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Are pirates buried in these Tampa graves?

Florida Wonders proposes an answer to a 170-year-old mystery.
Jose Perfino, alias El Indio, and Mr. Hubbard, both have grave markers that refer to them as Cuban pirates who died in 1850 in Tampa. Their graves are in Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Jose Perfino, alias El Indio, and Mr. Hubbard, both have grave markers that refer to them as Cuban pirates who died in 1850 in Tampa. Their graves are in Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Editor’s note: Welcome back to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times journalists answer your questions about Tampa Bay and Florida. Reader Odilon Ozare wanted to know more about the men buried in two “pirate” graves he’d spotted at Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery. He also wondered why the supposedly 170-year-old grave markers looked so fresh. We explored.

Tampa is famously home to fictitious pirate legends, businessmen who dress up like pirates and pirates who haven’t made the playoffs in a while. But is Tampa the final resting place of a pair of actual pirates?

A block south of wooshing Interstate 275 sits tranquil Oaklawn Cemetery, the historic resting place of Florida pioneers, Confederate soldiers, slaves and more than a dozen Tampa mayors. In the center of the city’s first burial ground under some lanky palm trees are two leaf-strewn graves with the simplest of stone markers.

One belongs to Jose Perfino.

The grave of Jose Perfino at Oaklawn Cemetery [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Jose Perfino

El Indio

A Cuban Pirate

Killed 1850

The other one, a few feet away, is Mr. Hubbard.

The grave of Mr. Hubbard at Oaklawn Cemetery. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Mr. Hubbard

A Cuban pirate

Found dead in woods

June 18, 1850

Jose Perfino

Let’s start with Perfino, who first shows up in a Tallahassee Floridian & Journal newspaper dated Dec. 22, 1849.

Tampa then was a village of about 200 Yankee merchants, cracker settlers, Hispanic fishermen, Irish laborers and African slaves built just outside the boundary of Fort Brooke. A few hundred soldiers were garrisoned there.

A shot echoed through the sandy streets at around 11 p.m., the Tampa correspondent wrote. A U.S. soldier was dead, a bullet through his back near the oyster house run by Antonio Castillo, a mariner from Spain who’d set up shop near what’s now the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitor’s Center.

A witness claimed to see Perfino around Tampa that night “in different dresses” armed with a pistol. Later he was spotted hiding in a stable “on the lookout for someone" near what is now Lykes Gaslight Park. Someone said they saw him sneaking through people’s yards and kitchens, coming away from where the body was found.

The report describes “Indio” as “Cuban by birth,” “somewhat eccentric,” and "distinguished, according to his own account of himself, for feats of this sort.” He was known around town as “a bad character.”

Authorities caught him near Old Tampa Bay “endeavoring to make his escape," but initially released him for lack of evidence, even though they said he admitted to hitting the same soldier with a rake earlier in the day. The sheriff arrested him again after another witness came forward.

Handwritten court records in the Hillsborough County archives say Perfino went on trial in April of 1850. He was broke, so they appointed him James T. Magbee, the county’s first lawyer and a future state senator and judge. Magbee would also be known for his drunken behavior, including passing out on Franklin Street where his enemies covered him in molasses and corn, causing roaming hogs to rip off his clothes.

Perfino was found guilty. Records say he was sentenced to hang by the neck until he was “dead!, dead!!, dead!!!” Someone scratched out the line in the records book reading “may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."

Perfino busted out of the county jail before they could hang him. A letter from Hillsborough sheriff B.J. Hagler preserved in the Florida Archives in Tallahassee “regretfully” informs the governor of a murderer on the loose. Gov. Thomas Brown’s proclamation offering a $100 reward for his capture gives a fantastically pirate-ish description.

Governor Thomas Brown issued this proclamation offering a $100 reward for Jose Perfino's capture. [STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | Courtesy Florida Dept. of State]

Said Perfino, alias Indio, is about 40 years of age, 5 feet 5 or 6 inches in height, complexion naturally dark, but, at the time of his escape much blacked, grey eyes, one front toothless, very thick, bushy black hair, either a Spaniard or a Portuguese, speaks a little English, is much addicted to smoking, generally wears a leather band around his wrist as a charm, and a medallion around his neck as many Catholics wear. He has several initial letters and figures pricked upon his arm in Indian ink.

But the word “pirate” is nowhere in the historical record. A Fort Brooke soldier fatally shot El Indio on May 21, 1850, four days past his scheduled hanging, and claimed the reward.

“These kinds of people drifted in and out of Tampa in those years,” said James M. Denham, a history professor at Florida Southern College who has written extensively about Antebellum Florida. “Remember, this was a maritime society, the only way to get to Tampa really was by water. By 1850, there was commerce going on, both licit and illicit, between Tampa and Cuba.”

Still, Denham said, “I know everyone wants to be able to identify pirates in Tampa, but the evidence is very sparse.”

Mr. Hubbard

Mr. Hubbard is more mysterious.

Mr. Hubbard was “one of the Cuban pirates found dead in the woods June 1850," read the minutes from a September 1850 Hillsborough County Commission meeting. That makes it sound like Hubbard wasn’t alone. There are no other details, just an accounting of the $7 dollars paid out by the county to Alexander Gage, who ran the first ferry on the Hillsborough River, for Hubbard’s coffin. A few entries later, the commissioners resolved to stop paying for free coffins for people who died broke.

