Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Legend of the Pirate Gasparilla – the REAL Facts…

Walking the plank” with sailors hanging from the yardarms, 1964. Courtesy of the Florida Archives

Walking the plank” with sailors hanging from the yardarms, 1964. Courtesy of the Florida Archives

The truth is that there never was a pirate named “Gasparilla.” Despite the fact that the Annual Gasparilla Festival started in 1904 to celebrate “Pirate Jose Gaspar’s” life which included numerous Gasparilla parades on both land and water and, of course, The Tampa Bay “Buccaneers” – nothing about Gasparilla has ever been confirmed, outside of one sole source: Juan Gomez also known as John Gomez.

Much of the “proof” for Gomez’s story of this pirate has to do with local place names and how they fit nicely into the legend. However, the name “Gasparilla” is on maps as far back as 1772 – twelve years before “Jose Gaspar” the pirate was supposed to have arrived on that island and named it for himself. The actual island name is derived from Friar Gaspar, a Spanish churchman with “illa” added which means “beloved” not “outlaw” as the legend states. Useppa Island is also not named for the fictitious “Spanish Princess” Josefa de Mayorga, but instead is named for the Island’s owner Caldez’s first name – Jose, Josefa or Useppi. Caldez operated a Spanish fishing rancho for many years on Useppa Island and shipped thousands of tons of fish to the Havana markets.

John  Gomez’s occupation was as a fishing guide at Pass-a-Grille (in Pinellas County) inventing pirate stories to amuse his guests. These stories were first picked up in a booklet “The Story of Gasparilla” done by the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway as a marketing tool and have been repeated and embellished many times since. The leaflet was

The 1966 Boat Parade in Tampa Harbor where Gasparilla attacks the City and it “surrenders.”

The 1966 Boat Parade in Tampa Harbor where Gasparilla attacks the City and it “surrenders.”

given to visitors who used the company’s Boca Grande Hotel. Boca Grande is the principal town of Gasparilla Island and, therefore, in theory it was the old haunt of the king of the pirates. “Taking the best of everything when a capture was made, he (Gasparilla) chose the best of the islands in Charlotte Harbor, for his own secret haunts,” declared this promotional leaflet.

It is true that there were pirates when Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821 and in fact Commodore David Porter, based in Key West, was ordered by the U.S. Navy to clear out the pirates in the Caribbean. However, the pirates were principally located along the Florida Straits between northern Cuba and the Florida Keys. The era of the Spanish treasure ships was over so these pirates attacked schooners headed south transporting exported cotton and tobacco, and cargo ships heading north with slaves to be turned over to plantation owners.

Over the years many gullible readers searched on the islands of Florida for the treasures of Gasparilla and nothing was found.  Regarding Gomez’s mention of a “treasure cave” in the Caxambas area of Marco, anyone familiar with the geology of that area knows that no caves exist in what are primarily hills of sand.

Gomez was a good storyteller, so the year of 1781 was wisely chosen by him for his birth year as it conveniently allowed him to have lived during the time of the pirates, to have met Napoleon, to have fought in the Second Seminole War, to

Girl “pirates,” 1968, in the ratlines of a ship.

Girl “pirates,” 1968, in the ratlines of a ship.

have been a blockade runner during the Civil War and to have been a participant in all of the major events of Southwest Florida for over 100 years. However, facts contradict Gomez’s timeline; the federal census taken in 1870 shows that Juan Gomez lived on Chino Island, located just east of Captiva Island, and being age 42 at the time would make his birth year about 1828. In addition, in 1886 the Ft. Myers Press printed his claim to be 101 years old, while the following year Gomez showed up again in Ft. Myers claiming to be 111 years old; the newspaper reporter who reported this story of Gomez gaining about ten years of age in one year wisely said that Gomez looked like a “man of seventy. ” This timeline also casts doubts on Gomez’s story that he fought with General Taylor in the Second Seminole War battle of Lake Okeechobee as  in December of 1837 Gomez would have been only 9 years old.

Gomez did try raising goats on his island with the support of Captain John F. Horr, (who owned the island adjacent to Marco then known as Horr’s Island and now called Key Marco), but the panthers ate all of their goats, resulting in Gomez’s island being called Panther Key and his nickname as Panther Key John. For the last ten years of his life Gomez and his wife Sarah were awarded by Lee County a supplemental income of $8 a month administered by Captain Bill Collier who said that: “Fish, turtle and turtle eggs with



a little coffee, sugar and meal made up the sum of their subsistence.” Gomez must have seemed very credible, as for the most part those who knew him or met him believed his stories and retold them to others, in addition Gomez’s physical appearance added validity to his stirring tales. John Gomez’s looks were described in his last year as: “certainly of the piratical order—a lean, sallow face, keen, piercing black eyes, gold rings in his ears, and a watchfulness that never wearied, were characteristics which he had in common with light-fingered gentlemen of seafaring tastes.”

In 1900 Gomez died at what would be about the age of 73 (not 122 as claimed) and the “official story” is that he was caught up in his own net and drowned near his boat – strikingly similar to the fate and death of his hero and “mentor” Gasparilla! But, even that story has been questioned as some assert that Gomez would never have gone fishing and left his pipe (which he never took out of his mouth) on the seat of the boat where it was found. The end of a man who was known for his colorful imagination and notorious for his tales!

The moral of the story? History, like all human accounts abounds with myths, falsehoods, legends and folklore.

Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program.

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