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The history of Gasparilla: Tampa's unique pirate invasion fest

It all started with secret meetings that grew into an elaborate annual festival.

TAMPA, Fla. — For more than a century, the rich history and legends of pirates have found a home in the Tampa Bay area. 

But there's one pirate so infamous that his memory and legacy of swashbuckling has inspired an annual tradition spanning generations —  that would be Jose Gaspar.

The legendary pirate, known to be the "last of the Buccaneers," terrorized the coastal waters of Florida between the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Prior to taking on a life at sea, Gaspar is said to have been an aristocrat by birth and an officer in the Spanish Navy.

Rumor has it that when Gaspar died, he left an untold fortune of treasure buried somewhere along Florida's coast. To this day, it has yet to be found.

The Tampa Bay area's annual pirate festival, Gasparilla, first began in 1904 when the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG) planned a surprise "mock pirate attack" on Tampa.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about Gasparilla Pirate Fest 2022

According to the Krewe, the first-ever city-wide celebration was the brainchild of Miss Louise Francis Dodge, society editor of the Tampa Tribune, and George W. Hardee, who worked with the federal government of Tampa.

As the story goes, the two "conspired" to promote the City of Tampa and its upcoming May Day Celebration when the idea for Gasparilla came to be.

"Secret meetings gave birth to the first “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla,” whose forty members planned to surprise the populace with a mock pirate attack on Tampa," YMKG wrote.

Krewe members donned pirate costumes, rented from New Orleans, before surprising Festival Parade-goers on horseback to capture the city on May 4, 1904.

Over the years, what started as a smaller scale celebration transformed into the beloved tradition those in the Tampa Bay area have come to know today.

RELATED: Celebrating Gasparilla 2022? Here's where to find all the pirate gear, beads

Early Gasparilla celebrations were held on the second Monday of February until 1988 when the takeover of Tampa was moved to a Saturday to allow for "surrounding communities to take part in the celebration."

It also wasn't until 1911 that YMKG says pirates used a ship to conduct their invasion. It would take another 26 years for the krewe of pirated to own their first vessel — the Jose Gasparilla.

In 1954, the YMKG commissioned the "world's only fully-rigged" pirate ship, lovingly named the Jose Gasparilla II, which is the ship used in present invasions.

On Jan. 29, the vessel will once again make its voyage with hundreds to thousands of other boats on Hillsborough Bay before entering the Seddon Channel to take over the city after COVID-19 canceled last year's events.

2021 marked one of only 10 times that pirate invaders spared the city due to "unprecedented world events" since 1904. Another notable cancellation was due to World War II which is noted to have kept the pirates away for four years.