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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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Princess Ulele is local history mystery

— With a famous parade and marathon named for him — as well as art, music and film festivals — the pirate Jose Gaspar is Tampa's premier mythological figure.

He may soon have a partner.

Ulele, reputed to be a Native American princess who lived in the 1500s, already is the name of a Gasparilla krewe — and spreading her fame soon will be a spring in Tampa Heights along the Riverwalk and a restaurant in the adjacent Tampa Water Works building.

Volunteers planted the area with new landscaping Saturday morning in anticipation of a grand opening.

“Ulele is a name people are becoming familiar with,” said Judge Chris Altenbernd of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, who in 2006 inspired Chris Longo, then a Plant High School senior, to lobby the city to name the spring in Ulele's honor. “It's a fun part of Tampa's history.”

As with the swashbuckling Gaspar, historians differ on how much of Ulele's story is fact, how much is fiction and whether she existed at all.

“It seems clear this is a story passed on, possibly through many people, before it was written down,” Altenbernd said. “So who knows?”

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Here is the most often-told version of Ulele's story:

In the 1500s, near the dawn of Spanish exploration in Florida, the Tocobaga tribe of the Tampa Bay area captured three Spaniards and sought to exact revenge for the brutal actions of explorers who had landed 11 years earlier.

The leader of that Spanish expedition had cut off the nose of the Tocobaga chief then fed his mother to the dogs.

So with a new group of Spaniards in his clutches, the chief had his marksman use two of them for target practice and the third, a teenager named Juan Ortiz, he ordered roasted to death.

As the legend goes, the chief's daughter, Ulele, took pity on Ortiz and threw herself onto his body until her father agreed to spare his life.

Historians are mindful of the similarities between this tale and another famous clash of New World with old — John Smith and Pocahontas, seven decades later.

Some think the British explorer Smith studied dispatches from North America including, perhaps, the story of Ulele and Ortiz, before heading to Jamestown, Va.

To embellish accounts of his own adventures, Smith may have added in elements of the Florida story — replacing the threat of fiery death with the threat of a fatal clubbing.

But any attempt to recognize Ulele as the original Pocahontas requires that Tampa gets its facts straight first.

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Historian Tom Worth translated Spanish accounts of 16th century explorers and captives who visited Florida's lower Gulf coast for his book “Discovering Florida,” to be released in September. Through these texts, Worth discovered that portions of the Ulele myth told today are simply wrong. For starters, he said, the name of the chief's daughter is never mentioned in the original narratives.

“Ulele” first appears in the 1859 book “Live Travels and Adventures of Ferdinand de Soto, Discoverer of the Mississippi,” by Lambert Wilmer. Worth said the author probably created a name of the previously unnamed woman as a storytelling device.

According to the original texts, four women saved Ortiz, the chief's wife and his three daughters. Then the chief put Ortiz to work as a slave.

Later, the chief again decided Ortiz must die, so one of his daughters had her friend sneak him to a far-away village that was home to her love interest. Ortiz lived there many years until gold-hungry explorer Hernando de Soto passed through. Ortiz, schooled in Native American languages, joined de Soto as a translator.

During their journey through the south, Ortiz told his story to members of the expedition. Some wrote it down.

Ortiz died along the way.

Survivors shared the story with Peruvian writer Garcilaso de la Vega, who documented it in his book “The Florida of the Inca.”

“But we don't even know if we have Juan Ortiz's account,” Worth said. “I believe Ortiz existed. I believe his life was spared in some manner similar to the story. How much is authentic, who knows?”

An alternative theory presented by Ruskin historian Arthur Miller is that one of the women who saved Ortiz was a mystical shaman and leader of her Tocobaga tribe.

In some Native American tribes, the shaman's decisions took precedence over those of the chief. Shamans could be women.

Pity is one possible motive. Or, Miller said, “She could have seen some sort of magic or power in Ortiz and she wanted the tribe to tap into it.”

When she was done with him, she could have sent him away to another tribe.

“It's far-fetched,” Miller said. “But it's possible.”

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This approach is in line with a theory presented by Scott Anderson, curator of the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center.

“Indians were notorious for keeping captives slaves,” he said.

Perhaps Ortiz did not escape but was traded to the second tribe.

“It is possible, but it is also speculation,” Anderson said. “And speculation is how myths become thought to be truth.”

On one point he is certain: The Ortiz-Ulele story did not take place in Pinellas County, as some think.

A historical marker stands on a spot in St. Petersburg where Ortiz was said to have been saved.

Nearby Safety Harbor was home to Tocobago people, but the Spanish expedition that tortured the Native Americans numbered 600 men. The de Soto expedition that found Ortiz had more than 1,000 men.

“That many Spaniards would have left artifacts behind in Safety Harbor even if they only passed through,” Anderson said. “We have found a few Spanish artifacts over the years, but nothing worthy of that many people.”

A local connection is seen as unlikely even by Cindy Weatherby with the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter that erected the historical marker. The chapter is named after Ulele's reputed last name, Hirrihigua.

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Worth, the historian, said he thinks the original texts point to a site at the mouth of the Little Manatee River in southern Hillsborough County.

“It's Tampa's Robin Hood,” said Paul Backhouse, historic preservation officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Robin Hood, he said, is claimed by a number of communities in England as their own.

“Every aspect of stories from that long ago are subject to interpretation,” Backhouse said. “Even the locations.”

As for whether Ulele inspired the Pocahontas story?

Worth finds enough differences between the tales as they were originally written to conclude they are separate.

Beverly Straube, senior archaeological curator of Jamestown Rediscovery in Virginia, said most scholars think Smith's tale was true but that he misinterpreted a Native American welcoming ceremony as hostility.

Straube, who investigates the remains of the original Jamestown settlement, did agree that the stories brought back with the survivors of the de Soto expedition are similar to stories from Jamestown.

“It is a very disconcerting idea,” Straube said. “What can you trust?”

And then there is Jerald Milanich, an American anthropologist and archaeologist specializing in Native American culture in Florida, who says it is possible the story of Ortiz and Ulele is a total fabrication.

“The 'foreign hero saved by chief's daughter' story is a popular theme found throughout history,” he said.

Whatever the truth, Judge Altenbernd believes the name Ulele should be celebrated in Tampa.

“Nothing can change my opinion,” he said. “It's a great little story.”

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