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When People were Property

For years, who knows how many, the book lay in a vault behind a locked door in a quiet corner of the Hillsborough County courthouse.

On this day the heavy door is unlocked, then numbers twirled on the big safe inside. I'm waiting alongside other curious parties — among them, Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center museum. He is in serious glasses and jaunty bow tie, surgical-looking gloves at the ready so as not to damage the book's dry pages that are more than a century and a half old.

Pat Frank, clerk of the circuit court, is here too, hers being the job of keeping custody of county records old and new, whether they are dull as dirt or as intriguing as this, the oldest book they have.

Because there are stories in its stained pages — about how this town grew into itself, even about the shameful history of what was once considered property here.

The color of a faded Ybor City cigar, the book is lifted like a jewel from a bank safe deposit box and laid on a cloth spread across an office table.

"This," says Kite-Powell, opening the cover and peering inside, "is neat."

It's a Day Book, meaning each day the elected county clerk filled it with the business of the territory including what would become Tampa and Hillsborough County. Painstakingly handwritten in steady, spiky cursive are property records, with boundary lines "beginning at an oak tree" and "marked by a pile of stones," and measured in "chains," or 66-foot lengths.

A story drifts up from the pages: Documents refer to the property of one Richard Hackley, a New York merchant who found his way to Florida (apparently even then they were doing that).

In the early 1800s, he bought land from the Spanish Duke of Alagon on what included the now south end of downtown and his family built a home, a simple one called a dogtrot.

Apparently, the Hackley house was attractive enough that after the U.S. military came to establish Fort Brooke, Hackley's son Robert returned from a trip to find officers ensconced there.

The question became whether the family's land grant from Spain was valid once this was U.S. territory. Hackley heirs argued this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost.

Tucked in the book we also find a handwritten recipe for "Lemon Pie," though largely in a language no one can identify but for occasional English words: crackers, cornstarch, milk. Did whoever wrote this deliberately obscure it in a native tongue so it would remain a secret family recipe? It is a mystery.

We find references to Rabbit Island, which Kite-Powell says became part of Davis Islands. And on page 326 is a property transaction recorded as impartially as any other.

"For and in consideration of Five hundred and twenty five dollars to me in hand," it says, a man and his future heirs have thus purchased forever "a certain negro woman named Fanny and her two children Romio and Della."

"Said negro woman Fanny is aged about 26 years . . . Which negroes I warrant slaves for life," the document says, signed with a flourish on the final day of May 1842. "For life," it says, the buying of a woman and her two children.

It starts to make sense, the workaday job of the clerk's office to keep and preserve literally millions of official records, government invoices, deeds, documents and evidence from criminal trials. (Frank tells me they even have part of a thumb refrigerated for safekeeping.)

In this book is the importance of remembering it all, the deadly-dull minutiae, the monumental and the ugly. It's what happened.

Sue Carlton can be reached at

Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Pat Frank is working with the Tampa Bay History Center to let the public view a book more than 150 years old — Hillsborough's oldest book of official documents. After inspecting the book this week, both are optimistic about making it happen.

Carlton: When people were property: Hillsborough's oldest book tells the true tale 02/25/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016 10:24pm]