Cuban Rebels, Tampa Bay, and a Bunch of Rough Riders

Let’s talk about Latin passion. Oh, I know what you are thinking. Something steamy from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Not this time I’m afraid, although the movie is pretty good (or so I’ve heard). We are going to pop back in time just a little further. But stick with me on this one. You see, the passion of the Cuban people arguably led to the Tampa Bay region becoming what we know of today, leaving indelible marks on the region that include Ybor City which drove the growth of Tampa, and the military outposts on Egmont Key (called Fort Dade) and Fort DeSoto on Mullet Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Let’s not forget the sandwiches. And the stories are killer. So let’s dig in.

Wee Little Cuban History

Until modern times, Cuba was the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean. Ruled by Spain since it’s European discovery in 1492, the island was the hub of the New World through the ages of discovery, exploration, and finally industrialization. And that industrial period, near the end of the 1800s is the moment in time that our story takes place.

Much has been written about Ybor City, and I am not going to rehash all that here, but I want to say a few things about it to give context. Sort of the “Why” of Ybor city and it’s lasting impact on Tampa Bay and what Cuba in general had to do with it. So let’s start with the first Cuban immigrants to the area.

Ybor City: Rebel Base

Vicente Martinez Ybor was a very successful Cuban businessman who started manufacturing cigars in Havana in the 1850s. His cigars rapidly became among the most popular in the world, and to this day people still talk about Cuban cigars, certainly with no small thanks to Vicente Ybor. For a decade or two everything went swimmingly for the Cuban businessman who was known as a kind person and fair to his employees. But around 1868 the Cuban people in general started to get a little irritated with Spanish rule. Squabbles and disagreements broke out as Cuba began to struggle for its independence. Ybor, being an all-around upstanding guy was on the right side of things, supporting the independence of the Cuban people and his workers. He started giving money to rebel causes, and that caught the attention of Spain, which was imprisoning the populous that was supporting this Cuban revolución. So Ybor, worried about his personal security packed up his family and sailed 90 miles north to Key West, where he started a new cigar factory.

The thing is, Ybor still felt kind of close to Cuba and was still worried about potential ongoing problems with Spain. So he started casting around for another spot to manufacture his cigars. He looked first at Texas and almost pulled the trigger but was swayed by an associate who told him of the cheap land and proximity of Tampa. The small village made him a generous tax offer, so in 1885 Ybor literally started building a company town near Tampa, which really only had a handful of people living there. Probably about as many as you see a Rays game on any given night. Whoa!

Anyway, Ybor built housing, medical facilities, schools, the whole nine yards. And that is what Ybor city was, a company town like many that sprung up all over the United States during the age of industrialization. So boom… literally! Ybor City was born just North of Tampa, brought with it thousands of Cuban expats, drove explosive population growth, and has left an impact on the area for what has now been 125 years.

So what event do we have to thank for Ybor City and the growth of Tampa as a city? The Cuban revolution!

America Goes to War – For Cuba

So let’s zip forward just a wee bit, to 1895. From the time Ybor moved to Tampa, that’s about 12 years. While the Cuban people never lost their passion for freedom, sometimes the wheels of progress move slowly in the Latin countries. But things were now coming to a head.

The Maine, shortly before it’s demise.

Uprisings in Cuba were being violently put down by Spain, and Cuban revolutionaries were getting rounded up and put in concentration camps. The US had very valuable trade relations with Cuba, and many American business people lived on the island as well. America was getting a little concerned about the economic impact from all this hubub, and felt it needed to show some support to the Cuban people who were fighting for their independence. So, being America, we sent a battleship, the USS Maine, to Havana to reassure the citizens living there that American citizens and economic interests were protected.

But as it so turns out, “somebody” managed to blow up the Maine while it was in port. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back – the US now was going to get involved in the conflict between Spain and Cuba. More on that in a second.

Forts Dade and DeSoto – Tampa Bay’s Muscle

After the Maine was blown up, the defense department got busy and a whole bunch of stuff started happening really quickly.

Tampa Bay was really just a geopolitical stone’s throw from Cuba, and had some excellent features that made it ideal for military forts. The Bay was deep enough for ships, Egmont Key at the mouth of the Bay was large and ideally situated, and the town of Tampa was arguably the most important economic center in Florida at the time. It needed protection.

Mullet Key and Egmont Key both received funding that was spent on impressive batteries and forts that were set up on the two islands. At the time, Fort Dade’s guns could fire on ships that were out of sight, which in 1898 was huge. A hospital was set up at Fort Dade, along with all the other trappings of a military base. Hundreds of soldiers were stationed there, and more were stationed at Fort DeSoto.

