When the pioneer community living near the US Army outpost of Fort Brooke was incorporated in 1849, it was called "Tampa Town", and the name was shortened to simply "Tampa" in 1855. The etymology of the name is unclear. The word "Tampa" may have meant "sticks of fire" in the language of the Calusa, a Native American tribe that once lived south of today's Tampa Bay. This might be a reference to the many lightning strikes that the area receives during the summer months. Other historians claim the name means "the place to gather sticks". Toponymist George R. Stewart writes that the name was the result of a miscommunication between the Spanish and the Indians, the Indian word being "itimpi", meaning simply "near it".
The first iteration of the name "Tampa" first appears in the memoirs of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda (1575), who had spent 17 years as a Calusa captive and traveled through much of peninsular Florida. He spelled it "Tanpa" and describes it as an important Calusa town on the west coast. While "Tanpa" may be the basis for the modern name, archaeologist Jerald Milanich states that the Calusa village of Tanpa was on the shores of Charlotte Harbor, which is about 65 miles south of Tampa Bay. A later Spanish expedition did not notice the mouth of Charlotte Harbor while sailing north along the west coast of Florida and assumed that the current Tampa Bay was the bay they sought, thus accidentally transferring the name on Spanish navigational charts. Tampa Bay was labeled Bahía de Espíritu Santo (Bay of the Holy Spirit) in the earliest Spanish maps of Florida, but became known as Bahía Tampa (Tampa Bay) as early as 1695.
People from Tampa are generally known as "Tampans" or "Tampanians". Local authorities consulted by Michael Kruse of the Tampa Bay Times suggest that "Tampan" was historically more common, while "Tampanian" became popular when the former term came to be seen as a potential insult. A mix of Cuban, Italian, and Spanish immigrants began arriving in the late 1800s to live and work in the new communities of Ybor City and West Tampa. By about 1900, these newcomers came to be known as "tampeños" (or "tampeñas" for females), a term that is still sometimes used to refer to their descendants living in the area.
Indigenous peoples and European exploration
The shores of Tampa Bay have been inhabited for thousands of years. A variant of the Weeden Island culture developed in the area by about 2000 years ago, with archeological evidence suggesting that these residents relied on the sea for most of their resources, as a vast majority of inhabited sites have been found on or near the shoreline and there is little evidence of farming.
At the time of European contact in the early 16th century, the Safety Harbor culture dominated the area, with indigenous peoples organized into three or four chiefdoms around the shores of the bay. Early Spanish explorers to visit the area interacted extensively (and violently) with the Tocobaga, whose principal town was located at the northern end of Old Tampa Bay near today's Safety Harbor in Pinellas County. While there is a substantial historical record of the Tocobaga (and the Calusa, who lived far to the south), there is less surviving documentation describing the Pohoy chiefdom, which controlled the area near the mouth of the Hillsborough River near today's downtown Tampa. However, brief mentions by explorers along with surviving artifacts suggest that the Pohoy and other groups that once lived on Tampa Bay had very similar cultures and lifestyles as the better-documented Tocobaga.
Expeditions led by Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando de Soto landed near Tampa, but neither conquistador stayed long. There is no natural gold or silver in Florida, and the native inhabitants repulsed Spanish attempts to establish a permanent settlement or convert them to Catholicism. Fighting resulted in a few deaths, but the many more deaths were caused by infectious diseases brought from Europe, which devastated the population of Native Americans across Florida and the entire Western Hemisphere. The indigenous cultures of the Tampa Bay area had collapsed by around 1600, leaving the west coast of Spanish Florida largely depopulated and ignored for more than 200 years.
In the mid-18th century, events in the American colonies and early United States drove the Seminole people into northern Florida, but they did not move into central Florida until after the United States gained control of Florida in 1821. Before the American period, the Tampa Bay area had a handful of residents: Cuban and Native American fishermen who established small seasonal camps called "ranchos" on the shores of Tampa Bay. The largest was at the mouth of Spanishtown Creek in today's Hyde Park neighborhood along Bayshore Boulevard.
