BRADENTON, Fla. – An old state-owned Native American mound in Bradenton is one of the last remnants of a Native American tribe that lived there a thousand years ago. But the I-Team has learned that more than a decade after the property was supposed to be open to the public, a neighbor locked it down.
Behind a metal gate are security cameras and no trespassing signs on old Indian Hill, which was once the center of a settlement where Tocobaga Indians fished, farmed and hunted near Tampa Bay.
“They probably buried their chiefs in that mound and other important people,” said Scott Bassett.
Bassett is a historian, lawyer, and former neighbor who spearheaded the mound’s preservation efforts.
“This is our window into the past. And I think we can learn a lot about how the earlier inhabitants of our area lived. What mattered to them,” Bassett said.
The state buys a mound for $145,000
Asa Pillsbury, who owned the land, donated it to the South Florida Museum in 1974.
But in 2007 the museum put it up for sale, saying it didn’t fall within its mission.
So Bassett and Manatee County leaders convinced the state to buy it through the Florida Forever program.
“Our agency fully supports making Pillsbury Mound public property, not only because of its historical significance, but because it is considered a sacred site,” the state archaeologist told Gov. Jeb Bush’s cabinet at the time.
The state paid $145,000 and Manatee County agreed to manage it, protect it from harm, and allow the public reasonable access.
“I want to certify the integrity of our department and our Board of County Commissioners to properly manage the property,” Manatee County Public Resources Manager Charlie Hunsicker said at the time.
Property has access issues
But the state-owned property is inland, accessible only through a 50-foot easement adjacent to what is now Gordon Sampson’s property.
In 2011, Sampson purchased the property, which includes a home with more than 13,000 square feet of roof space.
The county valued the property at $4.3 million.
“You would have known that easement was there every step of the way. No one can claim ignorance. It’s right here in black and white,” Bassett said. “50 foot wide easement up the hill and beyond. “
Notes obtained by the Manatee County Real Estate Appraisal Office show that Sampson applied for and was granted a reduction in his property taxes in 2013 due to “title/servitude issues.”
Zach Richardson of Manatee County said he tried to visit the mound in 2019 after learning about it from a website, but Sampson wouldn’t let him.
“I met him on the street. I asked him if there was an Indian burial mound. He was kind of angry and said no, there’s nothing out there,” Richardson said. “I came back later and tried to go out there and he confronted me again and called the sheriff [office]. “
Richardson received a trespassing warning, but it was later lifted.
An attorney for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office sent Sampson a letter stating that the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office “cannot arrest a visitor to the Hill for lawfully exercising that easement.”
The security fence now blocks the easement
A short time later, Sampson installed a security fence.
“I don’t think he has the right to put a fence there. It clearly impedes access,” Bassett said.
The county management plan, filed with the state in January and approved in March, included “tours and interpretive talks from staff and volunteers,” and the plan said the site would allow up to 10 visitors per day.
Sampson declined to comment, but his attorney Stephen Dye said his client was protecting the mound from vandals and treasure hunters by denying access.
He said opening it to visitors would be a poor use of the county’s resources, since other Indian mounds are already accessible in nearby county parks.
Nadine Zacharie, a Native American activist who lives in St. Petersburg, said places like Pillsbury Mound should be used to educate the public.
“They consider these mounds to be sacred sites, just like a synagogue, a church, or the Western Wall,” Zacharie said.
When we contacted the county, a spokesman said, “Manatee County currently has no comment regarding access to state property.” When we asked how we could make an appointment to visit Indian Hill, he referred us to the state.
A spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Florida Forever program, said in an email, “Manatee County is the land manager for the Pillsbury Temple Mound property, so any access to the property must be coordinated through their parks department.”
We’re not the only ones who can’t get an appointment.
“I’ve called, emailed, left voicemails and got no response,” Richardson said.
The state says the county must provide educational opportunities
The DEP spokesman said as part of the plan approved this year, the county must “include educational opportunities for interpreting the historical data and resources contained on the site. “
“The county should actually do what it’s supposed to do, what it’s required by law to do, and stop worrying about offending someone who might have a lot of money,” Bassett said.
“If they just put a whole big plaque up there and maybe have a native speaker come out and celebrate every three months… it would mean a lot to me,” Zacharie said.
If you have a story for the I-Team to investigate, email us at email@example.com.