Juan Ortiz ‘discovered,’ 1539. (Source: 1897 painting, George Gibbs, found on Tampapix.com.)

By Charles Nelson

Legends have the power to entertain. In Southern Hillsborough County, Gulf City is the rumored mid-1600s stronghold of English pirate Ben Margoza (sometimes called the ‘Pious Pirate’). His story is likely just as fictional as José Gaspar’s, whose imagined adventures led to an annual festival in Tampa. ‘Margoza-rilla’ anyone?

Sometimes legends have the power to inform as they are based in fact. The Pocahontas-like story of Juan Ortiz, (which some historians believe inspired John Smith to invent his version, a century later) falls into this category. This legend is based on a first-person account of the expedition written in 1557 by a Portuguese survivor of the Hernando de Soto expedition known as The Gentleman of Elvas.

In May 1539, Hernando de Soto likely set foot on Florida soil at Piney Point in Manatee County (near today’s Port Manatee). There he intended to forcefully occupy a bayside native village on the shores of the Little Manatee River. Reliable scholarship places that village at the end of Shell Point Rd. in Ruskin.

Governor de Soto’s forces used that village as a base of operations for further exploration in the Tampa Bay area. In a few days, two Spanish squads roamed the interior to capture natives. One went east along the river but quickly returned after encountering an attack by natives. A second was sent to explore “in another direction.”

If that direction was north, which seems highly probable, what happened next took place near today’s Apollo Beach, about 2 leagues (5 miles) from the village town as reported in the Elvas chronicles. At that spot, they found a small group of tattooed warriors. After a brief skirmish, one of the ‘warriors’ ran up to the Spanish and exclaimed, in Spanish to their utter surprise, “Don’t kill me. I’m a Christian!” That man was Juan Ortiz.

Twelve years earlier, Juan Ortiz was a young soldier on the ill-fated Narváez expedition, initially led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to the Pinellas Peninsula. There, the Narváez expedition encountered the Tocobaga natives. After a very brief time of peaceful interaction, Hirrihigua, the Tocobaga chief, led an armed resistance to further incursion as a result of Spanish atrocities.

He paid a huge personal price in that resistance. His mother was torn to pieces by Spanish attack dogs, and Narváez cut off Hirrihigua’s nose and handed it back to him as a sign of who held the power. Hirrihigua would never forget these insults.

Narváez sent one of his ships, with Ortiz on board, back to Cuba while the main expedition trekked north to its doom. Back in Cuba, no word arrived concerning Narváez’s fate, and the governor’s wife commissioned Ortiz to lead an expedition back to Florida to solve the mystery. When Ortiz returned, Tocobago warriors tricked Ortiz into coming ashore. Now, Hirrihigua would exact his revenge.

Natives killed two members of the landing party, but they delivered Ortiz to the chief. Hirrihigua ordered the captive roasted alive over an open fire in revenge for past indignities. To prevent Ortiz’s death, the chief’s daughter, Ulele, intervened and urged her father to spare Ortiz’s life. Hirrihigua agreed, for a time, but later changed his mind and threatened to kill Ortiz, this time with arrows.

Ulele again intervened and helped Ortiz escape to the east side of Tampa Bay, where he found refuge with the Mocoso tribe, whose lands surrounded the Alafia River. For the next 11 years, Ortiz lived, peacefully, as a heavily tattooed Mocoso warrior. In 1539, Ortiz was rescued. The Gentleman of Elvas wrote that he returned “joyfully” to the Spanish army as a key interpreter and guide. Ortiz served with de Soto in his long march through what is now the Southeastern United States until Ortiz’s death in the winter of 1541-42 near the Mississippi River.

We’ll never know all of the facts about Juan Ortiz, but he is very likely the first European to live in Eastern and Southern Hillsborough County, on the shores of the Alafia River. Because of that, his story is part of our story.