Pirates and pirate lore are a key component of the Tampa Bay area’s identity. The region’s professional football team is the Buccaneers. The tourist bureau, Visit Tampa Bay, has a pirate-themed logo and tag line (a skeleton key and the words “Treasure Awaits”).
This reputation was built almost entirely on the legend of Jose Gaspar and the annual Gasparilla invasion and parade. Though Gaspar is the star of the area’s pirate history, there are a number of other legendary pirates who allegedly passed through here on their way to infamy.
Pirate legends are usually tied to a geographic location, often named for the pirate in question. This is the case with several bay-area pirate legends, in particular Henry Ross and Henry Castor.
The story of Henry Ross is largely credited to Harry Duffy, who wrote about Ross in 1977, followed by L. Frank Hudson and James Keel, who separately included Ross in their work from the mid-1980s.
Ross allegedly captained under the famed, and very real, pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was the most famous of the Gulf Coast pirates, and he maintained a base of operations near New Orleans. Lafitte effectively controlled much of the pirate activity in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with pirates such as Ross focusing on specific areas along the coast.
Duffy’s telling of the story details Ross’ exploits in the Tampa Bay area and the western Gulf. He claimed that Ross Island, named for the pirate captain and located adjacent to Weedon Island in Tampa Bay, was the pirate’s base of operations, and that Lafitte himself found the island and suggested its use as a stronghold.
Ross is supposed to have buried a large chest filled with gold and/or filled a long boat with silver bars that he sank just off the shore from Ross Island.
Jean Lafitte may have come across Ross Island during his exploits, but it wasn’t until after the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) that Ross Island received its name, and not for Henry Ross. The island is named for one of its 19th-century inhabitants, Lorenzo Ross. Lorenzo Ross was born at Fort Brooke in present-day downtown Tampa and, following his service in the Third Seminole War, he moved to the west side of Tampa Bay. Ross fought in the Civil War, serving in Company B, Seventh Florida Infantry, and after the war he married Inez Hart. The Ross family lived on what came to be known as Ross Island until his death in 1888. One of his sons, Percy, died two years earlier, and both Ross men are buried on Weedon Island.
A pirate who navigated the Gulf and Atlantic waters at the same time as Lafitte was Frenchman Luis Aury. Though best known for his capture and occupation of Amelia Island with Gregor McGregor in 1817, Aury is supposed to have founded a pirate town, known as Aurytown, on today’s Honeymoon Island. Nothing remains of this legendary pirate oasis.
Another legend with ties to Tampa Bay centers on a pirate named Henry Castor. Reportedly, Castor was an English pirate who cruised the Gulf of Mexico in the mid-1700s. When cartographer Bernard Romans published the chart “Entrances of Tampa Bay” in his 1775 book, he included the name Castor Key, which is today’s Egmont Key. This name was repeated on Thomas Jefferys’ 1794 map, “A Plan of the Entrances of Tampa Bay.” Modern authors connect the name Castor Key with the pirate Henry Castor, but there is very little historical evidence to tie the place name to any particular person.
The story of another English pirate, Ben Margoza, also is lacking in historical evidence but not in intricate detail. Harry Duffy is again responsible for providing the most information about Margoza, in a 1988 article — though Anthony Belli added some information for his 2013 piece.
Margoza is said to have been an English priest during the 1640s. Loyal to King Charles I, Margoza was banished — or fled — to the Virginia colony after Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy to power in 1645. Margoza, infuriated by this action, commandeered a ship and a crew and turned to piracy. He set up shop on the shores of the Manatee River on the southern end of Tampa Bay, founding the pirate town of Gulf City.
Two stories lend detail, and doubt, to Margoza’s story. One is centered on his past as a priest. He was known to rigorously observe the Sabbath, and when a Spanish warship attacked Gulf City on a Sunday, Margoza ordered his men to not return fire or engage in any other way. Miraculously, none of the Spanish shot found its target, and at the stroke of midnight, Margoza’s men opened fire and quickly sank the Spanish ship.
The second story is as amazing as the first. When Cromwell’s reign ended and Charles II took the throne in England, an English ship appeared off the shores of Gulf City to alert Margoza of the news and to bring him back home. The story ends with his return to England and subsequent knighthood by King Charles II.
The 1906 reference book “The Knights of England,” which features “A complete record from the earliest time to the present day of the knights of all the orders of chivalry in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of knights bachelors, incorporating a complete list of knights bachelors dubbed in Ireland” contains the names of thousands of knights — none with the name Margoza.
Though a thorough search of foreign and domestic archives is necessary before Margoza can be officially declared “mythical,” a search of a wide variety of Internet databases — including Google News Search, the Library of Congress, the British Library and the Publication of Archival Library & Museum Materials sponsored by the State University Libraries of Florida — all came up empty. Searches of D.B. McKay’s history columns, which appeared in the Tribune from 1946 to 1960, along with the rest of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library system’s database and a number of good old-fashioned books, all proved fruitless.
An interesting connection between Margoza, Castor, Aury and Ross is that their stories are all perpetuated, and some seemingly originated, by writers whose focus is on lost treasure and treasure hunting. This is not to say that the legends are untrue or, at least, that they do not contain a modest amount of true information. But the lack of verifiable sources and first-hand accounts is troubling. It is true that pirates would want to remain as hidden as possible, but enough evidence exists to substantiate the existence of a number of real pirates that those lacking sufficient evidence can be called into question.
There are two pirates with Tampa ties whose graves you can visit at Oaklawn Cemetery. Both met their end in and around the town of Tampa in 1850.
Jose “El Indio” Perfino, was hanged — likely at the hands of angry or vengeful townspeople. The other, Captain Hubbard, met a more anonymous, if not glorious, end. His body, according to the modern headstone, was found in the woods on June 18. Both are identified as “Cuban pirates.”
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached via email at [email protected] .org or by phone at (813) 228-0097.