Odet Philippe: The story behind the namesake of Philippe Park in Safety Harbor
By: Melissa Guerra & Eric Smithers
Standing near the base of the historic Indian mound at Philippe Park under the shade of century-old oak trees, J. Allison DeFoor, II introduces himself in the sweltering heat. Clad in a tropical-themed dress shirt, khaki pants, Ray-ban Wayfarers and of course, flip-flops, DeFoor quickly launches into an abbreviated oral history of his ancestor and the namesake of this renowned Pinellas County Park, Odet Philippe.
A direct descendant of the pioneer who is credited with being the first non-native settler of the Tampa Bay area, DeFoor has written the most extensive bio on Philippe, titled Odet Philippe: Peninsular Pioneer. Many rumors have swirled around his relative, but DeFoor has deemed them exactly that—rumors. The myth of Odet Philippe (pronounced Oh-Day Phil-EEp) has, in some ways, shrouded the actual man and his accomplishments. Much of his assumed history has been contradicted with DeFoor’s research, making the story of Philippe’s life so interesting and complicated, he says.
DeFoor gave us a rundown of some common claims. Philippe’s count status and his noble birth are unfounded, DeFoor explained. And his connection to Napoleon was very unlikely, due to a large age difference between the two men. He more than likely wasn’t a professionally trained doctor, even though he might have performed basic medical tasks. However DeFoor says he was called a “medical quack” by one of his peers in Charleston, SC.
Here’s what is true: the man DeFoor spoke about undoubtedly stood in the same area we are standing, if not the exact same spot, more than a century ago. The land was Philippe’s plantation, which he artfully named Saint Helena in admiration of Napoleon, who was exiled to a “rock island” of the same name in1815. On this land Philippe planted the first grapefruits that Tampa Bay had ever seen, a distinction that placed him in the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. DeFoor even found records that credit Philippe with bringing cigar making to Tampa. And the very mound in which DeFoor stood? It served as refuge for the Philippe family in the wake of a massive hurricane that hit the Bay area in 1848—the same storm that carved out Johns Pass about 21 miles south in Madeira Beach.
However, the most intriguing piece of information that DeFoor has confirmed is that the first non-native resident of Pinellas County was black. It’s a detail that is often overlooked by historians, and one DeFoor hopes more people will start to recognize.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Philippe Park is serene yet full of life. On an ordinary afternoon, there are numerous people relaxing in the shade, going on runs, visiting with friends and enjoying the waterfront view. The Florida sunshine struggles to pierce through the thick branches of the countless large oak trees, which make a shady haven for park goers.
The park is a perfectly preserved piece of Florida history that has a legacy that dates back to 1787, when Odet Philippe was born in Lyon, France. One of the many common claims is that Philippe was a childhood friend of Napoleon and the nephew of King Louis XVI. However, this rumor is unfounded in DeFoor’s research.
Philippe made his first homestead in Charleston, SC, where he filed his intent to become a citizen of the United States on December 3, 1822. He maintained several business ventures in order to make his living in Charleston, but DeFoor says he also had many illegal transactions in the slave trade, even though the U.S. Constitution banned this practice in 1807. Owning slaves was certainly customary in Philippe’s era, DeFoor says, even for a free black man.
After financial troubles in Charleston, Philippe headed for South Florida practically penniless—first to New River, now known as Ft. Lauderdale. Philippe fled the town for Key West as a result of the Cooley Massacre in 1836. Natives, whom Philippe is believed to have assisted with basic medical needs, warned him about an impending battle between the area’s Indians and the settlers. The earliest record of Philippe inhabiting Key West is in a deed dated April 22, 1830. Because Philippe came to Key West without any form of capital, it’s believed he worked with renowned pirate John Gomez to smuggle slaves. In that day and age, the Keys were “desperately short of capital,” making it unusual that Philippe was able to come into a substantial amount of riches in such a short period of time, DeFoor said.
“His involvement with Gomez was never quite proved true, along with his dealings with the slave trade—though this endeavor was highly likely,” he says.
The Second Seminole War is what drove Philippe and many others to the Tampa Bay area. He sought protection and business opportunities in an area that was booming after that war. He was able to make a considerable profit producing and selling cigars in Charleston and Key West, so he continued that trade in Tampa. At St. Helena (the land that is now Philippe Park), he was the first Floridian to grow grapefruit, which he brought from Cuba.
DeFoor said it’s incredible that history has seemed to gloss over the fact that the man who brought two of the area’s most booming industries was black. “That’s a big deal!” he exclaimed about his ancestor.
While in Tampa, Philippe agreed to monitor 165 acres along the Bay of what is now Safety Harbor. The government was looking for settlers to monitor the coastline and Philippe was a great candidate. He lived on the property until 1869 when he died.
One myth that has still been yet to be confirmed is the location of Philippe’s remains. It’s said they are buried somewhere on the property but the exact location is still unknown. A plaque and a gravestone, located off the park’s main strip about 200 yards from the Indian mound, commemorate the man who helped establish the foundation for Safety Harbor.
Set in Stone
The story of the peninsular pioneer is always developing. DeFoor continues to research the topic and find new information and connections to Philippe’s story. Philippe Park may serve as a memorial to a man whom DeFoor believes should be considered one of the most influential figures in Tampa Bay’s history, but the park’s official placard, which tells Philippe’s life story, contains mostly false information. DeFoor said someone so accomplished should be remembered properly. So he took some of the proceeds from his book and created a proper and accurate gravestone for his ancestor. The new gravestone states:
Born Lyon France 1787
Died at this site 1869
As the first European settler in Pinellas County, he established St. Helena Plantation, now Philippe Park, was the first to cultivate grapefruit in Florida and introduced cigar-making to Tampa. His descendants populated this frontier. He was said to be a doctor and of noble birth.
The Man Behind the Story
Not only is DeFoor a direct descendant of Odet Philippe, he’s also seasoned in many areas such as law, politics, and law enforcement. After receiving his Bachelors in Geography and Masters in Criminology from University of South Florida, he earned a law degree from Stetson University. DeFoor spent time as an assistant public defender before being elected as a judge to the Monroe County Court. He served as the Sheriff for Monroe County and was even a nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 1990. DeFoor lost the election and decided to make a career switch that would echo his spirituality. With his current endeavor as the minister of the Wakulla County prison, DeFoor says his mission is to help prisoners find God and get out of prison for good. He doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the irony in his career change.
“I always thought that I would spending the rest of my life putting people in jail,” he said. “Now I’m trying to keep them out.”
DeFoor says his new role at the prison has temporarily halted his research on Philippe but he’s looking for a co-author to help him continue the story of his ancestor.