As residents of Hillsborough County, we know we’re part of the fourth-most populous county in Florida and the most populous outside of Miami. Our home is renowned for its scenic beauty and charming architecture spanning three centuries, making it an appealing place to live and explore. From our sunny beaches to the lush landscapes, Hillsborough’s natural allure is matched only by its rich history.

Whether we’re walking through historic Ybor City or visiting the landmarks that dot our towns, we’re reminded of Hillsborough’s layered past. From early native tribes to the influences of various global powers, our country has evolved dramatically over the centuries. Join me as we delve into the captivating history that has shaped the vibrant community we call home. Here is the History of Hillsborough County:

Early History

Approximately 12,000 years ago, Paleoindians migrated through the North American continent, entering the peninsula of Florida. The two largest native groups were the Timucua and the Calusa. Specifically, the Mocoso lived on Hillsborough Bay between the Alafia and Hillsborough River. Each tribe was primarily coastal dwellers and frequently fought over territory, particularly the land between the northern coast of Tampa Bay and Manatee County.

Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first arrived in the Tampa Bay area in 1513 but focused on settling the eastern region. Despite initial explorations, it took centuries for significant European settlement to occur in the Tampa Bay area.

By 1700, few Florida Indian tribes survived, decimated by devastating raids from English colonists coming from Carolina. These Indigenous populations were further reduced by European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.

From 1559 to 1819, our state was under the rule of four separate nations: France, Great Britain, Spain, and eventually the United States, which purchased it in 1821 for $5 million, setting the stage for modern settlement and the development of Hillsborough County.

Modern Settlement 

Hillsborough County was named by British mapmaker Bernard Romans, who paid tribute to Wills Hill, the British Secretary of State to the Colonies from 1768 to 1772. Ironically, Hill never once stepped foot in Florida.

During the Seminole Wars of the 19th century, military land was procured in Hillsborough County after the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek in 1823. A year later, the U.S. government established Fort Brooke at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. It was one of the first military bases in the state, and historical landmarks now mark its ruins. Later, Fort Brooke was used to fend off Union naval bombardments during the Civil War.

In 1834, the U.S. Legislative Council for the Territory of Florida approved Hillsborough as the state’s 19th county, carving out space in parts of Monroe and Alachua Counties. A little over a decade later, Florida was granted statehood. The territory consisted of Polk, Sarasota, Pinellas, Charlotte, Highlands Counties, Hardee, and many more. Despite its sizable area, Hillsborough’s population was only 836 residents.

This early period laid the foundation for Hillsborough County’s development, setting the stage for its later growth into a bustling economic and cultural hub within Florida.

Railroads & Shipping 

Henry Plant, also known as the founder of Tampa, spurred the growth between his city and Hillsborough County. Once the railroad was built, the value of all farms and improvements increased from half a million to nearly three million in just a decade. The population doubled, and demand skyrocketed to the point that only less than 4,000 acres remained open to the homestead entry at the United States Land office in Gainesville—making it the seventh lowest in the entire state. The population was third only behind Jacksonville and Key West.

Hillsborough County experienced a rapid rise in shipping, with exports leaving the ports serving the area. In the year following the “Great Freeze,” the estimated trade value was nearly $20 million. By 1914, that number blossomed to slightly over $37 million, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the channels and harbors in our city, most notably Port Tampa Bay.

This era was transformative for Hillsborough County, helping it grow into a vital economic hub. The development of railroads and ports boosted the local economy and attracted new residents and businesses, solidifying its place as a key player in Florida’s growth.

Agriculture Production 

In the 1880s, Hillsborough was ranked fifth in the state in the value of orchard products. Throughout the period, local pioneers maintained obligatory orange groves or trees on their property. Peaches and oranges were frequent offerings at reunions and weddings. Nearly a decade later, the Sunshine State weathered the “Great Freeze,” which devastated our state’s citrus industry.

Hillsborough County saw growth despite many nearby counties like Nassau, St. Johns, and Duval experiencing enormous losses. This resilience helped Hillsborough become the center of the new citrus belt. By the turn of the century, the number of farms and acres of improved land had doubled. In the 1920 census, Hillsborough County ranked seventh in the total number of boxes of oranges produced. By the subsequent census, it ranked fourth, trailing only Polk, Lake, and Orange Counties.

Local agricultural fairs and markets continue to celebrate Hillsborough’s rich farming heritage. Events like the Florida State Fair in Tampa highlight the county’s ongoing contributions to agriculture. This robust agricultural base laid the groundwork for Hillsborough County’s enduring prosperity and community spirit.

Modern Tourism

Along with Tampa, the county seat, Temple Terrace, and Plant City are also now incorporated cities in Hillsborough County. The area is home to a large collection of attractions that make it very popular with tourists and residents alike. Besides the local well-known landmark of the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge (which connects St. Petersburg and Terra Ceia), visitors flock to the Tampa Museum of Art, Busch Gardens, and the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum. The annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa is a major draw, bringing in over 300,000 visitors annually (Visit Tampa Bay).

Hillsborough county tourism statisticAs the heart of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County is a vital staple in Florida tourism. The region offers diverse events year-round, from the Plant City Strawberry Festival to the Florida State Fair. This constant influx of visitors significantly boosts the local economy, contributing over $6.5 billion annually to the county’s revenue (Hillsborough County Economic Development). The fourth largest county in our state continues to feature a thriving tourism industry and an unmatched quality of life.

The Ever-Evolving Hillsborough

Hillsborough County truly embodies the vibrant spirit and rich history of Florida. It has undergone significant transformations from its ancient indigenous roots to the bustling modern era. Each period has left an indelible mark, shaping Hillsborough into the dynamic community we know and love today. The county’s history is a living testament to resilience, growth, and cultural diversity.

As residents, we are fortunate to live in a place that beautifully melds the past with the present. Whether enjoying the numerous festivals, savoring the local cuisine, or simply taking a stroll through historic neighborhoods, we are constantly reminded of the rich tapestry that makes up Hillsborough County. Together, we continue to build upon this legacy, ensuring a thriving future for generations to come.