Temple Mound a Monument to Pasco's Native History
While the associated burial mound was destroyed by area development in the 1950s, the Oelsner Mound is Florida’s best preserved example of a temple mound.
Nestled on the southern bank of the Pithlachascotee River, on Sunset Boulevard, is one of the oldest historic sites in Port Richey — the Eschaskotes Mound site, also known as Oelsner Mound.
The Eschaskotes Mound site is an archaeological legacy spanning more than a century.
But today, 132 years after it was first excavated, it is merely a fraction of it original size, the burial mound since destroyed by area development.
This site — one of the most significant in West Pasco history — was once the nucleated village of Native American tribes dating from the Weeden Island II period (750-1000 CE) to the Safety Harbor period (800 CE-European contact).
In 1879, pioneer archaeologist S.J. Walker visited this site and conducted the first known excavations and studies of its contents.
During his visit, Walker noted one mound with a level top and of general construction, which he classified as a “mound of residence.” He further described this mound as oblong in shape, 168 feet long, 55 feet wide and 9 feet high, with its longest dimension running nearly due north.
Poised on the bank of the Pithlachascotee River, this platform or temple mound was the highest point overlooking the entire village site.
Minor excavation revealed no artifacts but showed typical mound construction comprised layers of sand and shell.
A second, more significant, mound was also noted by Walker. This mound measured 175 feet long, 50 feet at the wide end and tapering to 15 feet at the small end with a maximum height of about 5 feet.
What They Found in the Mound
According to Walker, a systematic excavation of the second mound revealed human remains in “vast quantities in every part of the mound.” He also recovered several non-skeletal artifacts, including: one three-inch rusty iron spike, broken arrowhead, coral stone sinker, quartz stone sinker, pottery vessel and more than 500 pieces of pottery fragments.
While Walker didn’t completely excavate the burial mound in 1879, this task was later accomplished by archaeologist Clarence B. Moore in 1903.
Within the burial mound, Moore located and recorded 62 burial groupings. One burial unit contained the remains of 57 individuals, while others were comprised of more than one body. Based on calculations there were at least 150 burials within this single mound.
Moore also recovered a significant quantity of non-skeletal artifacts, which were cataloged and preserved for future studies.
But, like most sites in Florida, after the 1903 excavation and extraction of the contents within the Eschaskotes mound, it was completely reconstructed.
Property Changes Hands
In March 1925, Rudolph Oelsner from Yonkers, NY, purchased the mound property from John T. Hill. The approximately 10-acre estate was among the prettiest riverfront properties in the area.
Soon after, Oelsner began the first known improvements to the mound site, which included a new home, seawall, natural stone wall spanning the length of the property, and any necessary backfilling along the river bank.
According to West Pasco’s Heritage, Oelsner chose a spot behind the larger temple mound for his home, believing it would be protected from the cold north wind. But, before construction was completed, Oelsner passed away, and development was completed by his daughter, Martha.
Martha Oelsner also added a set of concrete stairs to the east side of the platform mound, providing easy access to the top for a breathtaking view of the riverfront — the same view the mound builders sought and intended.
In August 1953, the Eschaskotes site was visited again by archaeologists who were interested in further studies of the intriguing man-made features rising from the river bank.
During the 1953 survey, archaeologists noted both the platform and burial mounds were still intact — and owned by Martha Oelsner and her nephew Donald Armstrong, respectively.
At that time, the burial mound was noted as having trees growing on it, and more interesting was its close proximity to a house, which, according to county records, was constructed in 1915 along the western edge of the mound.
Not long after the 1953 site survey, the associated burial mound was destroyed during construction of another home — the first significant developmental impacts to the burial mound.
This followed with the 1958 construction of a third home on the eastern portion of the burial mound, finally destroying what archaeologists had studied for so many years.
Martha Oelsner lived on the mound property for 57 years, with the site now bearing her family’s name. She believed the intact temple mound actually contained the remains of Timuqua or Calusa Indians.
Martha often told tall tales about indians from South Florida who would visit the temple mound each spring to perform a ceremony. She also claimed the indians told her the temple mound contained the remains of their chief, who was buried while astride a white horse — false claims based on archaeological excavation.
Who Will Preserve the Mound?
Before Oelsner’s death in 1981, her will included a proviso that was meant to protect and keep the remaining temple mound intact. But, as discovered, the will was changed during the course of her late illness and this proviso intentionally excluded.
In May 1983, the temple mound and surrounding property was transferred from estate trustees Ellis First National Bank to the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, as part of the Martha Oelsner estate.
After numerous letters to Gov. Bob Graham and lengthy negotiations between the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee and the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, in June 1989 the mound property was finally transferred to Pasco County, which has continually preserved this precious historic resource since.
Today, while the more significant burial mound has been destroyed, according to archaeological surveys the intact Oelsner Mound remains one of the best preserved examples of a temple mound in the entire state.
Additional Notes about Oelsner Mound Site
- In 1879, archaeologist T.S. Walker called this the Eschaskotes site.
- In 1903, archaeologist C.B. Moore referred to it as the mound near the Pithlachascotee River.
- In 1949, archaeologist Gordon Wiley referred to the mounds as Pithlachascotee River site.
- In 1953, archaeologists Knight, Armstead, and Plowden assigned no name to the site in their reports.
- As early as the 1960s, residents referred to what was left of the site as Oelsner Mound.
- In a 1990 survey of the site by archaeologist Calvin Jones, the temple mound is called Oelsner Mound.
- In 1993, archaeologist Michael S. Garner refers to the site as the Oelsner Mound in his survey report.
- We planned to run additional photos from Walker's collection of artifacts from the Eschaskotes site, now located at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. But unfortunately the building housing these artifacts was severely damaged during the recent earthquake, and the building closed until further notice and structural inspections could be performed.