The Tocobaga Indians were a native American tribe of people who lived in the vicinity of Tampa Bay in Florida, with archeological remains found in St Petersberg, Tampa, Safety Harbor, and surrounding districts. The tribe were a maritime tribe who subsisted on fish and whatever they could forage in the locality, or trade with distant tribes. The Tocobaga had a highly developed social structure based around chiefdoms, with institutionalized social inequality between the various classes, similar to the caste system found in other cultures such as medieval Europe and Hindu India.
Around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago Indian people in North America moved into the Florida peninsula, these people were nomadic and rarely established a permanent presence being hunter gatherers. By 4,000 years ago native American Indian tribes started to build settlements along the coastal areas, particularly in the south. Around 550 BC Manasota culture was becoming established and developing religious customs that continued until their last known settlements disappeared sometime in the 8th or 9th centuries.
Nobody knows what happened to the Manasota culture, were they absorbed by Mississippian tribes who moved into the area, or did they die out leaving their former homes abandoned? The Tampa Bay area had previously been the northern limits of the Manasota culture but around the same time as Manasota culture disappeared the Tocobaga Indians started building cities and settlements around the Tampa Bay area and establishing a culture the survived thru to Spanish colonial times.
Centered on the area now known as Safety Harbor City, the city lends its name to the Indian culture that developed there from 800 AD, the Safety Harbor culture. Tocobaga Indians and the Safety Harbor culture are therefore considered by many to be the same, although it is incorrect to use the two names interchangeably since outlying tribes that weren’t members of the Tocobaga Indians were also part of the Safety Harbor culture, characterized by the building of truncated pyramidal mounds on which were built the chief’s house and often the chiefdom’s temple.
The Tocobagan Indians are believed to have been mostly peaceful although their society did practice slavery and a person generally remained in their caste with little chance of improvement to higher status. Slaves were obtained thru raids on other tribes and the taking of prisoners, and evidence suggests that each chiefdom would only allow outsiders to live amongst them if a marriage had been arranged between a nobleman and a woman from another chiefdom.
Tocobagan villages were highly structured, always being built around a central plaza which in larger settlements would feature the pyramidal mound upon which would be built the chief’s house and the village temple. Below the mound, and around the edges of the plaza were the homes of the village nobility. The homes of other villagers would be on the outskirts of the village. Chiefs in Tocobagan tribes were considered holy, akin to gods who demanded absolute respect of their subjects, and it is believed the building of mounds was designed to reinforce their position by forcing the other villagers to look upwards whenever the chief appeared.
By the early 1500s Tocobaga tribes people started to notice ships of the Spanish explorers on their horizon, and in 1528 the first contact between Tocobaga Indians and Spain with the arrival of Pánfilo de Narváez. Having been appointed governor of Florida de Narváez embarked on a mission to subjugate the Native Indians. History remembers that de Narvéaz sailed with five ships and 300 men landing near Tampa Bay. Battles broke out almost immediately with massive losses on both sides. Pánfilo de Narváez and about half of his men managed to get past the Tocobaga before heading inland, although fortune was not on their side, with de Narváez and almost all his men perishing whilst trying to return to their ships.
Another explorer, Hernando de Soto visited the Tampa Bay area in 1539 and made a detailed assessment of the villages and tribes of the area. His visit noted only small villages and chiefdoms which would have been no threat to an expeditionary force, although de Soto did at least give us the names of several other small ribes living on the southern boundary of the Tocobaga domain, the Guacozo, Vicela, Tocaste, Luca, Uzita, Mocoso, and Pohoy.
In subsequent years the Tocabaga and the previously mentioned villages suffered terrible diseases brought in by the Europeans and which their immune systems were ill equipped to deal with, and drastically reducing their population. So weakened were the Tocobaga that in 1567 when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, 20 of his men and a war party from the much more powerful Calusa descended on the Tocobaga who were at war with the Calusa, the Tocobaga were only able to call on 1500 men to defend their main settlement.
The Tocobaga were the dominant Indian tribe in the Tampa Bay area, yet 1500 men would have been no match against battle seasoned conquistadors, but fortunately for the Tocobaga Spain was in no mood to fight having expanded rapidly thru the Americas and facing native rebellions in almost every colony. Despite disease and illness, or perhaps because of it, the Tocobaga and Pohoy nations regularly raided Spanish settlements on their borders leading to moves by Spain to crush them once and for all in 1612, an event that lives on in infamy for its abject failure to achieve its goal.
A little over a hundred years later (1718), Spanish missionaries had managed to convert most Indian people from St Augustine to the Tampa Bay, although tribal prejudices were hard to completely eradicate, the Pohoy and Tocobaga being at war after the Pohoy had allied themselves with the Calusa several years before. War with England to the north, and France to the west had plagued the Spanish colony in Florida and massacres of Indians allied with Spain or who had been converted to Christianity had effectively destroyed most Indian tribes, and by the 1760s the Tocobaga were amongst the very small number of Indians remaining.
It is a sad indictment on the European colonization of Florida that in 1763 when Spain finally agreed to give up its claim and evacuate all Spaniards to Cuba, the last of the Tocobaga went with them and effectively ceased to exist as a people. Native Americans currently living in Florida for the most part migrated to the state after the Spanish and their Native Indian subjects had left.