Florida's Pirate

The Last Buccaneer

This treasure story is given to us through the efforts of Florida's pirate "Gasparillia".

If you should do a search on the internet for Jose Gaspar you’ll find several websites devoted to his pirate legend and about the parades and celebrations each year around Tampa Florida.

My spin isn't the usual romantic version of the pirate’s career found in books and on other websites, and it certainly won't win me any love… from the people in the Tampa area where he is the local hero.

I believe the pirates of the eighteenth century were a bunch of cowards similar to the terrorist of today who are not heroes… the way some democrats try to make them out to be.

When I sifted the information, I had, and considered it in the context of the time that the events occurred… painting these sea rogues as heroes doesn’t ring true. If there are heroes in this story it is the United States Navy, who cleaned the oceans for civilized travel and fought brilliantly against the original terrorist, North African Arabs.

Our Florida pirate “Jose Gaspar enters history’s scene in Spain where he was born in the year 1756 and started adult life with a career in the Spanish Navy, serving aboard the warship Floridablanca.

The choice of the navy career wasn’t courage and thirst for adventure on the part of Jose but an expediency of the moment.

Jose, who came from an upper-class Spanish family, was similar to the young jocks of today. He had an aversion to work and inflated his ego carousing with available young girls.

His family, however, not wanting to support his desired life style kept a very tight grip on his available cash.

In an effort to increase his play money he came up with a scheme to hold one of the girls for ransom.

The girl’s parents saw through the scam and turned the matter over to the authorities. So, to avoid arrest, Jose escaped by signing-on a then leaving navy ship.

In those days there was strict separation between officers and the lower class crew. Therefore, when it was discovered Jose could read and write he was moved up to midshipmen.

It was unlikely that Jose developed any nautical skills but navigation in those days was not much more then being able to read and write and with this he could command a ship and obtain the rank of lieutenant.

Now a little luck entered Jose career. A requirement arose where the navy was asked to provide a liaison to the King and, not wanting to lose any competent officers, Jose found himself attached to the court of King Charles III

Here Jose was in his glory. He fantasized in living the plush life… chief stud among a crowd of women with time on their hands. Unfortunately for Jose his brain wasn’t up to his opinion of himself and he wasn’t discreet as he spread himself among the ladies.

His old nemesis “money” continued to plague him. His officer’s salary from the Spanish navy didn’t come close to covering the needs of a flamboyant lover in the Spanish court. So he developed sticky fingers to cover the short fall. It was just a matter of time before his indiscretion and pilfering arranged his downfall.

One step ahead of the avenging authorities he fell back on an old trick he used so well in the past.

Escaping to the port, he then commandeered a ship to make good his escape.

Jose sailed the ship to the west coast of Florida. There he convinced what members of the crew that he could… to join him. The rest were disposed of...

Similar to others of weak character and blind to his own faults he blamed his home country for his miserable status.

For the next 38 years he enacted his misguided revenge against Spain and any other defenseless shipping that passed within his grasp. He set-up his headquarters on what is now Gasparilla Island a name he had given to himself

During the course of his pirate career Jose was selective of only defenseless prey and was always careful that any captured able body men, who wouldn’t join him, be put to death immediately lest they possibility become a threat to him.

He didn’t see women as a threat, so female captives were placed on a nearby island for the use of his men. Today this island is called Captiva Island.

This cowardly activity continued until 1821 when several things changed:

First the world was moving into the nineteenth century and was no longer willing to put-up with cowardly scum preying on commercial shipping; therefore what Gaspar was doing had become increasingly dangerous.

Second Spain sold the Florida territory to the United States… a government a lot closer then Spain.

Prudently Jose Gaspar decided to retire and went about closing his pirate lair and dividing the accumulated wealth.

As luck would have it when the pirates were about ready to leave, they spotted a defenseless British merchant passing offshore.

Salivating over additional dreamed riches and perhaps some fresh young females Jose’s greed got the better of him… so with his gang they clamored aboard their ship and gave chase.

The British ship, beating on a port tack, provided the pirates with the initial advantage as they approached, on her starboard quarter. Their plan was simple…they would cut between the merchant and the wind and when she was forced to give way, they would board her.

Sometimes simple doesn’t always work… when the pirates approach to within firing distance, the defenseless British merchant dropped the union jack and hoisted the American Flag.

Before the pirates unbelieving eyes… the ship came “smartly about” onto a starboard tack and opened its gun ports. Revealing to the pirates’ horror… that they were alongside the America warship USS Enterprise, a navy Schooner on pirate patrol.

The Schooner’s maneuver effectively blocked the wind and brought her broadside across the pirates bow. The pirate Brig immediately started to loose headway and the enterprise commenced firing her six pounders into her as each gun came to bear.

