Gasparilla Island has been an inseparable part of Florida folklore for centuries. A major reason for this is its association with a pirate named Gasparilla. This island is a barrier island located in the southwestern part of Florida. Since the early 20th century, this island has been a popular tourist destination.
Situated to the west of this island is the Gulf of Mexico. To the east and south lies the Charlotte Harbor. The Gasparilla Sound or the Gasparilla Pass is located to the north. It separates the island from the mainland and Little Gasparilla Island.
Name of the island
If the Florida folklore is to be believed, the Gasparilla Island has been named after Jose Gaspar. He was a legendary Spanish pirate captain and was known by his nickname, Gasparilla. According to the local folklore, he roamed and plundered across the Spanish Main and the Gulf of Mexico.
His base was in the southwestern part of Florida. Tales about his early life, motivations, and exploits vary greatly according to different versions. What is common among the versions is that he was active during the period spanning 1783 to 1821. This is also known as the Second Spanish period of Florida.
About Jose Gaspar
In some of the versions of the local folklore, Jose Gaspar or ‘Gasparilla’ was a troubled young man. He had kidnapped a young girl for ransom in his youth. When he was captured, he was given two choices. He could either choose to spend time in prison or join the navy. He chose to be in the navy, where he offered his exceptional service for several years.
Later, he led a mutiny against a tyrannical captain and fled to Florida with a ship that he stole. In a few other versions, Gaspar is described as a brilliant Spanish admiral. According to these versions, he had a questionable character and had stolen the crown jewels.
Promotion of the legend of Gasparilla
According to the legend of the pirate Jose Gaspar, he had hidden his treasure on Gasparilla Island. This legend was used by a local hotel and railroad for promotional purposes. The story never appeared in writing until the 20th century, when it was used for promotions. This story was included in the advertising brochure of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway company.
It mentioned that the massive treasure of Jose Gaspar was hidden somewhere on the island and was never discovered. The version told in the advertising brochure had a significant influence on all the later accounts. An anthropologist named Andre-Marcel d’Ans had suggested that Gaspar was a Spanish missionary.
The 20th century
In the early 20th century dredging began in the area. This part of Florida also witnessed the construction of the Northern Railroad line and Charlotte Harbor. They connected Boca Grande to the outside world. Later, Gasparilla came to be known as an important stop for shipping phosphate.
The first hotel called ‘Gasparilla Inn’ was opened in 1911. This turned the island into a sought-after destination for vacations. The visitors were mostly the elite from Fort Meyers and Tampa. Although shipping declined towards the 20th century’s last quarter, tourism remained an important activity on the island.