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Romeo, the 'dog king' of Fort Brooke, survived 1839 massacre

Charlie Spicola, a founding member of the Tampa Rough Riders krewe, poses with a copy of the book Pioneer Florida. The book contains a story about a dog named Romeo that once roamed Fort Brooke. The Tampa Rough Riders krewe are hopeful remains discovered during construction of Water Street include Romeo, so they can give the animal a hero’s burial.  [TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times]
Charlie Spicola, a founding member of the Tampa Rough Riders krewe, poses with a copy of the book Pioneer Florida. The book contains a story about a dog named Romeo that once roamed Fort Brooke. The Tampa Rough Riders krewe are hopeful remains discovered during construction of Water Street include Romeo, so they can give the animal a hero’s burial. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published Mar. 27, 2019

At its peak, during the Second Seminole War that lasted from 1835 until 1842, as many as 1,000 soldiers were stationed at Fort Brooke, according to Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell.

But there was only one king of the military outpost, established in 1824 on the Hillsborough River in what today is downtown Tampa.

He was an Irish setter named Romeo, who earned that distinction by surviving a massacre and then defending his master's slain body.

"The dog king is what the soldiers called him," said Charlie Spicola, whose hobby is military history and is the founder of the Tampa Rough Riders. "He was their royalty."

It has been four months since Fort Brooke's lost Estuary Cemetery was discovered north of Channelside Drive during the construction of the $3 billion Water Street entertainment district.

A spokesperson for developer Strategic Property Partners said archeologists are still working to identify the contents of the grave shafts believed to date back to the 1830s.

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If there were dog remains, it could be Romeo, Spicola said, and his Tampa Rough Riders want the developers to know the canine's body deserves the same respect as those belonging to a U.S. soldier or a Native American.

"Romeo was a real hero," Spicola said. "Treat him like one."

The Tampa Rough Riders are self-charged with keeping alive the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and his cavalry unit, for whom the non-profit is named. It was from Tampa in June 1898 that Roosevelt and his men sailed to Cuba where they fought in the Spanish-American War.

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But inside their Ybor City headquarters is a second-floor library with hundreds of books, many of which tell true stories with local links, dedicated to military history of all eras.

Among those works is a powder blue hard-cover book titled Pioneer Florida.

Written by D.B. McKay, an early-20th century mayor of Tampa and publisher of the Tampa Daily Times, the book details Florida's early years as a state.

Among the tales it tells is that of Romeo.

"It is the story of a dog, a beautiful Irish setter, which played a heroic part in one of the worst tragedies in the history of the Florida West Coast," Spicola read from the book.

As the story goes, Romeo was first brought to Fort Brooke from New Orleans by an officer in 1838. But his owner was rarely at the outpost, so Romeo bonded with James B. Dallam, an army storekeeper.

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In June 1839, Dallam was permitted to open a trading post on the Caloosahatchee River in the heart of a newly established Native American reservation.

Providing him protection were nearly 30 soldiers and Romeo.

Then, on July 22 of that year, more than 200 Native Americans launched a surprise attack on those men. Only nine of the men stationed there escaped. The rest were killed.

Days later, when a squad returned to the site of the massacre, wrote McKay, all but one of the bodies of the dead soldiers had been "torn and eaten by wolves."

Despite a severe head wound thought to have been inflicted by a rifle butt and neither food nor water, Romeo had stood watch over and protected the body of Dallam, the storekeeper.

Lying nearby was a dead wolf that had likely been killed by Romeo, "in his determination to protect the man he loved," wrote McKay.

Romeo returned to Fort Brooke where, due to his heroism, wrote McKay, "he became the idolized pet of the entire garrison ... always known as King Romeo, hero of the Caloosahatchee."

Romeo would later die of natural causes at Fort Brooke. The post would be decommissioned in 1883.

The story does not indicate where the dog was buried, but the Tampa Rough Riders' Spicola is convinced Romeo would have been laid to rest alongside soldiers.

"After what he did," Spicola said, "they wouldn't have allowed him to be buried any other way."

As soon as he heard that a lost Fort Brooke cemetery was discovered, Spicola said, he thought of "the dog king. He could be there. I believe he should be honored."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.