Gasparilla Timeline | Suggested Reading

The legend of Gasparilla

It all started in 1904 when the mystical legend of Jose Gaspar came to life. Gaspar and his scar-faced, eye patch-wearing band of pirates soon became well known to Tampa residents as Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Donned in the garb of high seas pirates they stormed downtown Tampa and demanded that the mayor surrender the city.

Each year the siege is repeated. The pirate ship ‘Jose Gaspar’ sails into downtown Tampa with a flotilla of hundreds of boats. The pirates blast away with pistols and cannons as they prepare to start the invasion. The captain and his Krewe capture the city (with little resistance) and share their wealth of trinkets, dabloons and necklaces with the enthusiastic crowd along the parade route.

Gasparilla Timeline:
A 95-year-old Tampa tradition

  • 1904: Tampa Morning Tribune society editor Mary Louise Dodge hears of the legendary Jose Gaspar and links May Day events with a New Orleans-like krewe of pirates. Fifty pirates, forming Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, invade the city on horseback. 
  • 1905: May Day bites the dust. Gasparilla joins with the Florida State Fair. For the Gasparilla parade, the pirates on horseback are joined by decorated cars, floats and carriages. 
  • 1906: For the first time, prizes are awarded to the best floats. Tampa’s civic and commercial organizations go all out. 
  • 1907-09: Ye Mystic Krewe disbands for three years – probably because the state fair decides to go solo, without the Gasparilla tie-in. 
  • 1910: Along with the city’s Panama Canal Celebration, the newly organized Ye Mystic Krewe is back. The Gasparilla parade winds through Tampa’s streets. 
  • 1911: After it is announced that Tampa’s population jumped 43.2 percent in 10 years – the largest increase of any city east of the Mississippi – a Census Celebration is held along with Gasparilla. Swashbuckling pirates arrive by ship for the first time. 
  • 1912: Gasparilla is part of a citywide Washington’s Birthday celebration. 
  • 1913: Finally, Gasparilla is its own full-fledged celebration, attracting its own crowds. 
  • 1914: The pride of the city is the new electrically operated drawbridge spanning the Hillsborough River. Tampa Electric Co.’s winning parade entry features a working model. The pirate invasion moves from Saturday to Monday, giving schoolchildren the day off. 
  • 1915: Gasparilla begins to attract visitors, filling the city’s hotels, restaurants and shops. The Union Station railroad depot hangs an electric “Gasparilla Welcomes You” sign. 
  • 1916: Pigs and chickens drown after falling off a schooner used for the pirate invasion. The animals were left aboard the borrowed ship and made fatal plunges into the water after lapping up grog spilled on deck. 
  • 1918-19: No Gasparilla celebrations are held because of World War I. 
  • 1926: The good ship Gasparilla runs aground at the mouth of the Hillsborough during the invasion. Tugs can’t free her. As she scrapes across the bottom of the river, she severs a telephone cable, putting Hyde Park out of calling service. 
  • 1927: A pirate shoots a 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun at a blimp hovering over the parade. The dirigible makes an emergency landing at P.O. Knight Airport. Shotguns are banned after this; the krewe switches to handguns. 
  • 1929: Because of the gloomy economy preceding the Depression, 20 buccaneers can’t afford the $50 krewe membership fee. They form the “ex-Pirates” for their own Gasparilla, where they dress in rags. The mayor gives them the key to the poorhouse instead of the traditional key to the city. 
