By Charles Nelson
In 1881, a newly published map of Florida identified Gulf City as the first organized town south of the Alafia River. The small village sat on the banks of the Little Manatee River at Tampa Bay. If you try to find remnants of Gulf City today, your efforts will likely go unrewarded. Only the ghosts of SouthShore’s first community remain.
Some ghosts are prehistoric animals (think saber-tooth cats, llamas, and giant sloths, among many others) that roamed Gulf City over 1.5 million years ago. Local paleontologist Frank Garcia unearthed the remains of over 30,000 bones at the Leisey Shell Pit in 1983. Today, a historical marker identifies the spot, now underwater, of Florida’s most important dig. Fortunately, you can view part of his collection at Camp Bayou Nature Preserve in Ruskin.
People inhabited the shores along the Little Manatee River long before those first white settlers created Gulf City. Remnants of small villages were discovered at the Little Manatee’s mouth by archeologists in the early 20th century. There they uncovered human remains and hundreds of artifacts telling of natives who called this area home for thousands of years.
The first historical account of these natives was left by a chronicler who accompanied Hernando de Soto on his 1539 invasion of the area just south of Gulf City. De Soto marched his men north to occupy an abandoned native village (remembered as Uzita) where the river meets the bay. Sadly, progressive builders destroyed most of these mounds to build roads in South Hillsborough County. You can view some of these artifacts at museums in Gainesville and Washington D.C.
Legendary pirates also haunt the Gulf City waters. Rumors that the ‘Pious Pirate,’ Ben Margoza, established his pirate stronghold at Gulf City persist among modern-day treasure hunters. Other pirates, like Henry Ross, a supposed crewmate of Tampa’s Gasparilla, reportedly lurked in the area as well. Keep in mind, though, that these entertaining legends can’t be verified.
Harry Sellner, a Dutch seaman, was the first verified white settler in Gulf City. He arrived in the 1860s and built his home on top of an American Indian shell mound on the Little Manatee’s south bank. Other settlers slowly followed, and by 1878, Gulf City began to take root. A small school accepted six students at an 18’ x 20’ log cabin that ran on a very unusual three-month term. A Reverend Robinson first preached services in that school and later opened a sawmill and built a small church 6 miles south of Gulf City.
By 1886, a post office was established. Mail was delivered once a week, by boat from Tampa, for settlers in Southern Hillsborough County, Oak Hill (now Parrish), Bradenton, and Ellenton. The post office served the community until a railroad was established from Plant City to Bradenton shortly after the century’s turn. The small post office was closed for good.
Ben Moody—no relation to the Alafia River Moody’s—contributed significantly to the growth of Gulf City. He established an oyster bed at the mouth of the Little Manatee River and became well-known in Tampa as a purveyor of the region’s finest fresh oysters and fish. He also opened a canning factory in Gulf City that employed 30 to 40 people for canning oysters and sardines before 1900. The plant didn’t last long, primarily due to oysters being overharvested without any thought to depleting the supply.
Moody also attempted to establish Gulf City as a fishing and hunting mecca. He built a new, 2-story hotel on top of a native mound at the end of Shell Point Rd. Neither the mound nor the hotel survived to today, although Little Manatee River is now a protected Florida waterway where fish and birds thrive. Today, a marina sits on the site of the mound.
Ruskin was created in 1908, thoroughly overshadowing the small village of Gulf City. Later, the remnants of Gulf City were merged into Ruskin entirely and mostly forgotten. Almost nothing remains of the community except for the ghosts of prehistoric animals, American Indians, legendary pirates and the settlers who sought to make a town.