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.
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.
The Tocobago were not part of the Timucua culture which usually only extended as far south as modern day Ocala. However, at times some of the Tampa Bay groups may have been ruled by a Timucua chief named Urriparacoxi (Oo-ree-pah-ra-coo-see) who temporarily extended his range of influence.
In 1539 Hernando de Soto visited several groups in the Tampa Bay region, and gave us information about the Uzita, Mocoso, Pohoy, Guacozo, Luca, Vicela, Tocaste, and Tocobago. Because de Soto did not scout the northern side of Tampa Bay, he did not directly encounter the Tocobago. At the time, none of these villages were large or powerful, probably consisting of one or a few small villages and nearby family groups. After de Soto’s visit, the villages of Uzita and Mocoso are never mentioned by the Spanish again, and may have been destroyed by a combination of being enslaved as guides and bearers, and by the raging epidemics introduced by European diseases.
Tocobago is mentioned often in Spanish papers from 1560 on. Many Spanish artifacts have been found in Safety Harbor sites. Most are from Spanish shipwrecks which were constantly salvaged by Florida natives, but some were from the Spaniard Menendez’ visit in 1567. The main village of Tocobago was located on Old Tampa Bay very close to the modern day town of Saftey Harbor. A Spaniard, Juan Lopez de Velasco, gave a latitude description of the site.
Around 1567, Menedez went with Chief Calusa and 20 of his principal men to Tocobago. Calusa wanted to raid and burn the village, for he was at war with Tocobago. The balance of power in the Tampa Bay area was shifting constantly. This was influenced by treasures (including Mexican gold and silver) the natives scavenged from Spanish shipwrecks, and by who the Spanish were allied with at the moment. When Tocobago found out they were coming, he called for 29 vassal chiefs and fifteen hundred warriors to stand with him at the village to face Menendez and Calusa.
Some of the allied chiefs lived up to 2 day’s travel away. Evidently, Tocobago had grown radically since de Soto’s reports from 30 years before. At least some of the native coalitions probably grew up in response to the European threat, rather than from internal native issues. When Menendez saw the huge army Tocobago had amassed, he worked diligently to prevent hostilities.
Tocobago’s new-found power over 29 villages was probably tied to their collection of wealth from Spanish shipwrecks. They occasionally took shipwreck survivors as slaves, which could boost economy as well.
All of the Tampa Bay inhabitants relied heavily on water animals and plants for food, but also hunted and gathered on land. Of all these groups, only the Tocobago planted corn.
Their villages are known for platform mound construction. The chief’s house and some kind of temple were often raised above the level of the rest of the town. The people of the village lived in palm huts surrounding the mound. Evidence of their constant occupation can be found as middens around the platform mound. These trash middens contain shells of harvested water animals, animal bones, broken pottery, etc. A charnel house was erected away from the village. There, bodies of the deceased were processed into “only bones.”
These bones were then buried, perhaps with grave goods, in a burial mound. In at least one case, a captured Spaniard, Juan Ortiz, was made to guard the charnel house against robbery by animals. Narvaez, during his visit with the Tocobago, was shown wooden boxes containing human bones. The boxes were not of native construction and had been salvaged from shipwrecks and recycled as part of the burial process. The human bones had been carefully wrapped in painted deer hides and stored in these boxes. Later they would be removed from the boxes and buried in a community burial mound.
In 1612, a detachment of Spanish soldiers were sent to punish the villages of Pohoy and Tocobago for raiding Spanish missions to the north. Pohoy and Tocobago were independent of any larger groups, and allied together at this time. In 1679, Pohoy became subject to the powerful southern Calusa Indians. Changing political relationships were a common thread throughout Florida’s native history. In 1718, a Tocobago village was attacked by the Pohoy, their relationship of a century before long forgotten.
European goods have been found at most sites in the Tampa Bay area, demonstrating Spanish influence. The disease and warfare introduced by the Spanish ultimately crippled all of these groups. As village numbers decreased, the remnants banded together. Even those with differing languages often lived together, working with Spanish missionaries near St. Augustine. The British, up in the Carolinas, had been hiring the Yamassee Indians as slave raiders on Florida natives.
Later, the Yamassee fell prey to other native raiders sponsored by the Carolinas. Because Florida natives received some protection by Spanish soldiers if they lived near St. Augustine, many of these remnant groups relocated to be near the Spanish town. By 1720, Spanish missions were working with, christianizing, and utilizing the labor of 11 native villages near St. Augustine.
The inhabitants of these villages included Yamasee, Guale (who-ah-leh), Jororo, Pohoy, Tocobago, and others. The Spanish tried to get northern natives to move to St. Augustine, because there was no longer enough native labor to provide for the town’s agricultural needs. Despite Spanish efforts, there were so few natives left in Florida and south Georgia, that the town could not maintain its grip on New World soil. Although a couple of small missions served dwindling native populations until 1759, the Tampa Bay cultural groups were essentially gone. In 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to the British, the remaining “Spanish Indians” were relocated (along with St. Augustine’s inhabitants) to Cuba.