José Gaspar, known by his nickname Gasparilla (supposedly lived c. 1756 – 1821), is an apocryphal Spanish pirate, the "Last of the Buccaneers," who is claimed to have roamed and plundered across the Gulf of Mexico and the Spanish Main from his base in southwest Florida. Details about his early life, motivations, and piratical exploits differ in different tellings. However, the various stories state that he was active during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the years coinciding almost exactly with Florida's second Spanish period (1783 – 1821).
Though he is a popular figure in Florida folklore, no mention of Gaspar appears in writing before the early 20th century, and no archival or physical evidence of his existence has ever been found, in Spain nor Florida. The earliest mention of Gaspar the pirate was in a 1900 promotional brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company, a part of Henry B. Plant's railroad system that ran to Plant's Boca Grande Hotel at Charlotte Harbor, near Gasparilla Island. Subsequent retellings of the legend are based upon this first fanciful account.
The details of José Gaspar's life and career vary in different tellings, especially with regard to his origin. Most say that Gaspar was born in Spain in 1756 and served in the Spanish Navy, only to desert and turn to piracy in 1783. In some versions of the story, he began life as a troubled youth who kidnapped a young girl for ransom. Captured and given the choice between prison and joining the navy, Gaspar went to sea, where he served with distinction for several years before leading a mutiny against a tyrannical captain and fleeing to Florida.
In other versions, Gaspar was a Spanish nobleman who achieved a high rank in the Spanish navy and became a councillor to King Charles III. He was popular in the court, but when he spurned one lover for another, the jilted lady levied false charges against him, often said to involve the theft of the crown jewels. Facing arrest, he commandeered a ship and vowed to exact revenge on his country.
In all versions, the renegade fled to the virtually uninhabited west coast of Spanish Florida around 1783 and turned to piracy aboard his ship, the Floriblanca. Gaspar established his base on Gasparilla Island and was soon the feared scourge of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where he plundered dozens of ships and amassed a huge cache of treasure in the period coinciding with the second Spanish rule of Florida. Most male prisoners would be put to death or recruited as pirates, while women would be taken to a nearby isle (called Captiva Island for this reason), where they would serve as his concubines, become the wives of his pirate crew, or await ransom payment from their families.
Different versions of Gaspar's legend relate different episodes in his piratical career. One of the most famous involves a Spanish (or Mexican) princess Gaspar had captured. Allegedly named Useppa, she consistently rejected the pirate's advances until he threatened to behead her if she would not submit to his lust. Still she refused, and he killed her in a rage (or alternately because his crew demanded her death). The captain instantly regretted the deed and took her body to a nearby island, which he named Useppa in her honor, and buried her himself. Some versions identify the lady with Josefa de Mayorga, daughter of Martín de Mayorga, viceroy of New Spain from 1779 to 1782, and contend that the island's name evolved over time. Similarly, Sanibel Island is said to have been named by Gaspar's first mate, Roderigo Lopez, after his lover whom he had left back in Spain. Empathizing with his friend's plight, Gaspar eventually allowed Lopez to return home, and even trusted him with his personal log. Sanibel Island re-emerges in other stories as the headquarters of the mythical Haitian pirate Black Caesar, for whom there is also little to no historical evidence.
The legends agree that José Gaspar met his end in December 1821, soon after Spain transferred control of the Florida Territory to the United States. Gasparilla had decided to retire after almost 40 years of plunder, and he and his crew were dividing his vast treasure at his base on Gasparilla Island. During this process, the lookout spotted what looked like a fat British merchant ship, an opportunity too good to pass up. But as they approached in the Floriblanca, the intended victim raised an American flag, revealing that this was no merchant vessel, but the United States Navy pirate hunting schooner USS Enterprise. In the battle that followed, Gaspar's ship was riddled by cannonballs and in danger of sinking. Rather than surrender, he supposedly wrapped an anchor chain around his waist and dramatically leapt from the bow, shouting "Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!" Most of his surviving crew were captured and subsequently hanged, but a few escaped. In some versions of the story, one of these survivors was Juan Gómez, who would tell the tale to subsequent generations.
Though his story has been retold in many forms since its first appearance in 1900, there is no evidence that José Gaspar ever existed. Research in Spanish archives have turned up no mention of his early life, his presence in the Spanish royal court, or his career in the Spanish navy. Searches of contemporary American newspapers have found no mention of the name "Gaspar" or "Gasparilla" or of a pirate ship called Floriblanca, and searches of United States Navy archives have found no mention of Gaspar in ships' logs or in official court records of hundreds of piracy trials held during the era when he was supposedly the most feared pirate on the Gulf Coast. While the USS Enterprise was assigned to the West Indies Squadron tasked with suppressing piracy in the Caribbean, it is documented to have been in Cuba in December 1821, not in Charlotte Harbor, where Gaspar's last battle is said to have taken place.
