I'll take history for 100

Who in the world is Panfilo de Narvaez — and why should we care?

ST. PETERSBURG — There should be a parade. A pageant. A re-enactment, at least.

We could build a replica ship for tourists, stage a play on the beach of Boca Ciega Bay, sell T-shirts saying, "Panfilo Plundered Here ..."

We're missing the boat, people. Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, the Lost Colony of Sir Walter Raleigh — we have a site older than them all.

But instead of a visitors center, we have a leafy path littered with Busch beer cans and a pair of BVDs dangling from a palmetto.

And, in the soft shoulder of Park Street, this sign:

"From the site of this ancient Indian village was launched the first exploration by white man of the North American continent," the signs say. "Here landed Panfilo de Narvaez, April 15, 1528."

It happened right here in St. Petersburg, people, 480 years ago this week. The first European who toured our continent set off from a shady ridge next to what is now a parking lot.

Actually, opinions vary on exactly where and exactly when all this happened, but never mind.

The point is, we have an invaluable piece of history in our back yard: the original Survivor story starring a one-eyed Spanish tyrant who claims the new world, unearths a golden rattle, loses most of his men and has to eat his horses.

Panfilo de Narvaez was, as one historian wrote, "both cruel and stupid ... the most incompetent of all who sailed for Spain."

Cruel, stupid and incompetent, maybe. But at least he's ours! Isn't it time we made a little money off him?

They say he was tall, with a flame-red beard. He helped Spain capture Cuba, lost an eye in a fight in Mexico. So Emperor Charles V of Spain said he could conquer Florida.

De Narvaez set sail from Cuba on March 4, 1528, with five ships, 400 men, a dozen women, 80 horses and a pack of greyhounds. Storms tossed the fleet; his pilot couldn't find the port they'd been told of — which most believe was Tampa Bay.

The ships anchored off Boca Ciega Bay. Sweating beneath their armor, de Narvaez and his men rowed ashore and found a village of Indian lodges. Everyone had fled. De Narvaez searched the buildings and found a tiny golden rattle.

Gold! He knew it.

He led his party into the peninsula, searching for riches. Instead, they found the chief of the Tocobaga Indians, who showed them Spanish bodies that had washed ashore from a wreck. The natives had wrapped the corpses in deer skins. To de Narvaez, this seemed sacrilegious. So he whacked off the chief's nose. When the chief's mother tried to intervene, de Narvaez fed her to his greyhounds.

De Narvaez must have been blinded by his quest for riches. He had seen the Spanish bodies, but it never occurred to him that the rattle had washed ashore too. Instead, he kept pressing the natives: Where was their gold?

"Up north," the natives kept gesturing. Never thinking the Indians might be trying to get rid of them, de Narvaez made his soldiers march inland and sent his ships up the coast. They would meet, he said, up north along the shore.

For four months, they hacked through Florida's underbrush, fighting Indians. They couldn't find gold. They couldn't find food. By the time they finally made it to the gulf, half of the men had died, they'd eaten all their horses — and the ships weren't there.

Fed up, they built makeshift rafts and shoved them into the gulf, hoping to reach Cuba. In the end, four survived. De Narvaez did not.

• • •

There was a parade. Once. "A Pageant of Progress." A re-enactment, staged across the bay.

In 1928 — at least in Tampa — they knew how to capitalize on a piece of history.

On the 400th anniversary of de Narvaez's landing, near what is now the University of Tampa, the mayor unveiled an inscribed boulder and declared the exploration "an event of tremendous importance in the advance of civilization." The Spanish consul, perhaps a little carried away, called de Narvaez "an outstanding figure among conquerors, navigators and missionaries."

About that time, a St. Petersburg developer named Walter Fuller erected the metal sign on Park Street that is still rusting there. "He put up that sign when there was little documentation that the 1528 landing was actually there," says Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "But he was right."

Over the years, Michaels says, archaeologists confirmed that the site probably was the place "white men" went inland to explore North America. "This is one of the great exploration stories of early America," Michaels says. "It needs to be commemorated."

He's trying to get the area designated a landmark through the Trust for Public Lands. He sees a visitors
center on the property, maybe a museum. The site, he says, deserves more than scattered beer cans and abandoned underwear.

Eric Anderson, who owns the land next to the landing site, agrees. "The Spanish history has never been considered as important as it should be," he says. "It's just idiocy that the city hasn't capitalized more on this site."

In 1976, St. Petersburg officials bought 4 acres on the shore around the landing site. They erected a wooden sign that says "Jungle Prada De Narvaez Park." Mike Vineyard, who oversees the city's parks, says he's not aware of any plans to improve or expand the historic site. Police have enough trouble keeping out truant teens, he says. "I don't see this as a piece of property we want lots of people walking around on."

C'mon, people. Get on board. Can't you see it?

We could park along Park Street and climb the ancient Indian mound to see the spectacle. A hundred men, sweating in silver helmets, could row wooden boats across Boca Ciega Bay. Pretend Indians could hide between the trees. We could all eat corn grilled by vendors. In the gift shop, we could buy golden rattles.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

>>if you go

The landing site

To see the site of de Narvaez's 1528 landing on Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg, take 22nd Avenue N to Park Street and turn left (south) on Park Street. You'll soon see a mustard-yellow building that used to be a restaurant. Just past that, turn right into the parking lot by the sign for the city park. You can walk through the 4 acres, from Park Street to the water.

The new Tampa Bay History Center, scheduled to open in December on Tampa's Franklin Street, will include an exhibit and video about the de Narvaez landing.

Who in the world is Panfilo de Narvaez — and why should we care? 04/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 4:15pm]

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