For the first time in his pirate career Gaspar found not a defenseless merchant but a trained fighting ship that knew how to maneuver and “catch the wind”. If his crew were fighting men they would have responded to the Schooner’s maneuver. However terrorist are cowards not fighters… so they just stared not believing what was happening.

The Enterprise was a veteran of many battles against pirates and arab terrorist of the Barbary Coast where in one action, against a Tripolitan Brig; they completely destroyed the Brig without a single wounded.

After the first pass the Schooner came about to bring her port broadside across the pirates bow and with marines in the rigging she poured murderous musket and cannon fire into the hopelessly outclassed pirate.

In this action Jose caught a musket ball in the groin, and grieved at what he perceived… as the loss of his prized assets… he reloaded his pistol and swallowed the muzzle.

The sinking of the pirate vessel was offshore Charlotte Harbor Florida 1821. Any pirates still alive in the water were unceremoniously “strung up” to the yardarms of the naval vessel.

If you are not familiar with this method of dispatching pirates, it was accomplish by tying a rope around the pirate's neck and hoisting him up to the spars that supported the ships sails somewhat like a flag. There he remained strangling and dancing in air until finished.

The normal practice of the time was to leave the pirates hanging when the ship returned to port. This was a warning… displayed for anyone thinking of pursuing a similar career and was before the ACLU came rushing to the aid of murdering cutthroats.

After finishing the task at sea, the navy located the pirate liar and on coming ashore found the camp deserted, the surviving pirate women and children had fled into the surrounding coastal swamps.

A search was conducted of the nearby islands and although some captives were freed there was no sign of any treasure. The navy destroyed what remained of the pirate den and the legend passed on into history with most people believing that the pirates had buried their treasure somewhere on the South Florida Coast.

Then in 1900 some government census takers “discovered” Johnny Gomez on Panther Key down on the west Florida Coast, and a lot of accepted theories blew up.

Johnny it developed was the last of several of Gasparilla’s bastards and had been a boy of about 11 years when the notorious Pirate had gone to Davy Jones locker. All of the stolen gold and gems, according to Johnny, weren’t cached along the gulf.

What Johnny remembered and reinforced by the women who raised him was that weeks before the final demise of the pirate band. Twenty mule loads of treasure had been sent north.

This treasure mule train was in the custody of a score of trusted men who were to rendezvous with Gasparilla and the rest of the crew at an inn near New York City.

The Treasure train never turned up.

It was a good enough yarn but no one believed it. And as the years passed the tale almost died out. Then in the early spring of 1935 a ragged and underfed character who called himself Pablo Sanchez drifted into Miami with a treasure story of the fate of the lost Gasparilla treasure that had been reported by Gomez thirty five years before.

According to Sanchez when he was a young man about eighteen he befriended an old timer who when near death related the tale to him.

The old timer stated that in his youth he was a member of Gasparilla’s mule train and had traveled north with it until he staggered into New York as the last surviving member.

He regained his health in New York and hung around waiting for Gasparilla, fearful of what Jose would do when he arrived. Then after almost a year he found out about the disaster that had befallen Gasparilla in Florida and fled west fearful of being identified as one of the pirate crew… and hung.

The old timer wasn’t too clear as to exactly where he spent the intervening years but he did explain… at first he was fearful of being identified with the treasure, then later lacked resources and health to attempt to recover any.

Sanchez accepted the tale with a healthy dose of skepticism but frankly he wasn’t in any better position to retrieve the treasure then the old timer, even if he did believe him.

Fifty years passed and Sanchez didn’t have any plan as to what he could do with the treasure information. Now getting old, hungry and desperate he was attempting to maybe sell the maps, and he repeated the tale whenever he could, in an attempt to interest a buyer.

The story was that the twenty mule train of treasure and supplies did leave the camp before the ill-fated attack on the British Merchant. It could have been several weeks, or a day before… there was no way of telling. At that time the news media wasn’t shoving a mike in your face with the time of day.

They had reached the mainland and traveled maybe five to eight miles north when just about everything bad in the book had happened to them.

Sanchez related that the old timer told him that it was below Tampa where they were attacked by Indians and white renegades. The marauders were interested in their horses and mules and in the course of the fight had managed to run-off some.

Deprived of needed pack animals the pirates were forced to reduce their loads. They accomplished this by burying two caches of treasure.

Believing it safer, the group turned eastward, and on a neck of land between two lakes they needed, to put down another trunk of gold, to lighten the load on the weary animals.

Again on the North bank of St. Mary’s River the decision was made to bury a fourth chest.