Records of the cemetery maintained by the Tampa Historical Society say Mr. Hubbard was only the second person buried there. Perhaps for a lack of info on Mr. Hubbard, those records make a reach in noting that an orphan named Daniel Hubbard was kidnapped by Seminoles in a rugged area to the north of Tampa later that same year. Was this boy Mr. Hubbard’s orphaned son?

A letter from local rancher Jesse Sumner to Capt. John C. Casey, “special Indian agent" for the U.S. Army, describes the disappearance of the boy from Sumner’s ranch near what is now Dade City. Sumner sent the boy, who was apparently living there, to run some kind of cattle driving errand. Sumner wrote that the boy never came back, but his horse did, with the boy’s suspenders braided into its mane.

A search party went into the woods, writes Sumner, and “there was moccasin tracks and then we was satisfied it was Indians.” Three Seminole men were blamed and eventually turned over to the Hillsborough Sheriff. Casey questioned their guilt. They were found hanging in their jail cell under mysterious circumstances after attempting to escape by starting a fire.

But the Hubbard orphan is a dead end if you’re looking for the pirate Mr. Hubbard. Newspapers, property records and the federal census don’t show anyone named Hubbard in Hillsborough or the surrounding counties at the time. There is nothing to connect the orphan boy and the grave at Oaklawn.

Eric Hannel, who teaches at St. Leo University and studies local Native American history, believes the orphan boy may have not existed, and could have been cooked up by settlers to spur the government into getting rid of the few remaining Seminoles in the area who were not killed in the Second Seminole War or shipped west.

And maybe Mr. Hubbard was a totally different kind of “Cuban pirate."

Few are familiar today with a ragtag group of American Southerners who followed exiled Spanish army officer Narciso Lopez on an unsanctioned U.S. invasion of Cuba in May of 1850. Lopez said they hoped to add another star to the American flag. Newspapers at the time were obsessed.

The invaders were a group of Mexican American War veterans rounded up in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some were convinced they were headed to California to look for gold, according to historian Antonio Rafael de la Cova’s article “The Kentucky Regiment That Invaded Cuba." Many deserted upon realizing they were actually about to invade a foreign nation of a million people with an army of 600 farmers, postal workers and lawyers. Those who stayed were issued red shirts and hats featuring what is today the Cuban national flag.

Related: Florida Wonders: Ask us anything about where we live. We’ll find answers.

They shoved off in a steamer from New Orleans and reached the Cuban town of Cardenas, where they captured the governor and burned down his house after taking 84 doubloons from the safe. Then they went into town looking for something to eat, a lieutenant in the operation later wrote, and drank a “stupefying” quantity of liquor. Spanish army reinforcements arrived and started shooting them.

The Americans fled for Key West chased by a Spanish ship the whole way and nearly ran out of fuel and water.

Back on U.S. soil, the wounded volunteer army split up and headed for their respective homes. A story headlined “Arrival of Cuban ‘Patriots’” from the Jacksonville Republican on June 13, 1850 — just two days before Tampa’s Mr. Hubbard was buried — jumps out.

The Jacksonville Republican from June 13, 1850 describes Cuban "Patriots" passing through Tampa. [Courtesy of George A. Smathers Libraries at University of Florida]

It says some of the volunteer army sailed from Key West to Tampa Bay, but landed 10 miles from Tampa and had to hike through the woods. They hoped to catch a boat from Tampa to New Orleans but were “in a very destitute condition, having lost all except the meager clothing on their backs." Some gave up and started walking north toward Jacksonville or Tallahassee and were barefoot and still wearing the red shirt when they got there.

The Ocala Argus reported that a group of “red shirt boys” bound for Kentucky walked through town and livened things up that week. The New Orleans Picayune reported that a group of Spanish soldiers who came back with the invaders were stranded in Tampa without food or money.

Newspapers around the country labeled the Americans who invaded Cuba with euphemisms like “adventurers” and “expeditionists.” A few of the more critical writers called them “pirates.” A Cuban paper even described them as “sacking” a defenseless harbor in search of “pillage and booty.”

A sketch of "El Indio" by Odilon Ozare based on an 1850 description from a proclamation offering a $100 reward for his capture. [Courtesy of Odilon Ozare]

Is the Mr. Hubbard buried in Oaklawn a Kentuckian who dropped dead in the woods outside Tampa after a clandestine invasion of Cuba? The theory has never been published before, but the dates match up, and it would explain how a so-called Cuban pirate got an English surname. His original tombstone had one additional line: A white man.

“It’s not crazy. You could speculate,” Denham said, when we ran the theory by him, “that Hubbard could have been an American who joined forces with Lopez in his expedition.”

The pirate tombstones in Oaklawn today are not the originals. The Tampa Historical Society replaced them in the 1970s, along with others that were crumbling, but nobody knows where the originals are, or if they have any more to tell us about Tampa’s pirate graves.

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com.

Need inspiration? Here’s what other readers were curious about:

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