Discovering the Indian Mounds of Tampa Bay

By Marcia Biggs

For those who enjoy exploring the past, the shores surrounding Tampa Bay are rich with Native American history. Three cultures were known to have inhabited the area as far back as the 5th century BC – Manasota, Weeden Island and Safety Harbor.

A highly publicized 40-foot canoe discovered on Weedon Island in 2002 is believed to be a Manasotan artifact some 1,100 years old. It was unearthed in 2011, however, it is not yet on display as it is undergoing preservation treatment by a team of archeologists and scientists.

Tampa Bay and surrounding waters were fertile with oysters and clams, the shells of which were used to create mounds. Fifteen villages have been identified along the Florida Gulf coast from southern Pasco County to northern Sarasota County, including Tampa Bay.

Hardly anything remains of those ancient mounds, which are now covered by homes, shopping centers and parking lots, says Jim Schnur, president of the Pinellas County Historical Society. In the late 1800s, more than a half dozen mounds are known to have been demolished around downtown St. Petersburg, mainly near the current USF Bayboro campus, in order to build shell roads.

“Anyone driving around the streets of downtown St. Petersburg should realize they are driving on top of historic mounds,” says Schnur. “Below the surface of the streets around Bayboro campus, Roser Park, Coquina Key, the shells from these mounds were crushed and used as pavement liner.”

There are a number of remaining mounds in the Tampa Bay area that may be worth a visit for history buffs. The surviving mounds are considered to be temple, or ceremonial, rather than burial mounds.

“The Safety Harbor Mound is probably the most significant,” says Schnur. “There were many, many small coastal villages, but the Tocobaga village at Safety Harbor was one of the largest and the mound is one of the most well preserved.”

The remaining mounds have deteriorated significantly, leaving no more than a hill of scrubby habitat. For those who desire more, a number of museums and centers display artifacts from the early cultures of the Tampa Bay area. South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Safety Harbor Regional History Museum, Tampa Bay History Center and the Weedon Island Cultural and Educational Center all have exhibits and displays worth checking out.

Existing Indian Mounds

[easy-media med=”1115″ size=”300,300″ align=”right”]Listed as a National Historic Landmark, The mound at Philippe Park in Safety Harbor is the most impressive in the area, consisting of a large 20-foot-high temple mound, one smaller burial mound and two shell middens. A paved path leads to the top of this huge mound, which was part of a Tocobaga village dating from 900 to the 1500s A.D. From the top, you’ll be rewarded with a lovely view of Old Tampa Bay. Philippe Park features not only the mound, but a boat ramp, sheltered picnic areas and several playgrounds. It’s well worth a trip to explore this large temple mound. Note: It’s an easy paddle to the park from the city marina.

A mound dating to around 1,000 AD can be found off Park Street at Jungle Prada in south St. Petersburg. The Jungle Prada area was the site of a thriving Tocobaga Indian village and is considered the 1528 landing site of the Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez. The wooded property overlooking Boca Ciega Bay is now a St. Petersburg city park, and the rest is a Sacred Land Preserve, which houses a museum and education center where visitors can see artifacts (shells and pottery) from more than 500 years ago. This site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Manatee County’s Emerson Point Preserve, a barrier island at the mouth of the Manatee River, is the site of the Portavant Mound complex. At nearly 1,000 years old, the 12-foot-high mound is 150-foot-long and 80-foot-wide flat-topped mound is considered one of the oldest temple mounds in Florida. It is believed to have been the village of ancestors of the Timucua tribe.

A boardwalk takes visitors to the top of the mound, while a trail will lead you past a series of smaller middens (trash mounds of mainly oyster shells) to the water. Where the Restoration Trail ends, cross the park road to access the Terra Ceia Trail, a winding path through the mangrove forests lining Terra Ceia Bay. There are overlooks and an observation tower to provide a view of the bay and in the distance, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Bring a picnic lunch and plan to make this an excursion.

Maximo Park in south St. Petersburg has an archeological site dating to 800 AD consisting of several large shell middens that run along the beach on Boca Ciega Bay. In the nearby woods is a nature trail that runs along the top of the old midden. If you look close you’ll see that the mound runs 1,200 feet along the shore from the woods through the picnic area.

Just west of US Highway 19 in Palmetto is Madira Bickle Mound, a State Archeological Site under management of the park system. The flat-topped ceremonial mound is about 20 feet high and 170 feet wide and is composed of shells, sand and other debris. Also in the park are the remains of the Prine Burial Mound, which is circular, about 40 feet wide, and about two feet high at the center.

The 10-acre site was named after Madira Bickel of Sarasota, who joined her husband, Karl, in preserving the mounds from destruction by donating the property to the state in 1948. There is a paved path and wooden stairway leading to the top of the mound. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Exhibits displaying early Native American artifacts from the Tampa Bay area can be found at the following:

  • Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History
    329 Bayshore Blvd. S., Safety Harbor
    (727) 726-1668
    See remnants of Pre-Columbian cultures that once lived near Espiritu Santo Springs (early Safety Harbor).
  • South Florida Museum
    201 10th St. W., Bradenton
    (941) 746-4131
    In addition to ancient fossils, the museum offers outstanding displays of archaeological artifacts from across Florida and the Gulf Coast.
  • Tampa Bay History Center
    801 Old Water Street, Tampa
    (813) 228-0097
    The exhibit, Florida’s First People, features Tocobaga and Calusa artifacts, including tools, weapons and pottery. Coacoochee’s Story Theater immerses viewers in the account of Seminole Chief Coacoochee’s experiences during the Second Seminole War.
  • Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center
    1800 Weedon Dr. NE, St. Petersburg
    (727) 453-6500
    Visitors can learn about the history of the island and view artifacts from the Weeden Island people who inhabited it 1,000 to 1,800 years ago.

Marcia Biggs is a freelance writer living in Safety Harbor.

Is it Weeden or Weedon?

Actually, it’s both. Weedon is the name of the physician who was given the island as a wedding gift in 1898. Except for a small lot used for vacations, he sold the land to a developer in 1923.

Weedon was excavated by Smithsonian Institute archaeologist J. Walter Fewkes in 1923 and 1924, who was the first to identify the Weeden Island Culture, defined by sacred and secular ceramics. He misspelled the name so the culture is officially Weeden but the island itself is still Weedon.

Read The Weedon Island Story (pdf file)

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