With today being April 1, it seems appropriate to look into some regional myths and legends that have been woven into the fabric of Tampa's long history.
When looking at our area's history it is often best to start at the beginning, so the first myth focuses on Florida's original American Indian inhabitants. One of the most enduring inaccuracies is that there was a race of "giant" Indians living in Florida during, or just prior to, the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s.
Archaeological evidence demonstrates that is untrue. Researchers examining human remains from numerous sites around the state have found that the height ranged from 5-foot-6 to 6-foot for men and from 5-foot to 5-foot-4 for women.
The myth seems to have grown from some Spanish accounts, likely written after the fact and with some embellishments, plus the fact that the average European was shorter than the average American Indian. That combined with native men wearing their hair in a top knot – enhancing their height – made them appear to be giants. Add to that the urge by some to sensationalize archaeological finds, particularly in the first part of the 20th century, and a myth is established.
Another enduring myth features a young Winston Churchill who passed through Tampa on a return trip from Cuba to New York. The future British prime minister was a war correspondent and traveled to Cuba during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence.
The myth relates that Churchill stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa. There is no evidence, however, that Churchill spent the night anywhere in Tampa, let alone at Henry Plant's landmark hotel. If he stayed anywhere, historian Gary Mormino contends, he likely would have roomed at Plant's other hotel, the much more modest – but more convenient – Port Tampa Inn.
The war Churchill covered in Cuba evolved into the Spanish-American War, and it is that war that gives Tampa another longstanding tie to an American icon: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders are alleged to have run roughshod over Tampa during their time in the city before being shipped off to Cuba.
About half of the Rough Riders, including Roosevelt, actually made it down to Cuba and the war. The rest remained here awaiting orders to either join their comrades on the war-torn island or perhaps Puerto Rico. They ended up doing neither, but rather spent most of the summer with thousands of other soldiers temporarily stationed in Tampa. Undoubtedly those soldiers enjoyed themselves a little too much in the bars and brothels of the town of Fort Brooke (located in the south end of today's downtown and Channelside area) and Ybor City, but the Rough Riders received all of the credit (or blame) as the stories of those escapades were passed down through the years.
Roosevelt, by his own count, was only in Tampa for four or five days before he and the other half of the Rough Riders boarded their transport ship for Cuba. Like Churchill, it is doubtful he stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel. However, he certainly did at least stop by.
In his book "The Rough Riders," Roosevelt described the scene at Plant's hotel. "Over in Tampa town the huge winter hotel was gay with general-officers and their staffs, with women in pretty dresses, with newspaper correspondents by the score, with military attachés of foreign powers, and with onlookers of all sorts; but we spent very little time there."
There is another historic building that, at different times, is said to have hosted Churchill and Roosevelt, plus Jose Marti, President Grover Cleveland, and Frederick Remington. The problem with that is the building, Ybor City's El Pasaje on Ninth Avenue and Republica de Cuba, was not constructed until after Churchill's brief time here and Marti's death. Remington may have passed through Tampa on his way to Cuba and the Spanish-American War, but there is no evidence that he roomed at the El Pasaje. It is not known if Grover Cleveland ever came to Tampa, much less stayed at the Ybor landmark.
There are many other myths, legends, and misconceptions entangled in our history, so mark your calendars for Sunday, April 1, 2018, and my next article on the subject. And that's no April Fool's joke.
University of Tampa political science professor and Hillsborough County Historian Dr. Robert Kerstein has recently completed a comprehensive study of the creation and development of the tourism industry in Key West. His new book, Key West on the Edge: Inventing the Conch Republic
, will be released today by the University Press of Florida.
Kerstein's examination details the growth of the island city from a haven for wreckers, fishermen, and cigar workers to a mostly-contrived paradise of brand name shops, chain restaurants, and cruise ship terminals. His study looks at the impact these changes have made to the island and its residents – changes that could endanger the very image of the easy going paradise that is fostered by the city's tourism officials.