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The sacred hill of Philippe Park

The area's biggest remaining Indian mound is in this Safety Harbor park, where a robust culture once thrived.

Published September 29, 2006

SAFETY HARBOR - The Tocobaga Indians knew a good piece of real estate when they saw it.

This rolling piece of land had high ground, great fishing, gorgeous views and awesome breezes off Old Tampa Bay.

A millennium later, people are still enamored of the 122-acre Philippe Park - it had nearly 1-million visitors last year alone. They come to bike, run, walk, fish, boat, picnic, party (sans alcohol), walk the dog or just hang out.

Central to the park's beauty and history is a grass-covered hill known as the Indian Mound.

Deet McGruder, 45, of Clearwater finds peace nearly once a week at this place.

"It's just so tranquil here," he said, looking out over the bay. The park features 1 mile of shoreline.

The experience wasn't quite as spiritual for Robert Cummings, 53, of Oldsmar.

"I was expecting to feel some kind of vibes or a mystical thing, but it's just a steep hill," he said, catching his breath.

A climb for him, perhaps, but to the Tocobaga, it was a place to hold ceremonies. Even the big chief may have lived there. Remains indicate that some kind of structure was built atop the mound, created from layers of sand and shells.

The hill in Philippe Park is the largest remaining mound in the Tampa Bay area, according Vance Perkey, assistant park supervisor, who has researched the Tocobaga. The culture is believed to have occupied the area from around 900 A.D. until the late 1600s. Records suggest that this area in Safety Harbor was the "capital city" of the Tocobaga tribe.

It was an estuary culture of tall, muscular and agile people. They carried bows, arrows and spears. They made many of their tools from bones and shell.

They weren't big on clothing but liked tattoos.

"We know that they were a class society ranked by a birthright or being known as a fierce warrior," Perkey said. "They used tattoos to identify their rank or privilege. I've read that if they tattooed themselves to a rank or status they weren't entitled to, it would be removed, and we aren't talking laser surgery here."

He said the type of pottery they had - the more elaborate, the better - also determined rank. And those with higher status lived closer to the water.

"Some things never change," he said.

Historians aren't certain how big the village was. Estimates range from several hundred people to more than 2,500.

When the Spanish arrived, they brought horses, war dogs and guns - things the natives had never seen. The guns and war dogs, especially, drove fear into their hearts.

The Spanish were not kind to the Tocobaga. One of the cruelest was a commander of the conquistadors named Panfilo de Narvaez, who came to the area in 1528. He and his men pillaged the Tocobagans' ceremonial grounds and huts. They cut off the chief's nose and fed his mother to the pet greyhounds.

Warfare was not the only thing that led to the demise of the tribe. Many were killed by European disease. Any survivors likely merged with other cultures.

Originally the mound was rectangular, but about a third of it was lost during a hurricane in 1848. Count Odet Philippe, for whom the park was named, used it to protect his family from a tidal surge.

The count is credited as being the first to adapt the grapefruit to Florida culture on his plantation, St. Helena, now Philippe Park. He also introduced cigarmaking to Tampa.

In 1979, stone retaining walls were built around the mound to stop further erosion and deter removal of arrowheads, ceramic pottery fragments and bones. Anyone who finds an artifact should report it to park officials.

Fast facts

* The park opened in 1948 and is the oldest in the county.

* Number of picnic shelters: eight

* Record number of park weddings in one day: nine

* Biggest month for weddings at the park: April

* It has a new $120,000 adventure course made of composite rocks and ropes. The nontraditional playground is said to be the first of its kind on the U.S. East Coast.

* * *

Philippe Park is at 2525 Philippe Parkway in Safety Harbor. The park is open daily from 7 a.m. until dusk. Call (727) 669-1947 for information.


[Last modified September 28, 2006, 23:06:05]

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