It’s always made me a little nervous to have lunch with Tom Touchton. I am totally at ease with my dear friend, but his maps caused me much anxiety. You see, Tom would often bring a historic map of Florida to lunch, and at the end of our meal, while coffee was served, he would carefully take it out of its protective case and we would discuss the map’s history. That’s when I would get nervous. Imagine if I spilled coffee or water on a map from 1601? Our friendship was strong, but I’m not sure it would survive that sort of mishap!
Tom is a well-known businessman and philanthropist who was a driving force behind the creation of the Tampa Bay History Center. The establishment of the center is a tribute to many committed people in the community who adopted a methodical, business-like approach to building a home for our region’s rich history. Tom set the tone for the project with his quiet and determined desire to get the job done — and do it the right way.
Tom’s attraction to Florida and the Tampa Bay area’s history was developed by his interest in map collecting. Today the Tampa Bay History Center hosts a fascinating exhibition called “Charting the Land of Flowers: 500 Years of Florida Maps.” Don’t miss it. But before you go you might want to know a little bit about the man behind the maps.
Serendipity played a role in bringing map collecting into Tom’s life.
Tom and his wife, Lee, were traveling to London in the fall of 1982 to celebrate a birthday. They wandered into the Fall Antiques Fair at Chelsea Town Hall. For those who don’t know Tom personally, he is by nature drawn to books, learning and libraries, interested in details and context. He is a patient listener who absorbs information and can recall a tremendous amount of facts. That day he didn’t find any books of interest, but did notice a young map seller. Wandering over to the booth he asked a question that would end up changing his life: “Who buys maps?”
The map seller had both time and an interested listener, so for the next hour and a half he explained the world of maps to Tom, and soon he was hooked. He and Lee left the fair that day with their first map purchase — a 1509 map of Canterbury, England. The next day they visited a well-known London map dealer.
Tom had already decided he was going to collect maps; the question now was exactly how to begin. The dealer helped him focus his interests, and given he and Lee’s Florida heritage dating back many generations, and the rich history of our state, the decision was made to concentrate on Florida maps. That day they bought their first half-dozen Florida maps from the dealer, and a new passion began.
Admittedly Tampa-centric, I am drawn to two very early maps that are the first mentions of Tampa in recorded history.
The first is a hand-drawn manuscript map dated 1576 that is a little hard to read because of ink stains. There is, however, a clear depiction of the Caribbean Islands, along with an outline of the peninsular of Florida. Though St. Augustine was established in 1565, it is not shown on the map — but “b. de tampa” is noted.
The second represents the first printed map that contains the name Tampa. (This map was also the cause of my lunchtime anxiety). This remarkable 1601 work of Antonio de Herrera is a printed map bound in a book, which clearly shows the name “b. de tampa” — today’s Tampa Bay. It’s amazing that Tampa is shown on a map in a Spanish publication six years before the establishment of the Jamestown Colony and 19 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Tampa truly represents some of the earliest American history.
Exactly how the name Tampa became known to early voyagers we will never know. Speculation is that the Native American Indians used the term for the geographic area, and it was noted by the various explorers as they documented each expedition.
The exhibition at the Tampa Bay History Center consists of 150 maps, 90 percent from Tom and Lee’s collection. (Their total collection contains approximately 3,000 maps, prints and views of Florida). The exhibit is the most comprehensive ever. It is remarkable in its depth and scope, taking one through the lens of the earliest explorers through subsequent centuries as knowledge and technology allowed us to view our state with greater accuracy.
Maps tell us how previous generations saw the world around them; a visual depiction of the best information available that informed their lives. For the man behind the maps, Tom Touchton’s quest to collect, to question, to learn, to share, has led to a treasure trove of history that enriches our community.
Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.