Celebrate Tampa Bay’s Indian Heritage

This sign that was once located in St. Petersburg’s Abercrombie Park offers an honest — and sad — explanation for what happened to many local seashell mounds.
City of St. Petersburg

At Thanksgiving, many Americans come together to express their gratitude and reflect on the past. They often remember this fall feast as part of New England’s “First Thanksgiving” in 1621. Even if they don’t remember the details, they fill their plates with the food shared by Pilgrims and Indians in mind. .

Consider how this illusory story of expressing gratitude in a shared space was so remarkably different from a rebuttal that Governor Ron DeSantis voiced during the October 24 Governor’s Debate with Charlie Crist.

While discussing the need to accurately portray American history, DeSantis said, “You have people who teach — and in fact sound [Mr. Crist’s] running mate has said it in the past – that education in the United States was built on stolen land. This is inappropriate for our schools. That’s not true.”

DeSantis isn’t the first Florida politician — or the first person with an undergraduate degree in history — to misrepresent the legacy and significance of people whose ancestors lived here for dozens of generations before to be “discovered” as occupants of a “New World”.

Image of textbooks used in 4th and 8th grade "Florida" social studies classes.
Social studies textbooks that introduced 4th and 8th graders to Florida history.
James Schnur

The Pilgrims and Indians story of a friendly communal fall feast passed down through generations does not accurately represent the tense interactions between the Wampanoag Indians, the rival Narragansetts and the Europeans who arrived and established Plymouth Colony .

Likewise, the story of the first violent interactions between the first Floridians and the Spanish conquistadors – followed by a second portion of diseases and massacres – differs greatly from the romantic tales we often remember about Juan Ponce de León in the search for a fictional fountain of youth.

Today, we know very little about the people who lived in the Tampa Bay area for thousands of years before Americans began celebrating Thanksgiving. Most of what we have learned comes not from historians digging into the archives, but from anthropologists and archaeologists who painstakingly analyze potsherds, shell tools and other relics.

The Uzita, Tocobaga, Mocoso and earlier cultures that lived in this area left no written records. Although the Aboriginal populations of Florida shared memories through oral traditions, we know little about their languages. Within 150 years of first contact, their populations dwindled and their stories went with them to the graves. Their ancestors live in the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, along with other descendants of early Floridians who are not part of a federally recognized tribe.

Surviving sources describing early contact in Florida before the 1600s are mostly in Spanish and tell a biased and incomplete story. Pánfilo de Narváez, the first conquistador known to have visited the Pinellas Peninsula when he arrived in April 1528, had little interest in a friendly meal when he met. He wanted gold. Violence and hostility defined Hernando DeSoto’s visit to Tampa Bay in 1539.

Spanish records from this period often condemned people who had lived here for millennia as “pagans” or “savages.” The Spanish conquistadors also challenged the important role women played as leaders in many indigenous societies. When the first Floridians disappeared, incomplete and incorrect accounts began to form.

Postcard of a large shell mound that once existed in the Mound Park area of ​​St. Petersburg.

A large mound of seashells once existed in the Mound Park area near the hospitals south of downtown St. Petersburg.
Florida memory

Fix recording

Florida historians began to question the long-accepted “first Thanksgiving” narrative years ago. Initially, their efforts won few converts in Massachusetts.

In time, historians here persuaded their New England brethren that the real “First Thanksgiving” probably took place in 1565. After Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the hundreds of Spaniards who sailed with him founded Saint -Augustine, some Timucuans participated in a common meal with these newcomers. Other historians have sought even earlier interactions between Indians and Spaniards in Florida as evidence of the original thanksgiving.

Florida now has a relatively safe claim to be the first state where newly arrived Indians and Europeans shared a meal in expressions of gratitude. If Puerto Rico gains statehood, however, this Caribbean island will take the honor from Florida. Ponce de León was governor of this island three times, twice before “discovering” Florida.

While Florida can take credit for placing at the top of the Thanksgiving line, our state still has a long way to go before it can take pride in offering a more complete and accurate account of Indigenous peoples. who have lived here for thousands of years. .

