class structure and also the caste system of Hindu people. For a little perspective, I will share all three structures. The caste, medieval and Tocobaga.
Caste System Structure
- Brahmins – priests and teachers
- Kshatriyas – warriors and rulers
- Vaishyas – farmers, traders and merchants
- Shudras – laborers
Medieval Society Structure
- Lords (Vassals to King)
- Knights (Vassals to Lords)
- Peasants (serfs)
Tocobaga Chiefdom Structure
I feel we’ve already established pretty well the chief’s role so lets jump to the nobles and so on…
Nobles were said to meet in the temple with the chief for morning gatherings and sip the black drink and share a smoke from the pipe. I’d imagine they were the governors of the small subservient villages, generals or commoner warrior leaders and other honored visitors. Was black drink maybe imported or traded coffee or tea? Not sure but probably a strong possibility. Not so different from how we function as a society. Meetings, day-planning, Coffee or tea, and tobacco (maybe cannabis or something of that nature).
Commoners noted as being hunters, fishers and gatherers. Since there is no mention of a military branch class, differing a bit from the medieval structure. I’d think of their warriors much like we know our own. Maybe a civilian drawn military?
Slaves were many times captive or captured Indians from enemy tribes. The most well known, long time enemy of the Tocobaga were the Calusa and their chief Carlos. The well chronicled Carlos was the revered Calusa chief. Calusa were the predominant and powerful tribe in southwest Florida. They were very strong and said to have been fierce warriors and sailors. There is record of tumultuous relations and raids against and between the Calusa and Tocobaga regional people. Tribes captured and took slaves from each other’s populations. Often important members of the opposing tribe.
They Must Be Giants
Tocobaga Indians were chronicled as being powerful and large in stature. Noted to tower over the Spaniards. The Tocobaga at their discovery they were though of as giants. One can imagine as very active hunter gatherers that they must have been in incredibly great physical condition. For a little perspective. Think about ‘civilized’ society. Like that of the europeans in this time. Comfort, excess and lavish habits tend to abound. While all these things seem nice, said habits might lead to being, well, soft. A little out of shape maybe. Think about us. Seems the more advanced we get the easier it is to live rather sedentary lives. So just imagine walking up on a beach to be greeted by such tan, intimidating and powerful people. Looking nothing like you. Probably tattooed and painted. Must have been damn nerve wracking.
Most of us who are even just a smidgen familiar with Indians know they were tool builders. No Home Depots or Lowes hardware stores for these folks. Can you imagine? Having to build your tools in order to build anything else. Humans are such resilient creatures. Innovating and adapting. Our familiarity is more than likely with hunting tools. The bow and arrow for example. Maybe the tomahawk.
The Tocobaga were quite the tool builders themselves. There are two common tools mentioned over and over when talking of the Tocobaga. These are the adz and the atlatl.
Think of the adz if you will as the primitive version of the garden hoe or axe we use today. It served much the same purposes. The adz is mostly noted to be a digging tool. Constructed from a pointed shell or rock affixed to a handle branch. Most documented were one handed digging tools. Probably came in handy in many different ways. Could be a rather lethal club type weapon much like what most know as a tomahawk. Maybe a great shell cracking tool considering all the shellfish they ate.
The atlatl was essentially a spear type hunting weapon used in conjunction with a weighted, hand held casting stick of sorts. The spear looked much like an arrow. A long shafted branch or stick with a shaped point on the front end and often with a feathered fletching back end. The throwing or casting stick was a smaller handled handheld stick weighted in the center with a stone or bannerstone. The end that helped thrust the atlatl forward was said to be made of a bone hooklike spur. The spur would be placed up against the fletching end of the longer atlatl spear and the weighted throwing stick would be held under and horizontally. The throw is a pitching type motion with the throwing stick giving the leverage needed to add force to launch forward the well balanced atlatl spear. Probably, much as a baseball pitcher refines his accuracy with training and repetitions, the Tocobaga must have been precise and lethally accurate.
Though there is not as much mention of the bow and arrow. It is safe to conclude these were used commonly in hunting and battle. The conclusion can be drawn because there have been points or arrowheads found in excavations of Tocobaga sites.
Today’s Specials are…
Tocobaga diets were rich in proteins and seafoods. In excavations of some of the shell middens or mounds there were also bones found from manatees and land animals. Armadillo, rabbits, deer, and squirrel are a few mentioned. Wait, did you say manatee? Yes, I know I know…we current Floridians cringe at the thought of eating the gentle and very protected manatee. Some of us may just think about the legal ramifications but being adventurous would otherwise try it. As I am the curious type, I looked up what manatee taste like. I found numerous accounts of folks saying it taste beef-like. High fat content but looking more like pork (pale) when cooked. One account of a slight muddy taste. Makes sense I guess. Seems much of the tribe’s diets were seafood though. This makes sense as well since middens were predominantly discarded shell. They had plenty of seafood. They were efficient net fishers and builders as well. Heck, shellfish are pretty damn tasty. Haven’t met one I don’t like (to eat). Tocobaga rounded out their diets with gathering of seeds, nuts, dried fruits and berries. It is said that the Tocobaga were not really farmers as the land was too wet. However, I find some contradiction to this claim because in Spaniard accounts it was recorded the northern Tocobaga grew corn or maize. If you think about it you’d conclude maybe how this was achievable if we look at the area regionally. The nearer to salt water the soil would be sand. Sand corn is harder to grow because of the lack of ready nutrients. Corn growers on sandy land have to fertilize if there is to be much success in their efforts. This said, if you travel more inland, you have swamp lands. Corn grows much easier in these areas because the mucky swamp soil is chock-full of nutrients. We know the Tocobaga inhabited areas that had both sand and swamp. Maybe they learned from the very powerful and sophisticated south Florida Calusa or even other distant tribes. In barter or trade societies, corn has always been a hot trade commodity. The tribes were involved heavily in trade for sustainable living. Probably one of the most valuable trades would have been knowledge. Like, how to grow corn.
Winter Is Coming
In case you haven’t gathered, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan. If there are other like minded GOT folks out there with me in the blogosphere, then you also know ‘winter is coming’. It is a phrase that often means hard times are coming. For the Tocobaga at this point in our journey, such is true. Please stay tuned for the next part in our voyage for knowledge of the real native Tampanians. I am going to take a look at the part the europeans played in the eventual extinction of our regional native Indians. As well, going to look into some of the tribal conflicts that ensued as a result of European meddling and Christianization. Be forewarned, Winter is coming…