By Charles Nelson
In 1824, Fort Brooke (later Tampa) was established at the Hillsborough River’s mouth to keep an eye on native Seminoles confined to an interior reservation by the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. Although there were few settlers, tensions between Seminoles and settlers sparked from time to time.
Yet, even with the Fort’s protection, settlers did not rush into lands that would eventually become East Hillsborough County. A Seminole raid’s potential was a genuine possibility and a significant impediment to rapid settlement until shortly before the Civil War.
One of the earliest Hillsborough County settlers to test that danger was a Baptist minister, Rev. Daniel Simmons. In 1829, he settled on lands known as Simmons Hammock that lay near today’s Seffner and Dover, along U.S. 92. His goal was to convert nearby Seminoles to the Christian faith. Over the next seven years, the Howard and Sanders families settled nearby.
Simmons’ early relationships with the Seminoles seemed peaceful, but federal Indian policy would soon disrupt Simmons’ relationships. In 1835, tensions reached a boiling point when the United States reneged on promises and insisted the Seminoles vacate reserved land immediately. Many Seminoles chose to ignore that order through armed resistance.
A small group of Seminoles, friendly to Simmons, warned him that fighting was imminent and urged him to flee immediately. The three families escaped to Fort Brooke for protection.
That warning was all too real.
On December 28, 1835, Major Francis Dade led his troops east from Tampa, intending to relieve Fort King near present day Ocala. A war party of determined Seminoles attacked the column near present-day Dade City and killed all but three of the 100-plus man unit.
A few weeks later, Major General Edmond Gaines led 980 soldiers through Simmons Hammock to investigate the attack. He found the three Simmons Hammock homesteads burned to the ground. Simmons was lucky to have survived. He never returned to Simmons Hammock. The message was clear.
As the seven-year Seminole War neared its end in 1842, the government encouraged settlement through the passage of the Armed Occupation Act. White settlers could receive 160 acres of free land if they agreed to establish a farm and help discourage any further Seminole trouble. This act brought a small number of settlers into Simmons Hammock, once again. However, the armed homesteaders did not altogether remove the danger of Seminole action.
One Simmons Hammock claimant was William B. Hooker, later an important Tampa and Hillsborough County politician. He parlayed his 160 acres into a large cattle ranch, becoming the second-largest cattleman in Florida. (He sold his 4,500 head of cattle to Jacob Summerlin in 1855.)
Nevertheless, from 1842 to 1860, only 50 families established farms in Simmons Hammock and Eastern Hillsborough County. Native threats persisted, and those tensions occasionally resulted in minor skirmishes; although, one of those attacks was more significant.
In May 1857, during the Third Seminole War, a wagon train supplying a military garrison on Moore’s Lake (on the eastern side of Simmons Hammock) was attacked by raiding Seminoles. Fatal casualties included Simmons Hammock farmer Levi Starling; his son, James; and a Mr. Roach. Once, a historical marker sat along U.S. 92, just east of Seffner, to commemorate the battle, but is now, sadly, missing.
While this was the last Seminole action recorded in Hillsborough County, the potential for violence was felt until 1858, when the war was over. But, white settlers had already begun to leave the area. The dislocations of the Civil War continued the flight of farmers abandoning their homes. Filling that void after the war, a growing number of newly freed black slaves moved into abandoned Simmons Hammock farms as racial violence escalated in surrounding counties in the 1870s and 1880s.
The Simmons Hammock area remained sparsely populated until 1883, when Henry Plant brought his railroad through the region and established his company headquarters in the new town of Seffner.