This Map Details Florida’s Disappearing Native American Landscape

A 19th-century reporter’s invaluable guide offers a look at the earliest residents of the area surrounding the Tampa Bay

left, map of Tampa region, and right, a shard of pottery
Walker's map is now in the Smithsonian's archives. In an 1873 report, he described relics he'd found, including "immense quantities of broken pottery." Smithsonian Archives; Alamy

In the area around Tampa Bay, the remains of centuries-old mounds hide under roads, in parks and neighborhoods, even by big-box stores. Shell mounds served as temple sites and as places to relax, sleep and eat. The Tocobaga people, who lived in the area in the 1500s when the Spanish arrived—and many inhabitants before them—gathered food from the rich estuaries and hunting grounds. They piled bones and shellfish remains into mounds called middens that reached as high as 20 feet. They also buried their dead in sandy mounds nearby.

Starting in the 1500s, Spain claimed the region through a series of expeditions. The United States absorbed Florida in the 1820s, but it was only after railroads reached the beaches that outsiders began to settle. In 1880, Tampa’s population was about 700. Over the next 20 years, it exploded to nearly 15,000.

In 1879, just before construction destroyed many traces of earlier civilizations, a newspaper reporter named Sylvanus Tandy Walker created an invaluable record of the Native earthworks. Walker was an amateur naturalist and archaeologist who liked to sleuth out the area in his free time, and his map offered an intriguing study of a soon-to-be-altered landscape.

Many of the shell middens became road fill, which was a particularly big loss: Shells are alkaline, so they often preserve the items buried underneath them. But research continues, and the middens that are still standing today provide a glimpse into the lives of early Floridians.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine