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Spring's new name honors long-ago love

In the 16th century, Ulele saved a European settler from death.

Published November 24, 2006


In between zoning presentations by adults in suits at a City Council hearing last week, a 17-year-old dressed in a Boy Scout uniform delivered the day's most memorable performance.

Chris Longo, a Plant High School senior, sought the council's approval to complete the project necessary to reach the highest Scout level: Eagle Scout. Longo asked to rename the spring near the Hillsborough River behind Stetson Law School on Florida Avenue.

The name, Longo urged, needed to be changed.

The spring, noted by local historians as Tampa's first water source, was named after a 19th century judge who preferred to drink out of a flask.

Longo first heard the legend from Judge Chris W. Altenbernd. After weeks of research at the downtown library, the Scout learned that the spring was named after Judge James T. Magbee, "a local Republican 'scalawag' in a county made up of bitterly Democratic ex-confederates" who often got drunk and passed out in the street.

"Anyway," Longo writes in his proposal, which he summarized at the hearing, "while Judge Magbee was lying dead to the world in a gutter, somebody poured a barrel of molasses over his recumbent form, next dumped a bag of cornmeal over him. This is some sort of an opportunistic version of the traditional 'tar and feathers.'

"During the night, the local hogs roamed free in what passed for downtown Tampa back then, were drawn by the molasses and cornmeal treat, and rooted Judge Magbee's clothes off."

In anger, the judge summoned the man he suspected, who showed up in court with a shotgun. "Things looked grim for James T., but at the last minute, a bystander knocked the barrels up, so the blast merely blew a big hole in the courtroom ceiling. The session broke up in confusion, and the disconcerted judge let the whole thing drop," Longo said.

Scenes like this continued in his courtroom over the years, until he resigned his judgeship in 1875.

A council member asked Longo whether the judge had any living relatives in Tampa. Longo said he searched the phone book, and didn't think Magbee had fathered any children.

"I mean, would you marry that guy?" Longo asked. The men and women in suits laughed.

Council member John Dingfelder asked Judge E.J. Salcines, who sat in the back of the room with Altenbernd in support of Longo, for his opinion.

"We have greater sympathies for the judge than Mr. Longo does, but all things considered," Salcines said, the name change should be approved.

Longo dug deeper into Tampa's history for the new name - all the way into the early 16th century.

A Spanish conquistador named Panfilo de Narvaez landed at present-day Tampa Bay at the Hillsborough River in 1528, and claimed all surrounding land for the king.

The Spaniards found some crude gold ornaments in the American Indian Timicuan village, and they tortured the natives for information on where to find more.

When Chief Hirrihigua didn't tell, the Spaniards unleashed their fierce war dogs on his mother, and they "tore her to shreds," Longo told the council. Then, they left in search of gold.

Another group of Spaniard sailors returned, and the Timicuans met them with spears and a grudge. The chief's men slaughtered most of the sailors, but when it came time for 17-year-old Juan Ortiz to die, Hirrihigua's teenage daughter Ulele shouted, "He is too young!"

Hirrihigua let Ortiz live, but subjected him to grueling work, torture and repeated death threats. Ulele secretly cared for him and the two fell in love. When she realized her pleas could no longer protect Ortiz, she helped him escape across the river to a nearby village.

"The significance of Ulele in Florida's history is long standing," Longo concluded. "She saved the first European settler in North America - quite a few times!"

The city council voted unanimously to change the name. After all, member Mary Alvarez added, "Ulele" sounds lovely.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or


Fast facts

Scout's honor

Chris Longo, 17, is a senior at Plant High School. He has aspired to be an Eagle Scout since he was a Cub. As part of his project, Longo also wants to clean the spring in December or January. He hopes to get his certification by March. After graduation, Longo hopes to get into the New England Conservatory. A lifelong violinist, he dreams of a career in music.

[Last modified November 22, 2006, 08:37:46]

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