As the pirates continued northward they were involved in skirmishes with bands of planters and frontiersmen, and in addition to sickness, dissention and fighting among themselves the number of men and animals continued to dwindle.

The continuing depletion of men and animals indicated additional lightening of the mule-loads... so in a pass in northern Tennessee they cached still another load of the precious stuff, and further on a sixth at the confluence of two Rivers … undoubtedly near Harpers Ferry.

A seventh cache was made at a river crossing to the northwest of a point close to Trenton, New Jersey and then finally the last treasure pit was located at the south end of a pond about midway between Trenton and the Hudson River.

The last treasure pit is also guarded by three of the four remaining Gasparillians. The last sick and terrified survivor of the ill-fated expedition struggled on, with only a small pouch of diamonds and rubies, to the designated tavern.

Sanchez repeated what the old timer said, that as the last survivor he had waited there for a year for the main body and when learning they would not be coming had fled away with his pouch of gems that he managed to salvage.

But this last Gasparillian had the drawings showing the location of each of the treasure pits. And now, these maps were in Sanchez’s procession for sale at $3,000.00 apiece plus a 50 to 50 split of each treasure.

It was the buy of a lifetime, but when Sanchez made the rounds with his offer… there were no takers.

Among those whom Sanchez talked was Rick Cole, night clerk in a third-rate mainland hotel. Rick didn’t believe the story, but time was heavy on his hands and he was curious.

“If you know so much why don’t you go and dig those things up yourself” Rick asked.

Pablo spread his hands. “Like I told you I have no money and I am too old to do heavy digging”.

“Everything is different after one hundred years underground and the Landmark have changed”

“What would you expect… to find it on top of the ground? We’ll need good treasure finding machines and I have nothing to buy them with.”

“Ok…Let me see the maps” replied Rick.

“Not until you have paid,” Sanchez stated.

“Then go out and get drowned” Cole retorted, and later recalled the prophetic portent of his words. But Sanchez wasn’t easily discouraged, or perhaps Rick was the only person who showed interest. Pablo came back again and again. Each time he was a little more convincing and the price kept going down. In July it was $500 and Cole decided to take a chance.

He made some discreet inquiries and then got Charles R. Hale a young electronics engineer, to make an electrical machine that would indicate gold or silver a couple feet under ground. Then he sent for Sanchez.

I’m ready, he said. “Show me the maps.”

“Certainly, but one at a time.” “Well, we will take a shot at the first one and see, Cole said.

He and Pablo drove up the Tamiami trail to rocky point in Tampa bay in a borrowed truck.

A few days later they were back in Miami with an oversize box of assorted gold pieces. They divided the treasure and Cole said “Now let’s go for the others”.

Sanchez shook his head, “Later”, he begged, first I must take this gold up to momma.

“And where is she?”

Down the keys, Sanchez said.

I’ll be but a day or two and momma has waited so long.

It was then the second of September and unknown to them a hurricane was bearing down on the Florida Keys.

This was the hurricane that ended Sanchez’s life and took the last hard information as to Gasparilla’s treasure.

And where were the other treasures? That is the multimillion dollar question.

After the rocky point strike Sanchez softened and let Cole examine the sketches and make notes. One of the caches seemed to be on a neck of land between Lake Crescent and Stella at Crescent City.

Rick made his first trip to Crescent City spent some time hunting for the likely spot but after careful searching found nothing.

Cole checkout the fourth site supposedly on the north Bank of the saint Mary’s river late in the fall of 1935 and learned that he was too late.

An Eben Wilcox had found a chest sticking out of the very steep bank several years before near the old Kings ferry landing, had put ropes around it and tried to hoist it up. He underestimated the great weight of the box, which broke loose from the tackle and plunged into the river. It is apparently still there an enticing fortune to be had for the investment of several thousand dollars in salvage operations.

At Cumberland Gap Cole also was behind the clock of discovery. An old treasure hunter named Cal Disney had been on the job.

Cal came in from North Carolina around 1930 parked his trailer at the north end of the park and went to work. He stayed there until his death around 1933.

He must have had some definitive information as to what he was looking for to justify spending three years moving literally tons of earth and rock in an apparent futile attempt to find the treasure. There was no indication that he had found anything but if he were smart no one would know about it.

Cole quit at the Cumberland Gap site and return to Miami. The rocky point doubloons gave him his needed stake he has invested it well and lives the abundant life. As far as he is concerned anyone who finds the other troves are welcome to them.

So if you would like to gamble a lot of time and effort against enormous odds for one of the really big ones you might take up where Rick left off and if you find any of the stuff it is yours now… the treasury department says. Only don’t forget to pay an income tax on any you sell.