Monument in Abercrombie Park, Saint Petersburg.
A monument in Abercrombie Park honors John Abercrombie, the “Old South”, and mentions that he brought “former slaves” when he reached the Pinellas Peninsula, long after the Civil War.
James Schnur

names matter

In recent years, institutions at all levels — from schools and colleges to professional sports franchises — have removed offensive logos and mascots. Here and throughout Florida, we have the opportunity to take an equally responsible step by modifying or changing the names of certain places to express our gratitude to the first Floridians who came before us.

Many sites have disappeared. The mounds once found along Bayboro Harbor and the large mound that stood in the Mound Park neighborhood of St. Petersburg have disappeared. Crews took shells from mounds and middens in Big Bayou and near Abercrombie Park to pave the roads. While we cannot undo these acts, there are still local, county, and state sites that could be renamed or renamed to honor these early cultures.

Located at Park Street and 38th Avenue North, Abercrombie Park pays homage to John Abercrombie, an early settler who arrived in the 1880s. A plaque at the park notes that this site was dedicated to him “in homage to the memory of the Old South” after that this first doctor brought his family “and several of their former slaves”.

In a plot of land added to Abercrombie Park in 2015, the Kuttler Mound recognizes the family who were the last owners of a house built on part of a mound site in 1939.

Philippe Park at Safety Harbor, the county’s first park established in Pinellas, honors a man known as Pinellas County’s first white settler, someone who remains an enigma with much of his life shrouded in mystery.

A bird's eye view from the top of the mound at Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site in Terra Ceia.
A bird’s eye view from the top of the mound at Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site in Terra Ceia.
James Schnur

In Terra Ceia, just across from the Sunshine Skyway, Florida State Parks maintains the Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site, named for one of the donors of the land in 1948 where this ceremonial mound is located.

These names must not disappear. Maybe they could share the space or define some of the land, with names that honor the Indians in the first place. To be fair, the interpretive panels at some of these locations — and at Weedon Island Preserve — now provide better context than they once did.

However, Florida can do more to honor these people by recognizing the spaces they once called “home.” Also, we should teach their history accurately, including the part about how the conquistadors and settlers occupied their land, and how events in American history such as the Seminole War and the Trail of Tears brought others to steal their land.

Sign placed at the original entrance to Philippe Park in Safety Harbor.
A sign commemorating Odet Philippe at the park’s original entrance to Safety Harbor, with inaccurate historical information, as it appeared in 1951. The sign still stands near the mound today.
Florida memory

Add context, not “undo”

Some in the cancel culture chorus may read this and blurt out the fake fake about how such an effort will “cancel” the memories of Abercrombie, Kuttler, Philippe and Bickel. There is no need to worry: their history and contributions must not disappear as so many indigenous languages, cultures and traditions have.

We can remember Abercrombie’s significance as the first physician in the lower Pinellas, while acknowledging the indigenous healing practices of those who lived near the mound long before the Kuttler family bought a house that once stood there. against this one. Perhaps we should even say a little more about why Abercrombie brought his “former slaves” to the area nearly 20 years after the Civil War ended.

That Philip shares the honor with the Tocobaga and others who built the mound in the park pays tribute to the people who created and sustained vibrant communities along the Pinellas Peninsula long before Philip established a plantation – with slaves – on this site.

Madira Bickel’s gift of land to Terra Ceia should not be forgotten, but if this mound truly represents one of many that once existed in the region, the site’s name should honor what little remains of a culture as so much of it is gone.

Kuttler Mound, located in Abercrombie Park in St. Petersburg.
Kuttler Mound, located in Abercrombie Park in St. Petersburg.
James Schnur

food for thought

As you express your gratitude on Thanksgiving and make plans to survive Black Friday and Cyber ​​Monday, think of those who have gathered here for thousands of years.

Their autumn meals included fish and shellfish, perhaps collected in canoes. They ate berries, beans, fruits, squash and nuts. Later, they added corn to their diet. Stews and roast fish or game filled many bellies.

Give thanks for their stewardship of the land and for letting us enjoy it today.

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