Passes, Pirates, and Treasure: The Story of John Leviche

If you happened to have read my recent post regarding the naming of Pass-a-Grille, then you may just recall the particularly liberal mention of the potential star of the whole works, John Leviche, for whom John’s Pass took it’s name. Or maybe it was Juan Levach. Or Jean Levick. Or… well, you see, no one is quite sure. The particularly interesting individual who is the subject of our post today didn’t know how to read or write. Signing his name only with an ‘X’, our hero has left the spelling of his name open to interpretation. Also up for quite a bit of editorial flexibility is the story of the pirate, er, settler, er, turtle farmer who was clearly French, er, Spanish, er, um…. oh boy, here we go.

Ok Please Give Me Some Facts!

“Levich” marked on the 40 acre plot on the east side of the map.

Let’s call our friend Jean Leviche. I think this is perhaps the most likely phonetic pronunciation, because the general consensus from people that “knew him” is that he was French. We also know that Leviche had a homestead of 160 acres on Boca Ciega Bay close to the location of the lovely Abercrombie Park today; this is documented. You can see his name marked on this map indicating his holdings. According to Karl Grismer, who researched early land holdings on the Pinellas Peninsula, Leviche was one of three people to have been given the first land grants. He states: “Although we do not know the name of the first settler on the lower peninsula we do know the names of the first property owners. They were three Spaniards, all of St. Augustine: Joseph Silva, John Levich and Maximo Hernandez.” Uh-oh. A Spaniard name Levich from St. Augustine?! I’m not sure we are in agreement here. I did a little poking because “Levich/e” sure doesn’t sound Spanish to me. Here is what we learn from Ancestry.com:

French: from Old French évesque ‘bishop’ with fused definite article l’ hence an occupational name for a member of a bishop’s household or an ironic nickname for a solemn person. Compare Laveck Leveck and Leveque .

So to Mr. Grismer I must apologize but also disagree: with the numerous other references noting his Frenchness, and the French-y sound of his name, I would suggest that Leviche was of French heritage, not Spanish. Wow!

The Mysterious Traveling Fisherman

Grismer does go on to say this: “The surveyors did not mention Levich in their notes. Perhaps he was away fishing when the surveying party came through and his home was not seen. But regardless of that, Levich received a government patent to his land, 157 acres, on August 1, 1849, as shown by county records. After the Civil War, he turned the tract over to John Miller and William B. Henderson of Tampa, in settlement of a $46 grocery bill.”

Now here is where things get interesting. Because allegedly, this homesteading fisherman turned turtle farmer was a pirate who had buried $800 in gold coins right at his homestead on Boca Ciega Bay. But after losing his fortune (read on!) he was forced into bankruptcy over a grocery bill.

The Dread Pirate John Leviche

If you happen to read many of the, um, less scholarly histories of John’s Pass that you might find on a number of John’s Pass Business’ web pages, enthusiasm and mystery abound at the man who was a kind, reformed pirate. A pirate who gave up a life of plundering the high seas to become at turtle farmer at Boca Ciega Bay. And I quote from one said random web page:

“John Levique was a French peasant that worked as a cabin boy on a Spanish sailing vessel around 1836. After the ship was ambushed by pirates, Levique was given the choice of death or joining the pirate crew. He chose to join the pirates and worked his way to the top, becoming the captain of his own ship.

Unlike most pirates, Levique did not like to kill those he captured or hold them for ransom. Because of this, Levique and his crew did not acquire much treasure, but he managed to gather a small chest of gold which he buried on an island off the West Coast of Florida. After retiring from piracy, Levique staked land near the site of his treasure and became a simple turtle farmer.”

Amazing as it may seem, I’m like 8% sure I’ve located an authentic photo from 1840 of Jean Levique.

Well, let’s put aside for a moment the fact that this is basically the description of the lead character from the most excellent movie “The Princess Bride.” What happened next? Where did the gold go?

Lost Gold and John’s Pass

What is the city hiding?!!! No metal detectors! It’s a cover up!

