The site is widely recognized as the probable location of the native town of Tocobaga, where Spanish Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a short-lived mission-fort in the 1560s. It later became the location for the planation owned by one of the area’s most legendary settlers, “Count” Odet Philippe. Philippe is said to have been a childhood friend of Napoleon, the first European settler of Pinellas County, the first to cultivate citrus in Florida, and the first to introduce cigar rolling to Tampa Bay; generally omitted from such tall tales are his likely Afro-Caribbean heritage, reputation as a maritime smuggler, and the fact that he owned enslaved Africans.
In 1948, Pinellas County purchased the property from Philippe’s heirs for the creation of its first public park. Visitors to the park today can walk a paved path to the top of Safety Harbor platform mound for a sweeping view of the bay; this is presumably the “the highest and most prominent place” described in historical accounts as the location of the chief’s house, where Tocobaga met with the Spanish Governor in 1567. The mound’s summit is a good place from which to imagine the village of Tocobaga, although envisioning the historic landscape is a challenge to even the most informed observer given the changes that have taken place to the site over the intervening 500 years. One side of the mound has been terraced and landscaped in an effort to stabilize damage wrought by hurricanes, including one in 1848 that reportedly reduced the mound’s size by one-third. The presumed plaza at the foot of the mound has been paved for a parking lot. A picnic shelter has been built on one arm of the village. Farther in the distance, another picnic shelter and a playground now occupy the area where a burial mound formerly stood.
Despite the historical importance of the native town of Tocobaga and Philippe’s plantation, the Safety Harbor site has been minimally investigated, and rarely using modern archaeological methods. Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution excavated the burial mound in the 1930s, resulting in the recovery of hundreds of human burials. However, the methods were coarse and the results were scantly reported. The first modern-era professional investigation of the Safety Harbor site was conducted by John Griffin and Ripley Bullen in 1948; they excavated a test trench in the platform mound and several additional trenches in the village. Several groups of avocational archaeologists conducted investigations at the Safety Harbor site in the late 1960s, but unfortunately the results of this work were never adequately reported and most of the artifacts and documentation appear to have been lost. In 2012, Phyllis Kolianos and AWIARE conducted salvage excavations of ground disturbance resulting from a fallen tree on the slope of the platform mound.
In 2019, the Department of Anthropology at USF began the first intensive and professional archaeological investigations of the Safety Harbor site in more than 70 years. Recognizing the importance of the site and its protected status (it has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since the 1960s), the investigations were carefully planned to be minimally invasive. Geophysical surveys (including ground-penetrating radar, gradiometry, and electrical resistivity) provide a glimpse of what lies buried beneath the surface, including everything from buried shell middens associated with the village of Tocobaga to utility lines associated with the development of the park. Small systematic excavations (50-cm square shovel tests and 1-x-1-m test units) spaced throughout the site helped to ‘ground-truth’ the geophysical data and produced samples of artifacts, including: copious quantities of shell, pottery, and stone tools associated with Tocobaga; pipe fragments, pottery, nails, and bricks associated with the later settlement by Philippe, his family, and the enslaved people that worked the plantation; and coins and other modern artifacts associated with modern-era park goers. At each test pit, student excavation crews screened the soils through fine 1/8-inch mesh and took particular care to record and collect the smallest of artifacts, animal bones, and identifiable shell fragments for analysis.
Although laboratory analyses are ongoing, some preliminary results can be reported. GPR survey and coring of the platform mound suggest that it was built in several construction stages, including one comprised of greenish-grey clay and others of shell. Despite disturbances from later occupations and modern park infrastructure, significant portions of Tocobaga village remain well preserved; shell midden stratigraphy and radiocarbon dating suggest two major occupation episodes during the Mississippian period. The diligent work of fieldschool students at the fine-mesh screens during excavation is paying off, and there are early signs of temporal and spatial changes in the presence and relative frequencies of marine shell species in midden deposits. Finally, the distributions of nineteenth-century artifacts seem to conform to the locations of structures depicted on historic maps, and probably indicate the former locations of the houses of Philippe and his enslaved workers.
The results and interpretations from these recent USF investigations at Safety Harbor site will be summarized in a technical report in hopes will be used by the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources Department to better manage this important historic site. However, we think the history of the site is compelling enough to warrant a number of other publications, perhaps including a book. In addition, we hope to use the findings to improve the public interpretation of the site through online media, community outreach, and enhancements to interpretive aids at the park.
Tom Pluckhahn and Kendal Jackson