Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to set foot upon these shores, somewhere in Charlotte harbor in 1513. In 1539, while searching for gold, Hernando de Soto sailed into Tampa Bay. The Indian tribes living there called their village `Tanpa`, which means `sticks of fire`. Early explorers misspelled the name when they drew up maps, and the area became known as Tampa.
The first white men traveled to western Florida for adventure. And they found it aplenty: half-naked natives, tricky waterways, impenetrable swamp, and fire-brewed stews. In search for gold and youth, they chose to kill some natives and curse the rest. They brought their own hogs, cows, and citrus to eat, then eventually left, discouraged by the persistent onslaughts from the resident Amerindian tribes – the Timucua around today’s Tampa and Sarasota, the Calusa in the south. Legends fill the region’s early times with dastardly pirates who came to prey upon ships sailing between the Caribbean and established towns in northern Florida. More prevalent in the 17th through the 19th centuries were Spanish fishermen and farmers. They lived in stilt houses built on sand shoals. Actually, commercial fishing developed into a thriving industry.
In the 19th century Florida, after being passed back and forth between Spain and England, became a US territory. The Gulf Coast became a significant center for trade between the US and the Caribbean. This was due in part to Henry Plant, whose rail line from Virginia, laid in 1880s, helped to fuel both Tampa’s and region’s greatest period of prosperity.