By: Becky O’Sullivan
1883 Coastal Survey Map showing the area of “Spanishtown” before the development of the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Archaeologists don’t always rely on a shovel and trowel to learn about past people, sometimes we use old maps and a keen eye to pick out clues to the past on modern landscapes. Before Tampa was Tampa, an early historic settlement called Spanishtown was located along the bay just to the southwest of the mouth of the Hillsborough River. An early coastal survey map of the area shows a collection of structures and farmland along a small creek, aptly named Spanishtown Creek. Today, the historic Hyde Park neighborhood and Bayshore Boulevard can be found where Cuban fisherman and farmers once lived in Spanishtown. As we would expect, the early structures of Spanishtown are long gone, but what happened to Spanishtown Creek? Spanishtown Creek, and the historic fishing rancho known as Spanishtown, might not be an obvious part of the Tampa landscape today, but traces of them still remain on the landscape.
1892 Plat map showing the location of Spanishtown Creek, as well as the new street layout and neighborhood that would eventually overtake it.
Today, Hyde Park is one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Tampa’s four original historic wards. Besides what was once Fort Brooke in downtown Tampa, it was also home to one of the Tampa Bay area’s earliest historic settlements. The history of the area gives only fleeting mentions of Spanishtown, a small fishing village or rancho located just to the southwest of the mouth of the Hillsborough River, and near a small creek, that was established in the early 1800s (Acosta 2012:7). A few Anglo settlers also moved into the area around this time, but the Cuban men and women who would have occupied the fishing rancho at Spanishtown are the most elusive in terms of historical evidence. Works Progress Administration notes from the 1930s record some tantalizing clues about the residents of Spanishtown:
An interesting bit of history handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation is that of the small Spanish colony existing at the mouth of Spanishtown Creek (on Hillsborough Bay, approximately one-half mile west of the Hillsborough River.) These people were there when Levi Collar (or Collier). the first American settler, arrived to establish his home. There is considerable variance in accounts of the size of this colony and no information as to what pursuits they followed or who were their antecedents. Some were old and decrepit, and these said that they had lived many years in the neighborhood… They are Juan Gomez, Pedro Cathelina and August Sautharout. Juan Gomez spoke good English and vouched for the antiquity of the colony… The more plausible explanation is that they were fishermen from Cuba – a colony replenished from time to time from the island. (WPA Records, USF Special Collections)
An individual named Juan Gomez appears on both the 1850 and 1860 census for the Tampa area; his occupation is listed as a “Pilot” and his place of birth is recorded as “Spain”. Who were these Spanish speaking fishermen and why were they in the Tampa area? The plentiful fisheries of the area were ideal for fishermen looking to catch mullet and other fish for the Havana markets. Beginning sometime around the late 1700s Cuban fishermen began to transition from seasonal fishing trips to Florida’s west coast to more permanent camps or ranchos located in coastal areas between Tampa Bay and Estero Bay (Worth 2012:145). One such rancho started by the American William Bunce near the mouth of Tampa Bay in 1834 employed both Cubans and Indians in the catching and preservation of fish for Cuban markets (Dodd 1947).
1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps showing the gradual change from marshy creek to urban neighborhood.
Undated photograph from a September 1989 article by Leland Hawes in “Baylife” titled “Photograph of Tampa’s old Spanishtown Creek” (USF Special Collections)
Starting in the 1880s, Hyde Park developed as a residential neighborhood just to the south of Henry Plant’s magnificent Plant Hotel (now the University of Tampa). With this change from sleepy fishing village and farmland to grand homes and urban living the landscape of the area also changed. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps and Plats from throughout the early 20th Century show that as the years went by and new houses were built in Hyde Park, Spanish Town Creek slowly disappeared from the visible landscape. The final blow came in 1938 with the death of a small child who had been playing near one of the still-exposed stretches of the creek. Public outcry over what was perceived as a threat to the safety of local residents caused the city to start on a project to enclose the last visible portions of Spanishtown Creek.
A newspaper clipping from April 1, 1938 explains the project to enclose Spanishtown Creek.
Photo from June, 1935 titled “Spanishtown Creek Bridge at South Boulevard where Guy Jacobs was Drowned”. This area is just to the south of the intersection of West Azeele and South Boulevard. (Hampton Dunn Collection, USF Special Collections)
But as any archaeologist or storm water engineer can tell you, just because it isn’t visible above ground doesn’t mean it no longer exists in some form. By overlaying old maps with modern aerials and incorporating data from the City of Tampa on the area storm water drainage system it soon became clear that Spanish Town Creek is still very much a part of the Hyde Park landscape. Click on the map image below to see the path the creek would take through the area today, as well as more historic and current images showing the mark Spanishtown Creek has made on the landscape.
Follow this link http://goo.gl/maps/OeZLY to see an interactive map of Spanishtown Creek through time. Images and maps from the past and today show how much the area has changed.
The once visible creek now snakes through concrete culverts located beneath the streets and sidewalks of the area, discernible only as some dips in the road and by a few storm water drains. As a new resident of Hyde Park I knew I was moving into a historic structure, but I had no idea that a remnant of this earlier settlement, the creek itself, was literally in (or under) my own backyard!
View looking south across Horatio Ave. showing what it might look like if Spanishtown Creek still flowed above ground on the modern Hyde Park landscape.
For more information about Spanishtown, or Spanishtown Creek, check out this great blog: http://tampaniatampa.blogspot.com/2010/04/burying-our-past-spanishtown-creek.html
Becky is an archaeologist working at the West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, located at the University of South Florida in Tampa (as well as a new resident of Tampa’s Hyde Park neighborhood). If you would like more information about Spanishtown or Spanishtown Creek, or have some old pictures or information of your own to share, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
2012 Tampa’s Hyde Park. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC.
1947 Captain Bunce’s Tampa Bay Fisheries. Florida Historical Quarterly 25(3):247-257.
Worth, John E.
2012 Creolization in Southwest Florida: Cuban Fishermen and “Spanish Indians,” ca. 1766-1841. Historical Archaeology 46(1):142-160.