Tampa is a city located on the Gulf Coast of South Florida. It is the seat of Hillsborough County, the largest city in the Tampa Bay area and the third most-populated city in Florida. The history of Tampa, Florida, like much of the United States, is steeped in colonial occupation of native land and the divisive violence of the Civil War.

Since then, however, Tampa has grown into a thriving mecca for tourism and many other industries and is home to the University of South Florida’s main campus.

European Colonization

The first Europeans to reach Florida were Spanish explorers in the 1500s. After an ill-fated Spanish expedition in 1528 and an outbreak of diseases brought over from Europe, the native population of the Tampa Bay area was all but wiped out.

colonization

After bringing disease to the country, European settlers became indifferent to the territory. In 1763, Florida became a refuge for native tribes fleeing from European settlers. Escaped slaves also found their way to Florida, and together these groups formed the Seminole tribe.

The Seminole Wars

The war between the United States Army and the Seminoles dwelling in Florida dominated the 1800s in Tampa. Despite decades of conflict with the Seminoles, defeat in the Civil War, and regular Yellow Fever outbreaks, Tampa managed to become a booming hub for shipping, tourism, and the cigar industry.

The First Seminole War

The First Seminole War began in 1816 and was the first of three wars between the United States and the Seminole population of Florida. As you can probably guess, the other two wars were called the Second Seminole war and—you guessed it—the Third Seminole War.

With periods of uneasy truces between them, the three Seminole Wars spanned a little over 40 years. The Seminole warriors and their families hid in the Everglades for all of that time and fought back against invading American forces.

The Second Seminole War

The Second Seminole war began in 1835 with the Dade Massacre. On a march from Fort Brooke to Fort King, 180 Seminole warriors ambushed two companies totaling 110 soldiers led by Major Francis L. Dade.

There were only three survivors of the Dade Massacre, one of whom died of his wounds later, and another who could report very little on what had happened because he dove into the swamp the moment the attack began.

General William Jenkins Worth took command in 1841. At this point, the war was very unpopular, both with the American people and with Congress. Worth sent his men out on “search and destroy” missions to drive the Seminoles from the Cove of the Withlacoochee.

Despite being outnumbered, the Seminole warriors held their own, evading bloodhounds in the swamp and frustrating the American forces with guerilla tactics. I picture that scene from Rambo where Sylvester Stallone’s character decimates the search party with his superior bushcraft.

After unsuccessfully trying to track down the Seminoles who remained in the area, Colonel Worth considered the time and money it was taking to track down elusive Seminoles in the swamp, the war’s growing unpopularity with the American people, and called for an end to the war. There was an uneasy peace after that, with many Seminoles still living in Florida.

Also, because of its population growth, Florida became the 27th state in 1845. That’s particularly impressive considering that at this point, they had spent almost 30 years in turmoil trying to kick people out.

The Third Seminole War

In 1855, minor clashes between the Seminoles and Caucasian populations became more serious, and the government decided to renew its efforts to force the Seminoles out of Florida. After a bitter conflict, the American troops destroyed many Seminole cities and much of the farmland. After some tense negotiations, Seminole leaders agreed to go West.

The Civil War

In 1861, Florida joined the American South in seceding from the United States to form the Confederate States of America. This secession kicked off the Civil War. Tampa’s position on Tampa Bay proved advantageous for Confederate forces to trade with Spanish Cuba for supplies. They managed this despite a Union navy blockade.

In response to Tampa’s connections to supplies, The Union launched several attacks against Fort Brooke and Tampa. At the end of the war in 1865, federal troops occupied Tampa, which was in a sorry state thanks to the conflict.

Turn-of-the-Century Growth

tampa bay hotel

Over the next couple of decades, Tampa recovered and became a hub for cigar manufacture, shipping, and tourism. In 1884, Henry B. Plant connected Tampa to the South Florida Railroad, allowing for easier access to the coastal town.

In 1891, Plant built The Tampa Bay Hotel, which boasted over 500 rooms and acres of gardens along the bank of Hillsborough River. The hotel had the first electric lights in Tampa and the first elevator in all of Florida.

The center of cigar manufacturing operations moved from Key West to Tampa in 1885. Tobacco grew well and stayed fresh in Tampa’s humidity, and Tampa was in an ideal position as a coastal town to receive shipments of imported Cuban tobacco. An entire neighborhood called Ybor City was built around the cigar industry, populated mostly by cigar workers.

Post World War I & The Great Depression

After the first World War, Florida continued to thrive. By 1920, Tampa was Florida’s second-most populated city, with almost double the population of Miami’s 29,000 residents. Thanks to the high population, developers came in and responded to the steady growth by building some of the most prominent neighborhoods that still stand to this day.

North Franklin Street was Tampa’s main hub of commerce, where people could go shopping, find entertainment, or stop at the renowned Federal Exchange Bank. After a brief closure of many of the popular shops on North Franklin Street (great depression era), that area has revamped in recent years to become a shopping hub once again.

history of tampa: great depression

In the coming years (1929 – 1933), much of the nation was severely affected by the Great Depression. The cigar industry suffered during the Great Depression, and other industries rose to take their place. Shipping came to the forefront, as once again, Tampa’s location on the Gulf coast made it a favorable spot for transporting goods. This helped maintain their strong population growth and commerce growth at this time.

World War II

The city’s history during World War II centers around its usefulness as a shipping hub. Tampa’s Shipyard was quickly utilized in the war effort, and because of this, Tampa saw great economic improvement from wartime.

Florida established dozens of military bases to host training for the hundreds of thousands of recruits coming to fight in World War II. This was a transformative time for Florida and experienced much of the economic growth that came post-war.

Tampa in the Present Day

tamba bay

Tourism is still booming in Tampa to this day. The city boasts a dazzling waterfront, thriving Cuban culture, and beautiful weather for the countless outdoor attractions and activities available there. Despite its history of conflict, it is now one of the most diverse and welcoming cities in the entire state. If you ever take a trip to Tampa, here is a list of the must-see spots in this lively city—be sure to check them out!

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