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Parts of a popular Pinellas County park may sit on a Native American burial ground

Centuries ago, Philippe Park in Safety Harbor was home to the Tocobaga village. An archeological report found a picnic shelter and an adjacent playground could be sitting on top of Native American graves.

Philippe Park in Safety Harbor is Pinellas County's oldest park.

It also is home to the Tocobaga Temple Mound — a Native American village hub. The Tocobaga are believed to be the first occupiers of the land.

In the 1930s, a team led by Matthew Stirling, the chief of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, uncovered the remains of over 100 people at the site.

But an archaeology report of the park compiled two years ago by the University of South Florida anthropology professor Thomas Pluckhahn found a strong likelihood that Native American human remains are likely still there.

"The thing I'm worried about is that those excavations were so uncontrolled, that I think a lot of the burial mounds sediment and some of the bones probably got pushed around a good bit," Pluckhahn said.

Pluckhahn's report was provided to Pinellas County, recommending they "consider closing Picnic Shelter No. 9 and the adjacent playground, both out of respect for descendant communities and to reduce the possibility of displacing human remains or disturbing human burials."

"Almost certainly — given the coarseness of Stirling’s excavations — human remains are present in this area," the report said.

A maroon and wood sign sits in front of a scenic outdoor picnic shelter site behind tall trees with moss in front of a large body of water.
Meghan Bowman
Picnic shelter No. 9 and the adjacent playground in Pinellas County's Phillipe Park may sit on top of a centuries-old Native American burial site. Parts of the park were excavated nearly 100 years ago and found remnants of the Tocobaga.

Parks and Conservation Director Paul Cozzie said the report "opened [their] eyes" and called the timing of the report perfect.

That's because Pinellas was already in the process of removing and replacing the playground next to picnic shelter No. 9. In response, the county has stopped taking reservations for the popular picnic shelter, but the playground remains open. It won't close until construction on a new one is finished by March at the latest.

Cozzie's department is in charge of protecting cultural resources, and he said the Tocobaga and "pre-Pinellas" history are important.

"They were here for hundreds of years. Certainly longer than what the Europeans, let's call ourselves, have been in Pinellas County," Cozzie said.

Cozzie said the area has a "pretty interesting story to tell." He'll work with Pluckhahn and the Seminole Tribe of Florida to preserve the area.

But Pluckhahn doesn't want to see another excavation at the site. He'd rather see extended site and landmark boundaries and interpretive signage telling the Tocobaga's story.

"And frankly, my guess is the tribes would prefer that you just didn't do any digging there and just left it alone and didn't disturb any individuals that might still be buried there," Pluckhahn said.

Map showing topography with red, mint, and black dashed lines showing boundaries.
Thomas Pluckhahn and Kendal Jackson
University of South Florida
Pluckhahn's report to Pinellas County proposes boundary limits to the Tocobaga Temple Mound and the National Historic Landmark. The marked spot in the top left is picnic shelter No. 9 and the adjacent playground.

Park History

The Native town of Tocobaga was the first settlement on the land.

The Tocobaga Temple Mound was the presumed location of the chief's home and was at the center of an L-shaped village. Pluckhahn said the village probably had between 10 to 20 houses.

A mission-fort was established by the Spanish in 1567, and the Tocobaga fled the site. Eventually, some Natives returned and the Spanish attempted to convert, but withdrew in 1572 and burned down the town.

The Tocobaga is believed to have lived in the Tampa area until as late as 1612, when most were either killed or joined other tribes.

In the 1700s after the French and Indian War, Spain relinquished Florida. Natives began returning to the area — likely including the remaining Tocobaga — to form the group known as Seminoles.

The park is named after the county's first non-native settler Odet Philippe, who established a small citrus plantation, St. Helena, on the land in 1842.

Philippe has quite a history — legends say he was a friend to the pirate Jose Gaspar and served with Napoleon as a chief surgeon at the Battle of Trafalgar — but both claims are said to be likely false.

However, Philippe did bring cigar-rolling to the area, contributing to Tampa's "Cigar City" nickname. He was also involved in the slave trade, purchasing at least nine slaves in the 1800s. In 1963, he was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.

Thomas Palmer purchased the property in the early 1900s and turned it into a "pleasure ground for hunting, gardening, and other leisurely pursuits."

Palmer and some associates began looking through the large ruins on the land — what is now called the Temple Mound. The area grew as a tourist attraction.

Professional work at the site didn't occur until the 1930s, when Stirling excavated.

Pinellas acquired the property in 1948 to create the park, but doesn't have records of what was on the site before it was built in the 1960s.

More work was done in the 1940s and 1960s, both of which Pluckhahn said were unfortunately not well-documented.

In 1964, Philippe Park became Pinellas' only National Historic Landmark.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.