Intrigue Along the Inlet: Commerce and Conflict at Bunce’s Pass
A two-part series
Part 2: A Fishing Camp under Fire
Last week, we learned about Captain William Bunce settling in the largely uninhabited Tampa Bay region during the 1830s. He established a fishing ranchero at the mouth of the Manatee River in 1834 and sent smoked and preserved fish to markets in Havana and elsewhere.
Nearly 150 Seminole Indians, runaway slaves, Cubans and others worked at Bunce’s multicultural fishing camp. His ranchero had a larger population than the small village of Tampa. Fort Brooke – a military installation once located at the current site of the Tampa Convention Center – monitored Bunce’s activities.
After the Second Seminole War began in 1835, federal authorities wanted Bunce to surrender many of his workers. He failed to comply. An expedition from Fort Brooke destroyed his ranchero. Sometime after that, Bunce set up a new one along Bunce’s Pass.
A New Camp
Familiar with the mangrove keys near the mouth of Tampa Bay, Bunce decided to establish a new ranchero along the northern side of the pass that bears his name by 1837. Similar to his earlier operation along the Manatee River, his workers built simple structures out of wood and palm thatch. Although no photographs of this camp exist, the structures may have resembled the one in an image of an early hut from the Johns Pass area in 1900 (below).
Bunce became the first white settler along the Pinellas Gulf Beaches. Workers at his new ranchero included Cubans, Spaniards, Seminoles and others of mixed or uncertain ethnic ancestry. With the Second Seminole War raging in other parts of Florida, Bunce knew that the mere presence of this camp would concern federal authorities who wanted to remove Native Americans and capture runaways and fugitives. Still, his operation at Bunce’s Pass thrived.
Bunce frequently visited Tampa. He continued to bring shipments of fish and sea turtles to Fort Brooke to feed the troops stationed there. Throughout this time, Bunce regularly led fishing expeditions for those in the area, including soldiers at Fort Brooke. Hardly anonymous, Bunce even served as a delegate in the convention that drafted the territorial Constitution of 1838 in the years before Florida became a state in 1845.
The captain operating a small fish camp along a Pinellas barrier island did more than represent the entire Tampa Bay region in constitutional conversations. He continued to ship large quantities of salted and preserved fish between the months of October and April. His workers also grew self-sustaining crops on the island. This camp flourished during the middle years of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) while troops in other parts of Florida rounded up Seminoles and slaves.
A Different Coastline, Another Attack
The barrier islands of lower Pinellas had a different contour during the 1800s. Bunce’s Pass was wider than today. The area’s salt waters overflowed with fish. The community we now know as Tierra Verde is an agglomeration of various smaller keys joined together by dredging during the 20th century. Pine and Cabbage keys were separate islands in the 1800s.
Smaller islands south of Cabbage Key also existed as separate entities. When you approach the last tollbooth along the Bayway before crossing Bunce’s Pass, you drive along portions of Mule Key, Listen Key and Cunningham Key, joined with Cabbage Key in the early 1960s. Bunce’s camp occupied this area.
Present-day Fort DeSoto Park south of the pass is also a composite of separate islands, some merged together. The boat ramps on the south end of Bunce’s Pass are part of Madelaine Key, once known as Hospital Key. The area to the south, near the Fort DeSoto entry station, used to be Dogwood Key. The fort constructed in 1898, the park’s main beaches, and fishing piers occupy Mullet Key.
Battles during the Second Seminole War intensified by the late 1830s. As troops and militiamen pursued slaves and Seminoles in other parts of Florida, military personnel at Fort Brooke once again pressured Bunce to surrender many of his workers. He staunchly refused.
Bunce’s ranchero became a target. No longer would authorities ignore the Seminoles, Cubans and others who labored at the largest – and probably only – commercial enterprise in present-day Pinellas County. Captain S.B. Plummer led a contingent of soldiers from Fort Brooke. They leveled Bunce’s second ranchero and destroyed his crops and farmland 180 years ago, in October 1840.
An Almost-Forgotten Pioneer
Captain William Bunce gets little attention in historical narratives. Yet, for a few years in the late 1830s, more people may have labored and lived at his camp along Bunce’s Pass than throughout the rest of the Pinellas Peninsula. In “Surf, Sand and Postcard Sunsets,” Frank Hurley Jr. properly credits him as a pioneer who briefly netted prosperity from the rich waters of lower Pinellas more than 45 years before Zephaniah Phillips became the first homesteader on the Gulf Beaches, at Pass-a-Grille, in 1884.
Even when Bunce appears in print, authors sometimes get it wrong. John A. Bethell, a pioneer himself who settled near Little Bayou in the late 1850s, published “Pinellas, A Brief History of the Lower Point” in 1914, at a time when he claimed to be the “oldest living settler” still alive. Bethell did not live here during Bunce’s time, but others often considered him the authority for early St. Petersburg history.
Bethell incorrectly claimed that Bunce arrived in 1845, five years after troops had already destroyed his camp. He also wrongly said that the Great Gale of 1848 – the largest hurricane on record to hit the Tampa Bay area – ended Bunce’s ranchero. Bunce’s ranchero was long gone by the time the 15-foot-high storm surge from that September storm flooded all of the barrier islands. Nothing remains of Bunce’s camp today.
The next time you return from Fort De Soto County Park, take a moment to admire Bunce’s Pass. More than 180 years ago, the fish swimming in these waters sustained the biggest business on the Pinellas Peninsula, a place where a variety of people worked together as war and hostility raged around them.
James A. Schnur previously served as president of the Pinellas County Historical Society and as a member of the Pinellas County Historical Commission. He has authored four photographic history books on the cities of Largo, Madeira Beach and St. Petersburg, as well as a history of Pinellas County. He taught Florida and U.S. history classes at Eckerd College for nearly 20 years. His research on historically Black cemeteries was part of a successful application for Rose Hill Cemetery in Tarpon Springs to gain admission to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.