  • 1931: The parade and invasion are broadcast on radio for the first time. 
  • 1936: After borrowing everything from lumber sloops to shrimp boats through the years, pirates finally acquire their own ship. This one, the Jose Gasparilla, lasts until 1952. (The ship burns and sinks at her berth on the Hillsborough in 1956.) 
  • 1942-46: World War II forces cancellation of Gasparilla. 
  • 1947: Ye Mystic Krewe presents its first debutantes. 
  • 1950: Gasparilla is featured in National Geographic. Becoming a well-known event, Gasparilla is visited by a Cuban gunboat for the invasion and joined by a Cuban fiesta queen, her court and 50 congo dancers in the parade. 
  • 1954: Jose Gasparilla II is christened with the whack of a rum bottle. Pirates toss 50th anniversary coins to the crowd. 
  • 1958: NBC’s “Today” show broadcasts live from Gasparilla. 
  • 1959: Western stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are parade guests. They ride in a convertible. 
  • 1960: Ye Mystic Krewe King James L. Ferman Sr. includes Ybor City in the celebration, reading a poem, “Song of the Pirate,” in Spanish to a cheering crowd. 
  • 1961: The Junior League publishes “The Gasparilla Cookbook.” 1965: Ye Mystic Krewe takes over the purse strings, giving the city the annual pirate invasion as a gift. Local government funding ceases. 
  • 1966: Krewe of Venus, founded by a woman for families and singles, joins Ye Mystic Krewe on the social scene. 
  • 1971: A storm whips up 8-foot waves and 70-mph winds for a bumpy invasion. 
  • 1973: Mayor Dick Greco welcomes the mayor of Tampa’s sister city, Barranquilla, Colombia. 
  • 1975: For the last time, the Jose Gasparilla II sails up the Hillsborough River, under the Platt, Brorein and Lafayette (Kennedy Boulevard) bridges. The new Crosstown Expressway offers too-low clearance. 
  • 1976: The parade is rerouted to Bayshore Boulevard. Many homeowners host lawn parties. Gasparilla pirates are joined by the brand new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 
  • 1987: Gasparilla impresses the National Football League. Tampa is awarded the silver anniversary Super Bowl game. ABC Television plans to broadcast parts of the parade and invasion in 1991. 
  • 1988: Gasparilla moves back to a weekend celebration from Monday’s pillaging. Chilly, rainy weather keeps the crowd at 200,000. 
  • 1990: The tradition of krewe members parading through the streets firing .38-caliber pistols loaded with blanks becomes a concern. But Mayor Sandy Freedman decides not to rock the boat. A bigger problem looms. 
  • 1991: Super Bowl XXV bigwigs and local black activists protest the racial exclusiveness of Gasparilla. Rather than open its ranks, Ye Mystic Krewe cancels the parade, planned as part of football activities. Instead, the first and last Bamboleo festival winds down Bayshore accompanied by a smaller-than-usual flotilla. 
  • 1992: Gasparilla returns with new blood. Groups such as the Krewe of Fort Brooke, appealing to men and women in the business world, and Grand Krewe De Libertalia, with its mission of ethnic diversity, add to the rejuvenated celebration. 
  • 1994: The 90th anniversary Gasparilla arrives on a Florida picture-postcard day. The estimated crowd of 400,000 sets a record. 
  • 1997: Cool parade loot includes inflatable hats from Southwest Airlines (a Pirate Fest sponsor) and baseballs thrown by Yankees Dwight Gooden and Wade Boggs, hometown heroes. 
  • 1998: The parade goes online in visual panorama at Panoramic photo 
  • 1999: The number of krewes grows to 24, touching common interests from playing cards to riding horses.