Most tellingly, despite many amateur attempts to find his legendary treasure, no physical evidence of Gaspar's presence has ever been found on Gasparilla Island or anywhere else in southwest Florida. In fact, there was little documented piracy on Florida's west coast during Gaspar's supposed heyday because there were no established settlements in the area and thus few merchant ships carrying the easily liquidated cargo favored by pirates.
Sources of the legend
John Gómez (also known as Juan Gómez and Panther John) was a semi-legendary but real person who lived in a shack with his wife on otherwise uninhabited Panther Key near Marco Island in Southwest Florida in the late 1800s. He was well known along Florida's Gulf coast as an expert hunting and fishing guide, boat pilot, and a teller of tall tales, mostly about himself. His self-reported age and birthplace varied, even on official documents. In the 1880 US census, he claimed to have been born in France in 1785, but told state census takers in 1885 that he had been born in Corsica, and then claimed to have been born in Portugal in 1776 when asked during the 1900 US census. Meanwhile, contemporary letters and news articles mention that Gómez also claimed to have been born in Portugal in 1781, which would have likely made him the oldest person in the world upon his death.
Gomez's uncertain birth was said to be just the beginning of a fantastic life. He claimed to have seen Napoleon as a youth in France, came to the United States as a cabin boy on a merchant ship in the early 1800s, served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars, served as a coastal pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, did some filibustering (and perhaps some pirating) in Cuba and Honduras, escaped from a Cuban prison, and lived in the Florida Everglades for a time before finally homesteading in the Ten Thousand Islands in the late 1800s. He also told many stories that demonstrated his skills as a hunter, tracker, and self-reliant frontiersman in the semi-tropical wilderness.
Gómez's stories were shared in very informal settings, usually on fishing expeditions or around a campfire. They are documented only in a few contemporary personal letters and obituaries written by third parties upon his death in 1900, with the details differing according to the memories of his listeners, and attempts to verify their veracity so long after the fact have proved impossible. However, though most versions of the Gaspar legend claim that Gómez was a member of Gaspar's crew - from cabin boy to first mate or even his brother-in-law - no written account of Gómez's life or tall tales mention Jose Gaspar until after the claim was made in promotional material for a Charlotte Harbor resort hotel produced several months after Gómez's death (see below). Since then, many elaborate and often conflicting stories have been told regarding Gómez's alleged piratical exploits with Gaspar, his familial connection to the pirate, and his knowledge of a vast treasure cache supposedly hidden in the Charlotte Harbor area.
The first written account of José Gaspar comes from a 1900 advertising brochure distributed by the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company, a part of Henry B. Plant's railroad system that ran to Plant's Boca Grande Hotel at Charlotte Harbor, near Gasparilla Island. Retelling and extensively elaborating upon tales attributed to the recently-deceased John Gómez, the promotional material fancifully related the legend of José Gaspar ("The Last of the Buccaneers") and mentioned Gómez as a member of his crew. It explained that several of islands in the Charlotte Harbor area were named by Gaspar: Captiva Island was said to be where his captives were held, Sanibel Island was supposedly named after Gaspar's love interest, and Gasparilla Island was the home base of its namesake pirate. "Taking the best of everything when a capture was made, he chose the best of the islands in Charlotte Harbor for his own secret haunts," the brochure declared. Finally, the brochure claimed that the buccaneer's vast and undiscovered cache of buried treasure still lay hidden somewhere around Charlotte Harbor, in the vicinity of the Boca Grande Hotel.
Though presented as fact, the brochure's claims are doubtful at best. Local place names supposedly inspired by José Gaspar appeared on maps drawn long before the pirate was said to have arrived in the area. Documents from the 1700s mention that Gasparilla Island was named for Friar Gaspar, a Spanish missionary who visited the native Calusa in the 1600s. In addition, no artifacts or other physical evidence of Gaspar's home base have ever been found on the islands of Charlotte Harbor.