After purchasing Florida from Spain in 1821, the United States built forts and trading posts in the new territory. Fort Brooke was established in January 1824 at the mouth of the Hillsborough River on Tampa Bay, in Downtown Tampa.
Tampa was initially an isolated frontier outpost. The sparse civilian population practically abandoned the area during the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842, after which the Seminoles were forced out and many settlers returned.
Florida became the 27th state in 1845. On January 18, 1849, Tampa was officially incorporated as the "Village of Tampa". It was home to 185 civilians, or 974 total residents including military personnel, in 1850. Tampa was reincorporated as a town on December 15, 1855.
Civil War and Reconstruction
During the Civil War, Florida seceded along with most of the southern states to form the Confederate States of America, and Fort Brooke was manned by Confederate troops. Martial law was declared in Tampa in January 1862, and Tampa's city government ceased to operate for the duration of the war.
In 1861, the Union Navy set up a blockade around many southern ports to cut off the Confederacy, and several ships were stationed near the mouth of Tampa Bay. On June 30, 1862 Confederates refused to surrender to the USS Sagamore stationed in Tampa Bay. The Union gunboat opened fire on Tampa and a Confederate battery returned fire in the Battle of Tampa. The Battle of Fort Brooke on October 16 and the Battle of Ballast Point on October 18, 1863, damaged the Confederates, with Union troops destroying Confederate blockade runners. The Civil War ended in April 1865 with a Confederate defeat.
In May 1865, federal troops arrived in Tampa to occupy the fort and the town as part of Reconstruction. They remained until August 1869.
Tampa was a fishing village with very few people and little industry, and limited prospects for development. Tampa's chronic yellow fever epidemics, borne by mosquitoes from the swampland, were widespread during the late 1860s and 1870s, and many residents left.
In 1869, residents voted to abolish the city of Tampa government. The population of "Tampa Town" was below 800 by 1870, and had fallen further by 1880. Fort Brooke was decommissioned in 1883, and except for two cannons displayed on the University of Tampa campus, all traces of the fort are gone.
1880s economic prosperity
Port Tampa Inn, with rail line in front of hotel, c. 1900
In the mid-1880s, Tampa's fortunes took several sudden turns for the better. First, phosphate was discovered in the Bone Valley region southeast of Tampa in 1883. The mineral, vital for the production of fertilizers and other products, was soon being shipped out from the Port of Tampa in great volume. Tampa is still a major phosphate exporter.
The discovery of phosphate, the arrival of Plant's railroad, and the founding of Ybor City and West Tampa—all in the mid-1880s—were crucial to Tampa's development. The once-struggling village of Tampa became a bustling boomtown almost overnight, and had grown into one of the largest cities in Florida by 1900.
Henry B. Plant's narrow-gauge South Florida Railroad reached Tampa and its port in late 1883, finally connecting the small town to the nation's railroad system after years of efforts by local leaders. Previously, Tampa's overland transportation links had consisted of sandy roads stretching across the Florida countryside. Plant's railroad made it much easier to get goods in and out of the Tampa Bay area. Phosphate and commercial fishing exports could be sent north by rail, and many new products were brought into the Tampa market, along with the first tourists.
first cigar factory c. 1900
Child labor at a cigar factory, 1909. Photo by Lewis Hine
The new railroad link enabled another important industry to come to Tampa. In 1885, the Tampa Board of Trade enticed Vicente Martinez Ybor to move his cigar manufacturing operations to Tampa from Key West. Proximity to Cuba made importation of "clear Havana tobacco" easy by sea, and Plant's railroad made shipment of finished cigars to the rest of the US market easy by land.
Since Tampa was still a small town at the time (population less than 5,000), Ybor built hundreds of small houses around his factory to accommodate the immediate influx of mainly Cuban and Spanish cigar workers. Ybor City's factories rolled their first cigars in 1886, and many different cigar manufacturers moved their operations to town in ensuing years. Many Italian and a few eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived starting in the late 1880s, opening businesses and shops that catered to cigar workers. By 1900, over 10,000 immigrants had moved to the neighborhood. Several thousand more Cuban immigrants built West Tampa, another cigar-centric suburb founded a few years later by Hugh MacFarlane. Between them, two "Latin" communities combined to exponentially expand Tampa's population, economic base, and tax revenues, as Tampa became the "Cigar Capital of the World".
