Visitors to Pinellas County’s oldest park, Philippe Park, are in for a treat. Along with beautiful scenic views of Tampa Bay guests can witness a Florida rarity: a hill! This is no natural hill, however. The Safety Harbor Site is a shell mound constructed by the Tocobaga Indians in the late prehistoric or early historic period.
Designated a National Historic Landmark and featured on the National Register of Historic Places, the mound is about 150 feet in diameter and approximately 20 feet high. The plateau at the top, which can be accessed by two stairways or a paved walkway, measures nearly 50 by 100 feet.
Philippe Park originally contained the Tocobaga Temple Mound, which still remains today as the Safety Harbor Site, a burial mound, and a few middens, or trash piles. Unfortunately, the excavations that uncovered the burial mound were performed in the 1930s before many archaeological laws were put in place and the bones discovered were taken by local farmers to be used as fertilizer.
Over the years several more archaeological excavations have given historians and anthropologists clues about the Indigenous populations that once called these lands home. Lots of pottery and artifacts from the Safety Harbor cultural period, ranging from 900CE to around 1700, have been found at the site. European artifacts such as an iron ax, pipe bowls, and Spanish olive jars have also been found there, indicating contact between the Tocobaga and the Spanish. The site is believed to be the village visited by Colonial explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1567 as he sought a river with access to passage across Florida.
The Safety Harbor Site is believed to be the location of the Tocobaga capital. The temple mound would have been a place where the Tocobaga prepared their deceased relatives for burial and where the Chief and their close kin would have lived. Despite the numerous artifacts uncovered at the site, little is known about the Tocobaga because there are few written accounts of them by the Spanish explorers. Many scholars extrapolate information about the Tocobaga from what is known about other nearby Safety Harbor culture tribes such as the Ucita, Mocoso and the Pojoy.
The site was nominated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1966. According to the National Park Service, “Each NHL represents an outstanding aspect of American history and culture.” In order to be listed as a NHL, a site must meet several criteria demonstrating its historical significance at a national level. The Safety Harbor Site was nominated and selected for several reasons. Many of the artifacts found here are representative of the Safety Harbor period, making it a “type site” of that culture, and designating it as historically and archaeologically significant. It is also nationally significant since it is likely the site of the Tocobaga capitol and a likely site of early Spanish contact.
Archaeological excavations continue at the Safety Harbor Site. As recently as 2019, students from the University of South Florida have worked at the site along with Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn, an anthropological archaeologist. Dr. Pluckhahn is using modern archaeological techniques with the hopes of advancing our knowledge of the site and its inhabitants throughout history.
The Safety Harbor site is free to visit and open to visitors all but two days of the year. Visitors can take in the various park amenities knowing that they are surrounded by history not only relevant to Florida, but to the nation.