Past kept alive

A historian seeks to turn Camp Bayou into a site to learn about Indian cultures before the Spanish explorers arrived.

By Saundra Amrhein
Published July 6, 2007


One of history's great love fables could have played along the shores of Tampa Bay in southern Hillsborough County.

That's what Ruskin Historical Society president Fred Jacobsen wants to teach curious residents who visit his monthly meetings at the Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center.

With the area's natural landscape disappearing under the bulldozer, Jacobsen is hoping Camp Bayou will increasingly become a gathering spot to soak up the history of Indian cultures that predate the arrival of Spanish explorers.

He eventually wants to re-create a village of the Uzita people who lived near the mouth of the Little Manatee River in southern Hillsborough County when Hernando De Soto arrived in 1539.

So he's holding monthly gatherings with the Friends of the Uzita at Camp Bayou every second Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. He's inviting interested residents to help in the preservation of life skills of the vanished people by making Uzita bowls, baskets, fishing lines, nets and shelters.

"I'm thinking this is a hugely historical spot for Hillsborough County, " Jacobsen said.

For instance, many historians doubt the veracity of Capt. John Smith, the Jamestown, Va., colonist who claimed that Pocahontas saved his life. Instead, they think he likely made up the story after reading published accounts of the plight of Spaniard Juan Ortiz.

Ortiz and three other Spaniards were captured by Indians in 1528 while searching for explorer Panfilio de Narvaez near Tampa Bay.

The Uzita chief sought revenge against the men because Narvaez had cut off the chief's nose and killed his mother by throwing her to a pack of dogs.

The chief was about to roast Ortiz alive when his daughter, Ulele, made a plea to spare him. The chief agreed, but when he wanted to kill Ortiz a second time, Ulele helped him escape to a neighboring village. Ortiz lived there until he ran into De Soto's expedition in 1539.

He joined De Soto as an interpreter and both men died three years later near the Mississippi River.

Two accounts of the story were published in the early 1600s, leading historians to believe that Smith, who met Pocahontas in 1607 before returning to England, could have lifted the tale for himself.

Pocahontas married John Rolfe in 1614, traveled to England in 1616 and died a year later. Only after her death did her story appear in Smith's revised travelogues.

It has never been proved that Smith plagiarized the story from Ortiz's ordeal with the Uzita, says author I. Mac Perry, who features a chapter about the Uzita in his book Black Conquistador.

There's evidence to support that he could have done so or it's possible both stories were true, Perry said.

What is known about the Uzita is that they spoke a distinct language among the dozen or so Indian languages spoken around Tampa Bay and lived off fish, he said.

Sea life was so plentiful that the Uzita, along with the other Indian groups around Tampa Bay, are unusual among Indian tribes in the United States in that corn was not a staple, he added.

Much like the rest of Florida's Indian populations, the Uzita were wiped out by European diseases such as smallpox, chicken pox and scarlet fever.

Perry also is the author of Indian Mounds You Can Visit: 165 Aboriginal Sites on Florida's West Coast.

Jacobsen is planning to use that book for his meetings at Camp Bayou.

Jacobsen hopes someday he'll be able to hold those meetings on a piece of property adjacent to Camp Bayou. First, someone needs to donate $1.2-million to buy it. Jacobsen thinks it would be a great place for Hillsborough County to develop something equivalent to Pinellas County's Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Jacobsen and Cypress Creek Elementary teacher Mark Dunn became interested in the Uzita project after watching residential development cover former artifact mounds.

"You are driving over shells and artifacts and probably even some bones, " he said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.


Fast Facts:

For more information

Call Fred Jacobsen at 813 298-6028.

Directions: To get to Camp Bayou, take State Road 674 west of Interstate 75 to 24th Street SE. Turn south onto 24th Street and go about 3 miles. The road ends at the park, which is on the left.