So once again, there are two really cool features of the Tampa Bay region that thousands of people visit each year, the state parks that are now Egmont Key and Fort DeSoto. Both still have ruins of their former glory and are popular points of interest. And why are they there? The Cuban revolution.

Roosevelt Enlists the Rough Riders

So now the US gets involved, declaring war on Spain. This was a crazy short war, lasting only a few months. But the people of the US were mad about the Maine, and wanted to pitch in. So here comes this dude, you may have heard of him — Teddy Roosevelt. He decides he’s going to put together his own volunteer cavalry and donate his group’s services to the war effort.

Now I know what you are thinking. These rough riders sound pretty tough. But here’s the truth. They borrowed the name, which sounded super cool, from Bill Cody’s famous traveling show “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” Seriously. That’s where the name came from. In fact that was a rebrand of the previous name, “Wood’s Weary Walkers” for its first commander, Colonel Leonard Wood. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but everybody’s heard of the Rough Riders. So good choice there. Anyway.

But surely these “Rough Riders” were a bunch of outlaw types, ready for rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ and war down in Cuba, right? Well, truth be told the regiment attracted “an odd mixture of Ivy League athletes, glee club singers, Texas Rangers, and Native Americans.” I’m thinking more like the Bad News Bears of military units. Or maybe like those guys from Stripes. Just without the RV. They were well funded and what they may have lacked in military experience they made up for in passion.

The Rough Riders Head to Tampa

So the tie in here is that the embarkation point to Cuba was right here in Tampa Bay. Tampa was accessible by train, had military forts being built, and had a port. So if people were going to get shipped off to fight in Cuba, they more than likely headed to Tampa. And that is were Roosevelt and Rough Riders found themselves.

The group was in Tampa for a month or so doing training and getting ready for heading to battle. And their time in the area was colorful. Remember, this wasn’t a particularly seasoned military group. It was a bunch of well-heeled volunteers out on a little adventure. They needed some fun and action in their lives. So while in Tampa they definitely had their share of misadventures that aren’t exactly fitting with the narrative. This tongue-in-cheek article about a fishing expedition across the Bay to St. Pete talks about their “assault on Spanish mackerel” and their fun day as “jolly riders.”

But it kind of gets better. These guys were constantly getting accused of “devilment” and got arrested now and then. But it seems that the Times over in Tampa had a sympathetic ear for the Rough Riders, and noted that these fine gentlemen would never engage in such naughty behavior as they were accused. It was imposters! Uh-huh.

So anyway, these guys finally got shipped to Cuba, sort of. Tampa could only load two ships at a time in port, and there wasn’t enough ships to send all of the Rough Riders and other regiments waiting to be deployed. So even though the Rough Riders were a volunteer cavalry, most of their horses stayed in Tampa, as did about 1/3 of the soldiers. And those that stayed behind vociferously noted their displeasure, saying they came to do some war stuff not take care of a bunch of horses that attracted thousands of biting flies. Yikes!

Roosevelt, Rough Riders, and the Buffalo Soldiers Storm Cuba

As it turns out, with the Rough Riders were a famous volunteer regiment known as the Buffalo soldiers. This African-American cavalry regiment was originally formed out West to fight territorial disputes and were known for their bravery and discipline. They were enlisted to go to Cuba to fight, joining the ragtag group of Rough Riders when they arrived at Tampa.

The two regiments traveled to Cuba together, and fought in the brief battles. The Buffalo soldiers didn’t get the recognition of the Rough Riders, and this was in part because of Roosevelt’s skill in commanding the spotlight, but also because the social policies of the times often excluded much word of accomplishments by black people.

Cuba and US Win!

So like I said up there somewhere, this “war” was a really quick little kerfuffle lasting only a few months. Spain was in no position to take on the US, and in a couple months Cuba was lost to Spain. The Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers won their two brief battles in Cuba which took place at the end of the conflict. In fact, following a few days of time taking over a little town and a hill, the soldiers were shipped off to New York and various other ports to go back to civilian life.

Lasting Impressions

I think what is cool here, and what can’t be understated, is the relationship we’ve had with Cuba was for most of US history a good one. And that good relationship drove quite a bit of immigration to the US in the early days not because of Communism or Fidel Castro which came much later, but because of economic advantage or Cuba’s struggle for independence with Spain. The results of the Cuban struggle for independence led to the brief Spanish American war, but also left very visible remnants here in the Tampa Bay region. Next time you have a fun night out in Ybor City or go visit one of these two really cool and beautiful state parks, you can really thank the passion of the Cuban people for these enduring legacies.

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