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The legend of Jose Gaspar and the history of Gasparilla

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Posted at 5:44 AM, Jan 21, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. — Gasparilla is right around the corner, but do you know the story behind Jose Gaspar and the history of Tampa's most popular parade?

According to Rodney Kite-Powell, Director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center, the legend of Jose Gaspar goes like this: Gaspar attended the Spanish naval academy and became an officer. But, he joined the navy during a rough time in Spanish history. So he, along with fellow lieutenants, mutinied and became pirates.

“He sailed across the Atlantic to Florida and began a very long life of piracy,” said Kite-Powell.

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Photos courtesy Tampa Bay History Center

Gaspar was a pirate from the 1780s until 1821. While contemplating retirement, Gaspar decided to go on one last adventure. But, he attacked a pirate-seeking US Navy ship. Rather than being captured and defeated, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his body and threw himself into the Gulf of Mexico.

But, it’s all just a myth.

“The problem is, of course, Jose Gaspar never existed,” said Kite-Powell. “There’s no record of him in any archive, anywhere. The Spanish were very good at keeping records. He probably just is a conglomeration of true pirates who really were in Florida and the Caribbean at the time and they’ve created this myth around him in the late 19th century.”

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Photos courtesy Tampa Bay History Center

Kite-Powell says the legend of Gaspar started circulating in the early-1900s south of Tampa, in the Charlotte Harbor area. George Hardee, a customs agent for Florida who traveled between Charlotte Harbor and Tampa, played a role in bringing the story to the bay area.

“He happened to be talking to a woman at the Tampa Tribune called Louise Frances Dodge and she was talking to him about how the May Day Parade needed some livening up,” said Kite-Powell. “He said ‘Well, you know, I’ve heard about this legend of this pirate. What if you got some of the prominent young men in Tampa to dress up as pirates and invade the parade?’ She thought that was a great idea.”

So, in 1904, the young men invaded the May Day Parade on horseback and then disappeared. That night, there was a coronation ball to crown the first king and queen of Gasparilla.

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Photos courtesy Tampa Bay History Center
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Photos courtesy Tampa Bay History Center

Gasparilla played an important role in Tampa's culture in the decades that followed. It continues to do so today.

“I think that it is certainly part of our identity, hopefully as a positive part of identity,” said Kite-Powell. “It is certainly something, at its core, an effort to showcase Tampa, as both a business city, but also as a tourist destination.”