Was Jose Gaspar fact or fiction? Historians disagree

So who was this guy Gasparilla, and what’s all this fuss about?

Depends on whom you ask.

Kenneth W. Mulder, the author of several books that chronicle this area’s history, wrote that there was never any such person. In fact, Mulder said that the Tampa Bay area never saw any pirate activity at all.

“There were no pirate colonies here,” Mulder said. “There was no booze here, there were no women, so why would the pirates have bothered coming here?”

Pirate treasure has washed up on Florida’s shores from time to time, Mulder said, but it comes from pirate vessels that were destroyed by Caribbean storms.

Mulder said the story of Jose Gaspar — also known as Gasparilla, or “Little Gaspar” — actually has its roots in a 19th-century real estate promotion contrived by a railroad that hauled phosphate from the Tampa Bay area to Boca Grande.

Mulder writes that the Boca Grande area has two islands — Gasparilla and Little Gasparilla — named for a Spanish missionary, Friar Gaspar. The railroad people invented the saga of a marauding pirate.

Other regional historians disagree.

In “The ‘Gasparilla’ Story,” published in 1952, author Jack Beater discounts the theory put forth by Mulder and other Gaspar skeptics.

“There have been claims that the entire Gasparilla story was the invention of a railroad press agent in 1912 — or thereabouts — but these are easily disproven,” Beater wrote.

The most obvious refutation, Beater wrote, is that Tampa’s Gasparilla celebration predates 1912. (Mulder, it should be noted, never cited that 1912 date for the legend’s origin. He maintains it has its roots in the 1800s.)

Beater also pointed to verbal histories, only a few generations removed when he wrote his book, that recount Gaspar’s Florida exploits. He also said that Edwin Dart Lambright, who was The Tampa Tribune’s city editor in the early part of the 20th century, told him of an actual diary of Gaspar discovered by an attack of the American Embassy in Madrid.

“The diary, complete only to the year 1795, listed 36 ships that Gasparilla captured or looted, but there is no authentic account of the number he captured in the remaining years of his life,” Beater wrote. Beater and Lambright — who penned his own Gaspar biography, “The Life and Exploits of Gasparilla” — contended that Jose Gaspar was born in 1756, served in the Spanish Navy, and turned pirate in 1783.

Beater (in another book, “Pirates and Buried Treasure”) maintained that Gaspar is responsible for the names not only of Gasparilla and Little Gasparilla islands, but Captiva Island as well.

“In times past, the name was well taken,” Beater wrote, “for on this verdant isle Gasparilla is said to have quartered certain of his valuable female captives for safe keeping until their ransom money could be paid.” Beater allows that his only source of that information is “word of mouth,” but adds that the theory “seems plausible — even reasonable — in the light of what we do know about pirate methods back in the 1800s.”

The history of the Gasparilla celebration is much more certain, and well-documented. It dates back to March of 1904. Louise Frances Dodge, the Tribune’s society editor, was planning a May festival. A friend named George W. Hardee, who had grown up in New Orleans, suggested making the festival a Mardi Gras-style affair, and building it around the story of Jose Gaspar.

Hardee, a Tampa resident who worked for the federal government, formed Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. The Krewe’s plans were kept secret until the end of April that same year, when Lambright received the following announcement at his Tribune office:

“After a century of obscurity and retirement in this His Royal Majesty’s dominion, it has been deemed expedient and desirable by His Royal Majesty that the Royal Court of Gasparilla shall visit the fair and prosperous city,” read the announcement, written by Hardee. “It has been so decreed, and our royal party will appear in your midst at some hour during your coming May festival. If our entrance be opposed and your reception hostile, the consequences be upon your own heads!”

Thus, on May 2, 1904, was born the tradition of costumed warriors making an annual visit to Tampa.

The next year, the celebration was moved to November, to coincide with the fledgling Florida State Fair. For the next three years, there was no celebration at all — and the Krewe either had disbanded or remained inactive. In 1910, the Krewe was back. The invasion returned to February, and was part of the local Panama Canal Celebration. In 1911, the Krewe arrived by ship for the first time. That year, the Krewe’s invasion was part of Tampa’s Census Celebration that noted, over the past 10 years, Tampa had been the fastest-growing city east of the Mississippi.

The next year, the Gasparilla invasion was part of the city’s festivities of Washington’s birthday. In 1913, the invasion was an event unto itself and by 1915, it had expanded into the five-day Gasparilla Carnival.

Other Krewes were formed and joined in the festivities. But as late as the 1970s, only four Krewes were involved. Today, the Krewe count is 23.

In the past couple of decades, more and more events bearing the Gasparilla name have been added, including a road race that draws runners from all over the world, a nationally recognized art show and a slew of public and private parties.

But is all this hoopla for someone who never existed or does it celebrate an actual pirate who enslaved women, murdered sea captains and lived off of ill-gotten booty? Perhaps the definitive answer comes from Mulder: It doesn’t really matter.

“It’s a myth,” Mulder said in an interview. “But it’s a good myth. It’s true in a lot of people’s minds. It’s like Santa Claus.”