The story of Princess Ulele and Juan Ortiz is one of Florida’s most intriguing legends. It centers around an incident on the shores of Tampa Bay and some believe it may have inspired the story of Pocahontas as we know it today.
The story begins with the arrival at or near present-day St. Petersburg in 1528 of the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez. He was a brutal invader, carrying out atrocities against the Tocobaga Indians who lived in the area. Among his targets was a cacique or chief named Hirrihigua. Narvaez cut off the man’s nose and fed one of his family members to the expedition’s war dogs.
The Spaniards soon marched on but the mistreated chief thirsted for revenge. He got his chance when another Spanish ship appeared off Tampa Bay. On board was a soldier named Juan Ortiz who had been present when Narvaez first arrived. Ortiz went back to Cuba with the expedition’s ships when the conquistador and his army marched away into the interior.
Narvaez disappeared and his wife sent a ship out to find him. Juan Ortiz and 20 or 30 others went to look for the missing army and arrived off Pinellas Point to begin their search. Hirrihigua – who some chroniclers called Ucita – was waiting for such an opportunity and moved quickly to take advantage of it.
The Spaniards could see what looked like a note attached to a stick on the beach. Indians could be seen there and two actually paddled out to the Spanish ship only to be taken as hostages. where they were taken as hostages. Ortiz and three others set out for shore in a small boat to investigate the apparent note, but soon found that they had been tricked.
They neared the beach only to be surrounded by a large crowd of warriors and taken prisoner. Seeing the trap successfully sprung, the two hostages aboard the ship suddenly broke free and jumped over board. They were able to swim to safety.
Three of the prisoners were killed with arrows in the plaza of Hirrihigua’s (or Ucita’s) village, but the chief had an even more gruesome fate in mind for Ortiz. After sparing the 18-year-old Spaniard for a brief time and using him as a slave to bring firewood and perform other menial tasks, the chief ordered that he be tied to a large grill or barbacoa and roasted alive over a bed of hot coals.
him alive there in slow agony.
Ortiz’s screams filled the air and several of Hirrihigua’s female relatives rushed forward to plead for his life. Among these was a young woman that Ortiz later identified as a daughter of the chief. Her name was Ulele, although some accounts refer to her as the Princess Hirrihigua.
Ulele begged for Ortiz’s life and her father relented. The young man survived but was severely burned and bore the scars of his ordeal for the rest of his life. He eventually wound up in the hands of another chief named Mococo, an enemy of Hirrihigua. In 1539, ten years after his capture, Ortiz was informed by Mococo that Spanish ships had arrived in off Tampa Bay. He granted permission for the soldier to go and rejoin his countrymen.
Juan Ortiz set out with several Native American companions and soon encountered the Spanish. To his surprise, however, they immediately attacked his little party. Barely able to speak his native language, Ortiz finally called out a religious phrase that caused the stunned soldiers to halt their attack.
They proved to be from the army of Hernando de Soto, yet another conquistador who came to Florida seeking fortune and fame. De Soto realized that Ortiz could be a valuable interpreter and added him to the rosters of his army. He served as an interpreter for the Spanish column as it marched north and never saw Tampa Bay again.
The fate of Ulele is unknown.
Several communities have claimed to be the spot where Ulele rescued Ortiz, but the oldest known legend holds that the incident took place at the Pinellas Point Temple Mound in St. Petersburg. The ancient Tocobaga site is said to have been the village of Hirrihigua and archaeological research shows that this is possible.
The mound is a surviving remnant of a large Native American village dating from the Mississippian era (A.D. 900 – A.D. 1500). Researchers believe that construction on the platform mound began around 1,000 years ago and that the site was occupied until the arrival o Spanish explorers in the region during the 1500s.
St. Petersburg is a major coastal resort area today and modern homes cover sites where the Tocobaga once lived. The large mound survives, however, and is the focal point of a park that features walking trails and interpretive signs. It is between Pinelles Point Drive and Mound Place in St. Petersburg and is free to visit.