History of the River

Humans on the Hillsborough: From Pre-history to 1910
Humans first came to the area that is now the Hillsborough’s watershed about 12-15,000 years ago. These first Floridians, known to archaeologists as Paleo-Indians, came to Ice Age Florida from the north and survived by hunting, fishing, and gathering plant foods. The river was not yet formed; water was available through springs and seasonal water holes. As the ice age receded, sea levels rose, and the climate became hotter and wetter, the springs overflowed and ran together to form rivers. The Hillsborough grew from the Green Swamp, its waters merging with those of Crystal Springs, before starting its path to the sea.
Hillsborough River
Archaeologists tell us that as the climate changed, and the big game animals disappeared, humans adapted, developing a way of life known as the Archaic period, in which they plied the riverbanks for deer and stone to craft their tools. People did not settle along the river, except at the mouth, where the river formed an estuary with Tampa Bay. Here was where fish and shellfish were found in the quantities need to support large settlements.

This way of life flourished for centuries, but its end was signaled when in 1528 Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez landed near Tampa Bay with 400 men, encountered the native Tocobaga culture for the first time. Eleven years later, Hernando de Soto landed at the Hillsborough River. The Tocobaga people were enslaved, exposed to deadly diseases, and eventually exterminated by the early 18th Century.

In the 18th century the river’s watershed was heavily forested with bald cypress, longleaf pine, and sand live oak that had grown there for centuries – soon to become a rich source for extraction. In 1757, Spanish Royal Fleet pilot Don Francisco Maria Celi surveyed the Hillsborough, and sailed up to the Temple Terrace area seeking pine to use as masts for his ships – a plaque commemorating his voyage is located at Riverhills Park.

Spanish Royla Fleet

Plaque marking Spanish exploration
at Temple Terrace

The name Hillsborough River was first used on a 1769 British map, naming the river in honor of the Earl of Hillsborough. Although he never visited the area, he was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the name may have been bestowed to curry favor with him.

Fort Brooke

Fort Brooke

In 1821, Florida becomes a United States territory, and three years later, construction began on Fort Brooke, at the mouth of the Hillsborough River (now the site of the Tampa Convention Center). The wooden fort was constructed over an ancient Tocobaga Indian mound, reportedly marked with a large hickory tree, which was removed to accommodate the fort. Fort Brooke was designed to serve as a major outpost in both the Seminole Indian Wars and the Civil War. In 1864 Fort Brooke (and Tampa) were captured by Union forces; the fort was finally decomissioned in 1883.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and on into the first decade of the 20th, the old growth forests of the watershed were logged, and the ancient trees disappeared. They were replaced by trees like water ash and water locust, which grew up quickly in the denuded areas; today, most of the river’s trees are less than 100 years old. The river basin ecosystem is much different from the forests that dominated for centuries – a major consequence of human interaction.
Alongside the lumber industry, much was happening around the Hillsborough during the 19th century, as the U.S. government stepped up efforts to remove the Seminole Indians from the area. The Seminoles were not descendants of the original Native Floridians; they were originally Creeks who came down to Florida in the 18th century from Alabama and Georgia. Their numbers grew significantly from the mid-18th century to 1821, augmented by escaped slaves, who became known as Black Seminoles.

Conflicts between whites and the Seminoles escalated, leading to the first of the three Seminole Wars, which began around 1818. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, and took action to remove the Seminole from the Tampa Bay area, forcing them to a reservation west of the Mississippi. The Seminoles resisted, but by the time the Wars ended in 1858, most had been forcibly and brutally removed. In 1836, Fort Foster was built at a river crossing 9 miles south of present-day Zephyrhills. It saw a significant Seminole War battle in 1837, and continued to be used through 1849. Today, a replica of the fort is located at Hillsborough River State Park.

Fort Replica

Replica of Fort Foster at Hillsborough State Park

Meanwhile, the port city of Tampa was growing. In 1846, the first ferry crossing of the Hillsborough River was established, leading to further development of the city on both sides of the river. Tampa saw its only action in the Civil War, when the bay was blockaded by union troops; in 1863, union troops intercepted and burned two ships, the Kate Dale, whose remains lie in the river near the present day site of Lowry Park Zoo, and the Scottish Chief, which lies at the mouth of the river across from Blake High School. Both vessels were owned by James McKay, a founder of the maritime industry in Tampa.


The iconic minarets of the Tampa Bay Hotel

In 1888, the luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel opened with a grand ball. Built by railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, it cost over 2.5 million dollars, a fortune in its time. Its rich history is outlined in our River through Postcards page – today its iconic minarets top the University of Tampa.

In 1897, Consumers Electric Light and Street Railway Company. built a dam on the Hillsborough to generate electricity, located between what is now 40th Street and 56th Street, in the modern Temple Crest area. Cattle owners, angry at the loss of grazing land, dynamited the dam three times – the remnants of their handiwork are still visible when the water is low.

The 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act soon led to work to improve navigation, and in 1910. Tampa Bay was channelized up to the mouth of the Hillsborough River, paving the way for the development of Tampa as a vibrant port city.

For more details, the Hillsborough Water Atlas provides a wealth of history and information: www.hillsborough.wateratlas.usf.edu, such as the Hillborough River Fact Sheet, at: http://www.hillsborough.wateratlas.usf.edu/upload/documents/HillsRiverFactSheet.pdf, and an account of the “taming” of the Hillsborough: http://www.hillsborough.wateratlas.usf.edu/upload/documents/TamingoftheHillsboroughRiver.pdf