Before the Train: The Pinellas Frontier

When you read about the history of St. Pete it is not uncommon to assume that life on the Peninsula started with John Williams and Peter Demens in 1888, when the Orange Belt came to the nascent village. When I read these accounts, I always picture Williams jumping off a skiff, planting a flag on the beach, waving a sword and declaring all he surveyed as a new soon-to-be-settled town like the Spanish explorers of old. The truth, however, is that the lower Pinellas Peninsula had towns and settlements dotted around here and there, including where the town of St. Pete would take shape. So let’s explore.

Map of Lower Pinellas, 1882

Check out this map piece from 1882, a full six years before the train came to the village. Well, wait, there was no village where St. Pete is today, but there was a crossroads. You might notice some other towns though: Bonifacio and Pinellis. Those were small, platted villages that existed before St. Pete. Bonifacio is the town you know as Gulfport, and Pinellis was a settlement that was absorbed by St. Pete after its founding.

John Williams, The Terrible Farmer

The other thing that is interesting to note is all the initials / names on the map. These were forty acre plots and those initials represent the people that owned them at the time. It was in 1875 that Williams, a wealthy northern businessman, had started purchasing his plots. He initially thought to try his hand at farming, not build a city. He failed in that endeavor and threw in the towel — his lily white hands just weren’t cut out for the hard work. He moved back to Tampa for a while until he he had purchased enough land to found his city. But I digress. The early plots of land were owned mainly by farmers and settlers who already inhabited the land. Pinellas in the mid-1800s was not a complete wilderness but it was certainly not easy living. Publix was nowhere to be found, I assure you.

Wardsville. The first train platform is on the far left.

A little aside — This photo is from just after the Orange Belt Railway came to St. Pete, but before the town was officially founded, probably 1888. The original collection of shacks and General Store located at roughly the area of 9th and Central today was known as Wardsville after the Ward family that owned the General Store.

Southward-Ho!

The people that lived on the Peninsula before St. Pete was founded had mainly come to settle after the Civil War ended in 1864, with a couple notable exceptions. One of those was Antonio Maximo, who started a fishery in 1842, and the area he settled still bears his name. Bet you didn’t know that! But in this twenty-plus year period before St. Pete was official, these intrepid souls, pioneers really, settled due to the lure of inexpensive land sold by the US government after the war. They were mainly farmers who carved their plots out of the wilderness and had arrived in covered wagons. They found a wilderness filled with bears, gators, deer, and lots of fish. The economy was driven by selling these agricultural products or cattle to buyers in Tampa and also to one another. Many of these settlers also started raising citrus crops, mainly oranges.

A Real Pinellas Pioneer Family

At this point I want to say thank you to a FB friend, Jeannette Say. Her early relatives, the Meares family, settled a 40-acre plot in 1878 on what is now 22nd Ave S. It is in plot 26 of the 1882 map above. You will note George Meare’s initials, GWM. Jeanette was kind enough to pass along some family photos from that time. Wow! Let’s take a look and see this amazing stuff!

The cabin you see is very typical of the homesteads at the time. One or two rooms, and lots of family from grandma (in black, a widow) down to the youngsters. The Meares family, like the others in the area, improved the land for agriculture with their own back-breaking labor.

In early Pinellas, people knew each other, and relied on one another. They had to. Life was difficult living in cabins, clearing and farming land, and eeking out little more than a subsistence living. Different crops, fish, honey, citrus, and cattle were traded among one another to help each other survive. Roads were mainly trails through thick underbrush with the occasional grassy plains. Travel to a far-away place like Tampa took days of backbreaking travel by horseback and occasionally by wagon. So living was hard, but there was a sense of community where everyone knew everyone. And that was lower Pinellas before the Orange Belt!

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