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Pinellas County History


 

Pinellas County is a peninsula bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the west and by Tampa Bay on the east. The county is 38 miles long and 15 miles wide at its broadest point. Its land area covers approximately 264 square miles.

Pinellas is derived from the Spanish words Punta Pinal meaning "point of pines." That was an accurate description for this area when it was discovered by Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, 36 years after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and 37 years before the founding of St. Augustine. Narvaez and 400 soldiers, probably the first Europeans in this area, primarily came looking for gold and silver.

Instead they found the Tocobagan Indians, an agricultural tribe that had occupied the peninsula for hundreds of years. Narvaez and his crew treated them cruelly, ransacked their huts, and pillaged their ceremonial mounds, but found no treasure. Hernando de Soto and other Spanish intruders also came to this area of Florida looking for treasures but fared no better.

It was another 300 years before the first white settler, Odet Philippe, landed on the shores of Tampa Bay sometime in the early 1830s. He established his plantation, St. Helena, on the site of what is now Philippe Park in Safety Harbor. Philippe is credited with planting the first citrus grove in the area and was instrumental in beginning Florida's citrus industry.

Federal homesteading legislation, passed in 1842, opened up the area to settlers who came to claim their 160 acres. Completion of the Orange Belt Railroad to St. Petersburg in 1888 assured continued growth and development of the peninsula. Entrepreneurs built elaborate hotels to entice wealthy investors and tourists. The Belleview, later the Belleview-Biltmore,  was finished in 1897. A famous Baltimore doctor, F.A. Davis, wrote glowing reports describing Clearwater Harbor as "the most healthful location." Many who came for their health decided to stay.

Before 1912, Pinellas was part of Hillsborough County and was known as West Hillsborough. Arduous trips to Tampa over marshy lands and often impassable wagon trails for meetings, plus a growing resentment at not getting a fair share of benefits for taxes paid, created pressure for secession. After years of political maneuvering and conniving, a bill finally passed both houses of the Florida Legislature. Following an overwhelming local referendum vote, Pinellas became a separate county on January 1, 1912. The population was 13,000. Clearwater was designated the County seat.

The growth of Pinellas County has been steady but with its share of ups and downs. The euphoria of boom times was frequently interrupted with the reality of "busts"-the stock market crash and depressions, hurricanes, wars, and over-speculation. The years after World War II brought thousands of new residents attracted by Florida's reputation as a tropical paradise and its promise of new opportunities. Pinellas County has grown steadily over the years.

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