The first people to encounter the European conquerors of the early 16th century were called the Tocobaga by those who came in search of land, gold and slaves. What the Tocobaga people really called themselves is still unknown.
Archaeological evidence, based on bits and pieces of broken pottery, claims the Tocobaga were part of the Safety Harbor Cultural Period which extended as far south as Charlotte Harbor and as far north as Crystal River. It is believed that their culture (Mississippian Mound Complex), began to emerge in this area sometime around 700 A.D. They built their homes in cities which featured temple mounds made from recycled seashells. Towns were established near fresh water springs where they were able to use these natural resources to get their food, tools, and supplies. Their houses were constructed mostly from slash pine [Pinus elliottii] poles and Sabal palm frond thatching. Their high ceilings and wall vents allowed for circulation of air during hot, muggy summers.
The National Champion slash pine in Pinellas County, is 69 feet tall.
Sabal palmetto, a.k.a. cabbage palm, palmetto, cabbage palmetto, palmetto palm, swamp cabbage and sabal palm.
At the center ofTocobaga communities were temple mounds that served as a place of prayer. Temples were where Tocobaga leaders went to seek answers to guide them. These honored men and women were selected from the wise and greatly experienced members of their community. Their training as leaders may have begun in childhood and nurtured into adulthood.
Tocobaga economy depended upon the natural resources of the Tampa Bay estuary system. Having resided in the area for hundreds of years, they had learned to skillfully use the bounty that surrounded them. For instance, after eating the meat from shellfish, the shells were cleaned and made into tools or used to build the foundations of the mounds. Large lightning whelks were turned into axes, hammers, and hoes. Heavy clam shells became weights to hold down nets made from the fiber a native yucca plant Adam’s Needle [Yucca filamentosa]. Nothing was wasted.
Vessels drifted past Weedon Island in South Pinellas like silent shadows. An Indian guide in the lead ship helped the Spanish navigate the treacherous shallows of the Bay.
Menéndez signaled for the gun ports be opened and the cannons rolled into place. Blinking into the darkness, the crew carried out his order as quietly as possible. The ships drifted on toward their destination, the primary city of Tocobaga on Florida’s Central Gulf Coast (Safety Harbor.)
The Tocobaga people experienced Spanish slavers along this coast as early as 1511; the Panfilo de Narváez expedition in 1528; and the Hernando De Soto entrada in 1539. These shores had seen the murder of Fray Luis Cancer de Barbastro in 1549, whose early bid to set up a mission failed. Tension whispered through the whispy leaves of the sabal palms and across the inky ripples of the bay.
In the still darkness of early morning, the crews lowered the ships’ anchors. Like a threatening storm, they crept closer and closer to the sleeping city. In the gray light of dawn, Menéndez ordered a shallop, a ship’s boat, go to shore to announce his arrival.
As dawn broke over the horizon, the waking city of the Tocobaga exploded in panic. The town crier, sounded the alert on a horse conch trumpet as he rushed among the houses. Families grabbed what belongings they could and fled into the dark forest beyond. Mothers tried to calm their crying babies. Men urged their wives on, protecting them as best they could from the terror they knew lay ahead. Cacique Tocobaga, the Honored Man, went to the temple to pray for his people, fully expecting to die that day.