Tocobaga Indians of Tampa Bay

Did you know there's a Pocahontas-Tocobaga link? It's true! Click here.


The last prehistoric society
in the Tampa Bay area before the Spanish came
were called the Tocobaga.  Archaeologists call these people
the Safety Harbor culture, and refer to the period of time in which these people lived as the
Safety Harbor phase. 

This phase began about A.D. 900
and lasted until about 1567.  It ended with the arrival of the
Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles in Tampa Bay.

 The Tocobaga also had a special class the Europeans called Berdache. These hermaphrodite men sliced off their sexual organs, strapped on mini skirts of moss, and wore their hair down their backs like women. They did menial labor such as tending the sick, carting the wounded off the battlefield, and performing other favors to worthy warriors.






They also assisted the shaman in the preparation of dead bodies. One Tocobaga practice was to boil the bodies, pick off the meat, break the bones at the joints, bundle them in deerskin and place them on a platform. One platform in south Florida was found to have held over 300 bundle burials.

Other Indian burial practices included: Burials covered with oyster shells, a dog burial, cremation, bones placed in an urn, flexed (bent into the fetal position) burials, full-length-flat-on-your-back burials, effigy sacrifice (artifacts laid out in the shape of a body), and bones scattered in a mound. Most burials had thousands of broken pottery shards tossed throughout the mound, presumably to release the spirit of the pots to accompany the soul of the deceased to wherever it was going.

The Teacher Resource Link for the Tocobaga





Tocobaga Indians of Tampa Bay
The Tocobago Indians were a group of prehistoric and historic Native Americans living near Tampa Bay, Florida up until roughly 1760. The archaeological name for this and adjacent groups in late prehistoric (pre-European) times is the Safety Harbor culture. Just in case you're ever on Jeopardy: In the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas Plain is the usual pottery style. These artifacts may have had handles, as well as incising around the rims, but no complex designs (unless found in burial mounds.) Spanish records often refer to villages, chiefs, and chiefdoms (groups of subservient villages) with the same name. So, Tocobago, may refer to one man, a single village, or an extended alliance of villages, based on the context of the sentence. They were almost exclusively fishermen who fished the Gulf for the big ones and harvested tons of oysters and clams out of the bay.

Where and How They Lived
The Tocobaga Indians lived in small villages at the northern end of Tampa Bay from 900 to the 1500s. Each village was situated around a public area that was used as a meeting place. The houses were generally round and built with wooden poles holding up a roof of palm thatches.

The Tocobaga Indians built mounds within their villages. A mound is a large pile of earth, shells, or stones. Their world was surrounded by long shell middens made from years of discarded shells. From the thick shells they made hammers, dugout chopping tools, net weights, gorgets, plummets, and beads. They lived on top of shells, slept with shells, ate with shell plates and spoons, traded shells, and were buried with shells. Chief Tocobaga lived on top of a twenty-foot tall temple mound overlooking Old Tampa Bay in today's Safety Harbor. The chief's home and the tribe's temple were each built on a mound. The Tocobaga also built burial mounds outside the main village area as a place for burying the dead.

The Tocobaga villages were socially structured with a chief, nobles who met with the chief every morning at the temple for a sip of Black Drink and a few puffs on the old pipe, commoners who fished and crabbed and doubled as warriors, and slaves (captured Calusa warriors.)

There is some simply fascinating material on the left side of this page. Check out the story about the Berdache. Very weird.

The women of the Tocobaga tribes had a garbage heap called a midden, which was located next to their kitchen. Middens were created by the Tocoboga's use of shellfish for food. The midden consisted of a mound of shells that had grown and packed together throughout the years as shells were discarded after every meal.

At right is a poster put into circulation by a Tampa Bay Museum.

What They Ate
Because of their proximity to both the bay and freshwater streams, the Tocobaga fished and gathered shellfish as their primary source of food. They also ate manatees, which were abundant in the nearby waters.

During this time, the Tampa Bay area was rich with animals such as deer, rabbits, armadillo, and squirrels. As a result, the Tocobaga became great hunters. They also gathered a variety of berries, nuts, and fruit to supplement their diet. Interestingly, the Tocobaga Indians had corn, an unusual find in the Tampa Bay area. It is not clear how they got the corn, but it is speculated that they may have traded with a northern tribe for it.

The Tools They Made
The Tocobaga developed many tools for hunting, cooking, and eating. One such tool was the adz. The adz was made of a shell or pointed stone tied to the end of a curved branch. It was used for digging.

The Tocobaga also constructed a tool by placing a living tree branch through a shell with a hole in it. Over a period of time the branch would grow into the shell. The branch would then be cut off the tree. This produced a sturdy tool used for digging clams.

For hunting, the Tocobaga Indians used a throwing stick called an atlatl. It looked and functioned much like a spear. It was used to kill animals for food and clothing. While hunting, the Tocobaga would wear deerskin, or sometimes deer heads over themselves, to get close enough to the animals to kill them.

What Happened to Them?
Sometime around 1528, PŠnfilo de NarvŠez, a Spanish explorer, arrived in the Tampa Bay area. He and his men found the Tocobaga and brought disease and violence to the tribe's peaceful existence. As a result, the Tocobaga Indians became extinct within the next 100 years.

Archaeological digs in the Safety Harbor area of Florida have uncovered many artifacts, or man-made objects from the Tocobaga. Items such as plates and pots have been found indicating that the Tocobaga Indians were expert potters.

South Florida Indians believed they had three souls: their shadow, their image in a pond, and the pupil of their eye. When Indians died, two souls departed the body and went into the body of a lesser creature like a fish. The pupil soul remained with the body. It was this pupil soul of deceased ancestors that living Indians talked to at burial sites when they needed advice.