Early 20th century
During the first few decades of the 20th century, the cigar-making industry was the backbone of Tampa's economy. The factories in Ybor City and West Tampa made an enormous number of cigars—in the peak year of 1929, over 500,000,000 cigars were hand rolled in the city.
In 1904, a civic association of local businessmen dubbed themselves Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (named after local mythical pirate José Gaspar), and staged an "invasion" of the city followed by a parade. With a few exceptions, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been held every year since.
Bolita and organized crime
Beginning in the late 19th century, illegal bolita lotteries were very popular among the Tampa working classes, especially in Ybor City. In the early 1920s, this small-time operation was taken over by Charlie Wall, the rebellious son of a prominent Tampa family, and went big-time. Bolita was able to openly thrive only because of kick-backs and bribes to key local politicians and law enforcement officials, and many were on the take.
Profits from the bolita lotteries and Prohibition-era bootlegging led to the development of several organized crime factions in the city. Charlie Wall was the first major boss, but various power struggles culminated in consolidation of control by Sicilian mafioso Santo Trafficante Sr. and his faction in the 1950s. After his death in 1954 from cancer, control passed to his son, Santo Trafficante Jr., who established alliances with families in New York City and extended his power throughout Florida and into Batista-era Cuba.
The era of rampant and open corruption ended in the 1950s, when Estes Kefauver's traveling organized crime hearings came to town and were followed by the sensational misconduct trials of several local officials. Although many of the worst offenders in government and the mob were not charged, the trials helped to end the sense of lawlessness which had prevailed in Tampa for decades.
Panorama of Downtown Tampa taken in 1913
Mid to late 20th century
Tampa grew considerably as a result of World War II. Prior to the United States' involvement in the conflict, construction began on MacDill Field, which served as a main base for Army Air Corps and later Army Air Forces operations just before and during World War II, with multiple auxiliary airfields around the Tampa Bay area and surrounding counties. At the end of the war, MacDill remained as an active military installation, while the auxiliary fields reverted to civilian control. Two of these auxiliary fields would later become the present-day Tampa International Airport and St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport. With the establishment of an independent U.S. Air Force in 1947, MacDill Field became MacDill Air Force Base.
During the 1950s and 1960s Tampa saw record-setting population growth that has not been seen since. This amazing growth spurred major expansion of the city's highways and bridges, bringing thousands into the city and creating opportunities for Tampa business owners who welcomed tourists and new citizens alike into their neighborhoods. It was during this time period in the city's history that two of the most popular tourist attractions in the area were developed – Busch Gardens and Lowry Park. Many of the well-known institutions that play an important role in the economic development of the city were established during this time period.
The University of South Florida was established in North Tampa in 1956 and opened for students in September 1960. The school spurred the construction of several residential and commercial developments in the previously agriculture-dominated area around the new campus. Overall, Tampa continued to expand away from the city center during the 1960s as new hospitals, schools, churches and subdivisions all began appearing to accommodate the growth. Many business offices began moving away from the traditional downtown office building into more convenient neighborhood office plazas.
In 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau reported city's population as 80.0% white and 19.7% black.
Four attempts have been made to consolidate the municipal government of the city of Tampa with the county government of Hillsborough County (1967, 1970, 1971, and 1972), all of which failed at the ballot box; the greatest loss was the most recent attempt in 1972, with the final tally being 33,160 (31%) in favor and 73,568 (69%) against the proposed charter.
The biggest recent growth in the city was the development of New Tampa, which started in 1988 when the city annexed a mostly rural area of 24 square miles (62 km2) between I-275 and I-75.
East Tampa, historically a mostly black community, was the scene of several race riots during and for some time after the period of racial segregation, mainly due to problems between residents and the Tampa Police Department.