The Spanish first mapped and explored the Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa area in the early 16th century. Panfilo de Narvaez (1528) and Hernando de Soto (1539) quickly enslaved the Tocobaga Indians. By the time Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821 for $5 million, the Seminoles had replaced the Tocobaga. What would become Pinellas County remained a wilderness except for isolated camps of American and Cuban fishermen. Clear springs gurgled into the bay from the high bluffs where downtown Clearwater now sits.
In 1832, natives drove Count Odet Philippe of France from Florida’s east coast to what was then Safety Harbor, part of what would become Hillsborough County. The Frenchman introduced citrus to the area and brought a few more settlers with him.
On Jan. 25, 1834, the U.S. Legislative Council for the Territory of Florida officially recognized Hillsborough as the territory’s 19th county. Florida became the 27th state on March 3, 1845.
On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida and six other Southern states seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. The most famous conflicts in the region were the Battle of Tampa in 1862 and the Battle of Fort Brooke in 1863. With the Confederate defeat in 1865, federal troops occupied Fort Brooke and the city of Tampa until 1869.
With sparse industry and transportation, the bay area suffered in the ensuing years until the discovery in Bone Valley of phosphate, a mineral used in agricultural fertilizer. The discovery lured industry and the railroad, which transported phosphate and cigars, a fledgling industry, to the north.
Meanwhile, several events conspired to dramatically change the area across the bay. First, a report to the American Medical Convention in 1885 proclaimed the Pinellas Peninsula to be “The Healthiest Spot on Earth.” Second, Pyotr Dementyev, a Russian immigrant-turned-entrepreneur, agreed to run his Orange Belt Railroad from Central Florida to developer John Constantine Williams’ 2,500 acres on the southern part of the peninsula. The two men flipped a coin, and Dementyev won, so he named the new town after Russia’s St. Petersburg.
As Clearwater, Largo and other communities on the peninsula grew, so did the clamor for independence from Hillsborough County: After all, a trip to the courthouse in Tampa took the better part of a day. Eventually, the Legislature created Pinellas County on Jan. 1, 1912, with Clearwater as the county seat. Attracted by the balmy climate — the peninsula is always cooler in summer and warmer in winter than Tampa — immigrants began to pour in. Tarpon Springs attracted Greek sponge fishermen and today has a thriving Greek culture. Safety Harbor grew up around its world-famous spa.
Later, airplanes and automobiles enabled even more business development and kick-started tourism.
Tony Jannus, for instance, in 1914 flew his Benoist airplane from St. Pete to Tampa in 23 minutes, skimming across the water at a height of 50 feet. That same year the St. Louis Browns started their annual spring baseball training in St. Pete; the Philadelphia Phillies moved to Clearwater several years later. In 1998, the Tampa Bay Rays settled into permanent residence in downtown St. Pete’s enclosed Tropicana Field.
In 1924, the Gandy Bridge opened — cutting travel time from Tampa to St. Pete by more than half. The area real estate market boomed throughout the 1920s till the bottom fell out with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
World War II reinvigorated the Tampa Bay economy. The U.S. Coast Guard established Bayboro Harbor Station as a training base for troops. Air patrols flew nightly anti-submarine hunts over the Gulf of Mexico, and the War Department selected St. Pete as a major technical services training center for the Army Air Corps.
During this time, more than 100,000 trainees filled every hotel in the area, and their families’ struggles to find a place to live created a housing shortage. After the war, many of those trainees and their families settled in the area or returned as tourists.
The advent of air conditioning in the 1950s prompted a mass in-migration of retirees and another housing boom, and the snowbird ebb and flow continues to this day.