A Brief History of the Gasparilla Pirate Festival

In death, Jose Gaspar supposedly left a large fortune in buried treasue somewhere on the Florida coast. Despite never having found the treasure, his story was rediscovered and brought to light in 1904 by civic leaders in Tampa who adopted it as part of a city-wide celebration. Louise Frances Dodge, the society editor of the Tampa Tribune, was planning the city’s May festival and received the suggestion from George Hardee to theme the festival based on the legend of Gasparilla.

The founding forty members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla met in secret to plan the surprise mock attack on Tampa’s residents. The event took place with masked and fully costumed pirates arriving on horseback to “invade the city” during the parade. The Krewe’s first invasion was so well received by Tampa’s residents that Ye Mystic Krewe was made a permanent organization and the event was turned into an annual festival.

Since it’s inception, Tampa has re-enacted the invasion annually except for on ten occasions. Today, Ye Mystic Krewe has over 700 members, who regard Gaspar as a “hearty old swashbuckler with courtly manners and prankful habits.” In 1954, the Krewe custom built the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship to be built in the modern era. In true fashion, the ship was named the Jose Gasparilla, a replica of an 18th century West Indiaman. During most of the year, the ship is docked at the Tarpon Weigh Station on Bayshore Boulevard for public viewing.

Despite the debated existence of Gasparilla and his men, Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival is now a part of the city’s culture. Most residents believe the legend to be true in much the same manner as children do in Santa Claus. It is a fun story to believe in and celebrate as a part of our region’s history.

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