Monday, August 3, 2009

A Florida Pocahontas in the 16th Century

One of the more interesting stories to arise from the days when Europeans were first beginning their exploration and conquest of Florida is that of Juan Ortiz and the Princess Hirrihigua.

Ortiz was a member of the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition that arrived in the St. Petersburg area in 1528. When his commander set off on his brutal march up the peninsula, however, Ortiz and others were sent back to Cuba to relay information on the progress of the expedition. When Narvaez's wife failed to hear more from her husband, she sent Ortiz and a small crew back to Florida to try to find out what had happened.

Ortiz and several others were captured almost as soon as they arrived at Tampa Bay. Taken to the village of the chief Hirrihigua (or so says one source, the other identifies him as Ucita), who intensely hated Europeans because Narvaez had cut off his nose and fed one of his relatives to the expedition's war dogs, three of the prisoners were killed and a more gruesome fate was prepared for Ortiz.

Building a large fire that eventually collapsed into hot coals, the chief had a large grill placed over the coals and Ortiz tied on top of it. The plan was to roast him to death, but his screams of pain attracted the attention of several of the women from the chief's family. They pleaded for his life and he was spared, although severely burned. The chief's daughter, remembered in legend as Princess Hirrihigua, played a key role in saving the unfortunate Ortiz and some have speculated that the later story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith was invented to provide English explorers with their own version of the Ortiz story.

Such stories aside, Ortiz survived twelve more years of captivity before being discovered by soldiers from the army of Hernando de Soto in 1539. He went on to become an important interpreter for De Soto as he made his way through the Southeast.

To learn more about the story of Juan Ortiz and the Princess, please visit

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