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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
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Judge Steele left his mark


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In Tampa's early days, one man seemingly did it all.

County judge, postmaster, fisheries inspector, advocate for settlers' rights, and overall burr in the side of a few local military officials, Augustus Steele was that man. There certainly were other citizens in those early years - some of whom had arrived earlier and others who came to the area soon after Steele in 1830. Steele wasn't Tampa's first postmaster - that distinction goes to William Saunders, who operated a store at Fort Brooke. But Steele assumed the position the following year, in 1832, and remained at the post for 10 years.

Steele had a lasting impact on the area. It was through his strenuous efforts that Hillsborough County came into being in January 1834. The county, when created by the territorial legislature, stretched across much of west central Florida, from just south of what is now Ocala all the way down to the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee, and along the gulf coast from roughly north of Bayport south to Charlotte Harbor.

The new county, Florida's 19th, included few white civilian residents. Still, Steele was able to not only secure the county but also assign Tampa as the county seat.

In the early 1830s, there was hardly anything to constitute a "town" of Tampa. A few hardy pioneer families lived in the area; and investors, speculators, army officers and enlisted men came and went, setting down the loosest of roots in Tampa's sandy soil. Steele himself arrived in Tampa from the town of Magnolia, located along the St. Marks River in the Florida panhandle. Before his arrival here, he had struck up a friendship with Richard Hackley, holder of a contested Spanish land grant that included the Tampa Bay area.

Steele either downplayed or disregarded the disputed nature of the land grant - which would be invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 - and set out to create the first plat for the Town of Tampa. The surviving map includes only a part of the platted town, which the title indicates. What it does show is the portion of the town along the banks of the Hillsborough River. Of the six streets included on the map, only two retained their names on subsequent maps: Water Street and Tampa Street. The others, including Augustus Street (which Steele named for himself), Olivilla Street (named for Steele's friend, Manuel Olivilla), Hackley Street (for Richard Hackley), and Upton Street, a street name of unknown origin, have since vanished.

Though removed from later maps, Upton Street lives on at roughly the same location as Kennedy Boulevard (previously named Lafayette Street). Olivilla is at about the same location as Washington Street, and Augustus Street approximately follows today's Whiting Street. Hackley Street, which ran parallel to Tampa Street on Steele's map, is close to where Ashley Drive is today.

What happened to Steele's plat and who renamed all of those streets? Several events in the 1840s spelled the demise of Steele's plans, both on paper and in his life. Following closely around the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842, the U.S. government invalidated the original town plots because they included Fort Brooke property. Finally discouraged, Steele left Tampa the next year, moving to the Cedar Key area. He later became postmaster of Cedar Key, collector of internal revenue and, in 1850, a member of the state legislature.

In 1847, the government reduced the size of Fort Brooke and transferred the excess land to Hillsborough County. The land was platted for sale, the proceeds of which would fund the construction of a new county courthouse in Tampa. John Jackson completed the survey and drew the first official map of Tampa in 1847. Jackson's plan, at least as it pertained to the western portion of Tampa along the Hillsborough River, has a strong resemblance to Steele's map. Though it seems they did not live in Tampa at the same time (Jackson arrived in 1847), Jackson undoubtedly had access to a copy of Steele's map.

Jackson renamed most of the streets, as mentioned above, using national figures as his inspiration - the exception being his friend William Ashley. Though he used the rough street grid from Steele's map, Jackson added a street between Upton and Olivilla and named it Jackson Street - possibly after himself or possibly after President Andrew Jackson. John Jackson's first map of Tampa, though larger than the surviving section of the Steele map, covers a six block by six block area, bounded by Whiting on the south, Madison on the north, the river on the west and Morgan on the east.

Six years after Jackson completed his first map of Tampa, he drew a much larger plan of Tampa, and it is still used when referencing lots and blocks in the downtown core. The map of 1853 was likely made in preparation for the town's application with the state to become a city. Tampa gained its city charter from the state in 1855, long after Steele left the scene. His influence is still felt in small ways and large, from the few streets he named to the county he created.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center. He encourages your questions and comments. He can be reached by email at rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone at (813) 228-0097.

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