FOODS, FLORA AND FAUNA OF THE NATIVE AMERICANS OF TAMPA BAY
FOODS, FLORA, FAUNA
The main diet of the Tocobaga was fish and shellfish. Mullet (seen in this painting by Hermann Trappman) were plentiful in the rivers and inlets around Tampa Bay. The Mullet may have been gutted and dried on racks or cooked as a stew in large clay pots. Other fish were part of the diet, and included; redfish, snook, mangrove snapper, and jacks. Larger saltwater species, like sharks, tarpon, rays, and grouper were also caught with spears and nets.
Manatee were common in Tampa Bay when the Tocobaga as they are today. They were caught with the aid of a spear and a canoe, being a slow moving mammal. Manatee meat is quite fatty, has a unique taste and has a range of colors from light pink to dark purple depending what part of the manatee the meat came from. People of today do not eat manatee, and they are a protected species. Indigenous people in Florida used fresh and fossilized manatee bone as tools, and likely processed and used the tough hides of the manatee as they would other animal skins.
One of many types of oaks in this area, the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) provides sweet tasting acorns. Collected when they ripened in fall, the Indians may have dried them in the sun and stored them. Raw acorns can be stored for months without spoiling. Acorns can be boiled, roasted or ground into a meal and used as flour. A Native American method for processing acorns involves placing the shelled nuts into a tightly woven basket, and allowing them to soak in a clean, flowing stream for a few days until no brown colored water is seen when checking their progress.
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), seen hanging majestically from the southern Live Oak, is not a moss at all. It is a bromeliad, which means it is in the same taxonomic family as pineapples and succulent house plants. Spanish moss isn't from Spain, either. It's native to Mexico, Central America, South America, the U.S., and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it grows from Texas to Virginia, staying in the moister areas of the South. Its preferred habitat is a healthy tree in tropical swampland. Spanish moss was actually given its name by French explorers, not Spanish conquistadors. Native Americans told them the plant was called Itla-okla, which meant “tree hair.” The surface of the Spanish moss plant is covered with tiny gray scales, which trap water until the plant can absorb it. The plant’s tissues can hold more water than the plant needs, to keep it going through dry periods. When the tissues plump up after a rain, Spanish moss appears more green. As the water is used, it returns to a gray hue. Native Americans used it as a clean water source in the rainy season, and when it was dried, for fire tinder. It was also woven for clothing and stuffed into mats for bedding.
Shellfish were easily gathered, as both clams and oyster reefs are common in Tampa Bay. Judging by the extensive shell mounds and middens that still remain, harvesting shellfish may have been one of the Tocobaga's main occupations. Among the species were Bay Scallops (Argopecten irradians) which live in shallow nearshore waters along Florida’s Gulf Coast from Pensacola to the Florida Keys. These bivalves are usually found nestled in seagrass beds and are easily distinguished from other bottom-dwelling animals by their electric blue eyes. Eastern Oysters, (Crassostrea virginica) occurring in coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, are a primary component of Gulf Coast middens. Hard Clams served as a food source and currency for early Native Americans. These long-lived, dense-shelled bivalves live in sandy or muddy bottoms throughout Florida waters. Two species of hard clam are found in Florida: the northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the southern quahog (Mercenaria campechiensis).
The most common land mammal hunted by the Tocobaga was the deer. They would have used a bow and arrow, or hurled darts with a throwing stick called an atlatl. Some hunters might disguise themselves by wearing a deerskin with the head still attached. All parts of the deer were useful to the tribe. Other mammals were hunted, such as; raccoon, squirrel, armadillo, rabbits, opossum, fox, and bobcat. Wading birds were caught with nets, and eggs were gathered during shorebird nesting season.
Tampa Bay is the northern range of the tropical Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba), also known as the “tourist tree” because its bark is reddish and peels, like a sunburned tourist. The fragrant resin from the tree is used as incense, can be used for glue and is valued for its medicinal properties. Florida Hogplum (Ximenia americana), is a lower canopy tree, reaching to a height of 20'. Its fruit can be eaten when very ripe (too many will cause a stomach upset), and its flowers have a most noticeable, pleasant, fragrance. Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans), is salt tolerant tree that expels salt through its leathery leaves. Its roots are excellent storm buffers, preventing both beach erosion and storm surges. The roots provide shelter for small fish and shellfish. Sea purslane or Sea Pickle (Halimione portulacoides) has crunchy, slightly salty leaves that are edible. It has also be used to treat scurvy and kidney disorders. Sea Grape (Coccoloba uvifera) bears fruit almost all year long. The edible sea grape berry can be made into a jelly. The plant is highly tolerant of salt and is often planted to stabilize beach edges. Florida Snowberry (Chiococca alba) gets its name because the white berries sparkle in the sunlight like fresh crystals of snow. It is usually found near shell mounds and on hammocks in Florida and Texas. White Stopper (Eugenia axillaris) has a strong but interesting earthy fragrance (some say it resembles skunk). The dark pear shaped fruit is edible and juicy. Its range is restricted to Florida, where it is a native plant.
It is believed that Razorback Hogs (Wild Boar; Sus scrofa) were first brought to Florida by Hernando de Soto in 1539, however, it is possible that hogs had been brought in 1521 by Ponce de Leon. De Soto brought an estimated 300 pigs, which became the founding population for the wild boar in Southeastern United States today. After this initial contact with Europeans, Florida's Native Americans added these pigs to their diet, as some had managed to escape and breed in the wild. During the next four centuries, explorers and settlers brought pigs with them throughout Florida. Many of these animals were given to or stolen by Native Americans, who expanded pig numbers and distribution in the state. Europeans and Native Americans alike often raised their swine in semi-wild conditions (at least until the mid-1900s when open range ended and it became illegal) where hogs were allowed to roam freely and only rounded up when needed. Wild hogs are now found in every county in Florida and in at least 35 states and Canadian provinces.
Large scale farming of domestic plants like corn, beans and squash, associated with most Native American cultures in the southeastern US does not appear to have been practiced by the Tocobaga. However, they did eat corn, possibly grown in small gardens or even traded from tribes to the north of them.