The brochure was used as an advertising leaflet for the Boca Grande Hotel and was freely distributed to guests. In 1923, a Boston historian named Francis B. C. Bradlee received a copy of the brochure and, assuming that the story was true, included José Gaspar in a book that he was writing about piracy, Piracy In The West Indies And Its Suppression. His book was used as a source for later works such as Philip Gosse's Pirates' Who's Who and Frederick W. Dau's Florida Old and New, the authors of which also took Gaspar's authenticity for granted. Over the next few decades, several more books about pirates or Florida history erroneously included José Gaspar / Gasparilla as a real historical figure.
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
In 1936, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the Tampa organization which sponsors the annual Gasparilla parade, commissioned Tampa Tribune editor Edwin D. Lambright to write an authorized history of the Krewe. The volume included a version of the legend of José Gaspar in which he was a more "respectable" and "courtly" pirate who resorted to violence only when absolutely necessary. Lambright claimed that his account was supported by "unquestionable records", including a diary written by Gaspar himself. However, the diary was said to have been lost, and no other evidence was disclosed.
In 2004, the Krewe published a new centennial history of the organization. This document basically recounts the Gasparilla legend first published in 1936, but adds a coda which concedes that scholarly research conducted in both Spanish and American archives has not uncovered any evidence of Gaspar's existence. The history concludes with this statement:
"Whether Gasparilla, the pirate, actually existed or not is a moot point. The legend exists, and that's what matters. The story of Gasparilla and his pirates has lent a certain flair of mystery and adventure to Florida's West Coast since the late 1800s. And on that legend, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla was founded 100 years ago.
"The Gasparilla Story"
In 1949, Fort Myers author Jack Beater published a mass-market paperback version of the Gaspar legend called The Gasparilla Story. Though written in the style of a light adventure novel, the narrator claimed that the story was true and had been verified with a "mouse-eaten Cuban manuscript" and an old map found in a used book store, neither of which were made public. It was republished several times, including in 1957, when Dell Publishing released a version revised by MacLennan Roberts under the title Sea Avenger. These pulp stories served to further expand the story of Gaspar and spread it to a wider audience.
"The Hand of Gasparilla"
In the 1930s, construction worker Ernesto Lopez showed his family a mysterious box that he claimed to have found while working with a repair crew on the Cass Street Bridge in downtown Tampa. According to family legend, the wooden box contained a pile of Spanish and Portuguese coins, a severed hand wearing a ring engraved with the name "Gaspar", and a "treasure map" indicating that Gaspar's treasure was hidden near the Hillsborough River in Tampa.
In 2015, Lopez's great-grandchildren rediscovered a box in their late grandfather's attic containing the items Ernesto Lopez had found plus what appeared to be his wedding photo. The family brought the box to the attention of a local reporter, whose TV news report on the strange find was picked up by several national news outlets. However, upon examination, experts at the Tampa Bay History Center determined that the coins were non-precious souvenir coins from an early Gasparilla parade and the map was a plat map from the 1920s with local streets, businesses, and landmarks from that time clearly depicted. The origin of the hand remained a mystery, though the curator of the history center opined that it was a mummified monkey hand.
Gasparilla Pirate Festival
In 1904, members of the Tampa business elite staged a theatrical pirate "invasion" of their city based on the increasingly popular figure of Gasparilla during the city's previously sedate May Day celebration. Under the guise of "Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla", an organization modeled after the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade krewes, the invaders donned pirate costumes and rode through the streets on horseback. The event was a hit, and the Krewe planned an even more elaborate spectacle the next year, when all 60 of Tampa's cars were paraded through downtown. The first seaborne "invasion" came in 1911, and has been repeated almost every year since.
Tampa now hosts many Gasparilla-themed events from January to March, but the focal point is still an "invasion" by José Gaspar and his crew, which currently takes place on the last Saturday in January. Members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, accompanied by a flotilla of hundreds of private boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the José Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was specially built for this purpose in 1954. The mayor of Tampa then hands over the key of the city to the pirate captain and a "victory parade" ensues down Bayshore Boulevard. Dozens of other Krewes have joined the festivities over the years, and an average of over 300,000 people attend the event, which contributes over $20 million to the local economy.
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- 1999 Gasparilla Pirate Fest - The Tampa Tribune
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- Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (2004). Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla: The First One Hundred Years. Tampa: Hillsboro Publishing.
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- U.S. Census, Precinct 7, Lee Co., Florida, 27 June 1900, supervisor's district 2, enumerator district 163, sheet 2
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- Caignet, Carrie (2012). "Demystifying the lives of Panther Key John Gomez: From Pirate to Pilot" (PDF). Florida Maritime.
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- The History of Gasparilla Pirate Fest - Tampa, Florida
- Gasparillapiratefest.com Archived 2006-05-10 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved April 3, 2006.