By Charles Nelson
In this column, we’ve explored the origin stories of several of our communities like Brandon, Gibsonton, Simmons Hammock and several others. Recently, a reader asked how Hillsborough County got its name. That’s a great question. Let’s take a close look.
Most history books of Florida and Hillsborough County attribute Hillsborough County’s formation to one man, Augustus Steele. That’s a fair attribution. Hillsborough County was formed on January 25, 1834 (from Alachua and Monroe Counties), largely due to Steele’s influence with Florida’s territorial government.
In some respects, he was an odd man to lead this effort. Steele was just a step ahead of creditors when he came to Tampa’s tiny village due to questionable business deals in the Panhandle. Despite those legal problems, he quickly established himself as a leading citizen and booster of the little community.
As a probate judge, postmaster and port official, Steele had the clout to lead efforts to form a new county where Tampa was named the county seat. He argued that the long, arduous trip to Alachua County’s seat near present-day Gainesville made county business complex. Only a new county could adequately solve the problems of administration. It was Steele that suggested the name: Hillsborough.
Why isn’t Steele more prominently remembered today? Where are the monuments and streets named in his honor? Well, it might be fair to label Steele as a dishonest businessman. Unquestionably, he played fast and loose with local investors when he attempted to plat out Tampa’s new town.
Steele sought to sell land on both sides of the river even though his right to sell was very much in question. The courts agreed with creditors, and all land sales were invalidated, ending Steele’s dreams of expanding his wealth in Tampa. Steele again evaded responsibility by quickly escaping to Cedar Key, never returning to Tampa. That certainly has tarnished his reputation as the ‘Father of Hillsborough County.’
So, what about that name? History books have also explained that Hillsborough County was named in honor of Wills Hills, the Earl of Hillsborough. Hills served as British secretary of state for the Colonies under King George III from 1768-1772. Indeed, to honor the Colonial secretary, even though Hills never stepped foot in Florida, a 1769 British map first showed the river marked as the Hillsborough. In 1772, a later map was sent to the Earl of Hillsborough, and the name was fixed.
Remember that from 1507 until 1821, Florida was claimed and governed by the Spanish, except for that 20-year British period. Few Spanish maps even identify the river before 1757, when Don Francisco Maria Celi created a very detailed (and very famous) map of the bay, then called the Bahia de Spiritu Santo. Celi named the river the ‘Rio de San Julian y Arriaga’ in honor of an important Spanish priest and government official of the early 1500s.
So, what was Steele’s source for the Hillsborough name? It is far more likely that Steele didn’t have the Earl of Hillsborough in mind when he suggested the county’s name in 1834. British influence was long past in American history by that date, but the river and the eastern portion of the bay had been named Hillsborough for over 60 years.
So, it is far more likely that Steele chose the name to be consistent with two significant geographic features rather than to honor a long-dead, unimportant (to America) British official.
Are the history books right? Was Hillsborough County named to honor the British secretary of state for the Colonies? Let’s call this statement ‘half true’ to appease the fact-checkers. To be fair, the river and bay’s names likely were chosen by unnamed British map makers to honor Will Hills. But Steele probably had geography on his mind…that is, before he high-tailed it out of town.
So, now you know the whole story. You can confidently tell your neighbors how Hillsborough County got its name. Although, your version will be a bit more nuanced than the history books.