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Tampa/St. Petersburg History

Originally an Indian fishing  settlement, Tampa drew attention from European explorers in the early 1500s. Ponce de Leon cruised through in 1513 looking for his fountain of youth. Hernando de Soto made a bigger impact, arriving in what’s now Bradenton in 1539 with nearly 600 men and women. They camped in the area before setting off in search of gold—a trip that led DeSoto to discover the Mississippi River (and die on its banks). Along the way DeSoto—one of the principal captains in the bloody conquest of Peru—and his men terrorized the locals with vicious war dogs and looted and burned native villages. No less violent, but much more speculative, is the pirate José Gaspar, better known as Gasparilla. Most likely a fictional character, Gasparilla supposedly captured hundreds of merchant ships in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, holding his hostages on nearby Captiva Island. Whether he was real or not, the annual celebration named after him is definitely not a mirage. Tampa will use any excuse to party, so they keep the Gasparilla legend alive with Mardi Gras-like Bacchanals, parades and parties. The protected deepwater port was the key to the city’s survival and prosperity. By the 1800s it was a booming port of trade with Cuba and then a supply line for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. Cattle were exported to Cuba and guns and powder came back. The Union navy blockaded the port, leading to storied exploits by blockade runners, with the boys in blue eventually bombarding and invading the town. It wasn’t until the late 1800s, however, that Tampa Bay fell in step with the nation’s industrial future. Phosphate, used to make fertilizer for the burgeoning farms of the Great Plains, was discovered nearby in 1883. The next year, shipping magnate Henry Plant connected Tampa to the Northeast by extending his railroad tracks to the port and starting a steamship line. The port’s popularity skyrocketed as vessels made Tampa part of a lucrative Gulf of Mexico trade route between New Orleans, Havana, Veracruz, Galveston and other ports. This bustling activity was not lost on Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard who’d built a fortune making cigars first in Cuba, then in Key West. In his luggage were the dreams of empire builders, and the cigar business he established spawned an industry that at one time numbered more than 200 factories. These attracted not only Cuban immigrants, but also workers from Sicily. Greeks also came to area, some for the factories, but most to fish, establishing the famous sponge-diving fleet of nearby Tarpon Springs. As populations swelled in recent decades and the area’s popularity climbed with legions of snowbirds, professional sports added a national identity. The NFL Buccaneers and the MLB Tampa Bay Rays aren’t the only games in town, though, with the NHL Lightning and a raft of minor league teams in residence. Tampa is also the spring training camp for the New York Yankees. If you’ve got a yearning to get some sand in your shoes while you soak up some offbeat culture, Tampa is a home run.

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