Could the story be true? Well, this is where the story takes another interesting turn. You see, Leviche had allegedly decided to bury his chest of gold at his homestead on Boca Ciega Bay in 1848 before setting off to New Orleans (or in some accounts Key West) on business. When he returned, he found that he had just missed the thrill-a-minute hurricane that created John’s Pass. This may be tough to believe, but Leviche had buried his treasure right where the Pass was formed by the hurricane! 19th Century problems, am I right?! With the coastline changed, his efforts to locate said treasure proceeded unsuccessfully. The only good news is that the newly formed pass was named in honor of our hero and is still called “John’s Pass” today.

So what does the St. Pete Times from September of 1914 tell us about the lost gold? Well, this is interesting – from 1914 and without a doubt true as it was printed in the newspaper.

Well hid, but close by.

We can certainly trust this newspaper story’s “historical accuracy” because (and I quote) “It is vouched for by a man who is reliable and who received the story direct from his father, who knew of the burial and loss of it.” Editorial comment here: If I had a dime for for every time a person emailed me to let me know whatever I wrote was a load of cr-p because their grand pappy told them a story handed down from the old days I’d have… a sizeable collection of dimes.

Anyway, this story goes on to note that all attempts by Mr Girard and his son to locate the treasure were unsuccessful, but they are positive that the gold is buried under a massive pile of shell brought up by the gale. Now what the article also points out (multiple times!) is that the mysterious shell pile is just 100 feet or so from the terminus of the Jungle car line. Isn’t that coincidental? Because this timely article from 1914 is also right about the time that Mr. Girard was running his successful fishing and bait business, located most conveniently at the end of the Jungle car line. I wonder if they also rented shovels?

Certainly we would also not expect any flair to have been added to our tale by expert salesman and real estate developer Walter Fuller, who certainly had no stake in this story. He was too busy selling lots in this same location, opening the Jungle subdivision right at this time. Perhaps if one took the car line out to the Jungle and couldn’t find the buried gold, you could shell out some gold of your own for a lovely home site on the bay once realizing how good the fishing was. Anybody see where I’m headed here?

Just 100 feet from the Jungle car line! Imagine!
You will never find a more honest and reliable bait salesman.

Let us also note above that Leviche was, quoting again, a “giant Frenchman.” I am guessing the rarely noted book titled French Giants of the 19th Century is rather slim.

Relatively Certain Dates

One thing that we can ascertain from the recount by Grismer and also from information from another early pioneer, John Bethel who wrote the first history of lower Pinellas is when Leviche arrived in Pinellas. Bethel says:

“So far as I have been able to ascertain, the first man to settle on the Point was Antonio Maximo, who did so in 1843, under a land grant from the United States government for services rendered during the Seminole War of 1836-7... Here he remained until about 1848.” He continues: “Also, about 1845, William Bunce located on one of the Mullet Keys, known as Hospital Key, and for the same purpose… The next settler after Bunce was John Lavach, who located on what is known as the ‘Adams Place’ on Boca Ceiga Bay, near John’s Pass.”

I think the one thing that can be somewhat certain is that Leviche started his homestead in around 1846, and was issued his land grant after improvements were verified in 1849, following the gale of 1848.

The best I can do on date of death is an unattributed article that says he passed in 1873, and he was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere near his homestead. The grave has never been found.

Please, Wrap Up This Post!

So what I think we can say is true is that there was definitely a settler, likely French and named Jean Leviche, who lived across from what would become John’s Pass, named after him following the opening in 1848. It is also agreed upon that he was a turtle farmer, and probably fishery operator who traded along the Gulf Coast. He left his mark with the naming of John’s Pass, and as noted at the start of this article, possibly naming Pass-a-Grille as well.

What is more of a stretch is the pirate / buried treasure story. It seems to this author that the stories reprinted a couple times in 1914 were probably made up to get people to come out the Jungle area. They became folklore that has been expanded and added to through today. Why? The very same reason for publishing the tale in 1914 – to sell stuff to visitors. I don’t know if anyone has been to John’s Pass, but let me assure you our turtle farming friend Mr. Leviche has helped a multitude of businesses market their products and services at the Olde Timey Boardwalk Village. There really was buried gold at John’s Pass! And as you can see below, it has been found and seems to still be flowing into the coffers.

Levique’s 100% restored ship, ready to tour fearless (and thirsty!) souls around the bay.
The old ship’s turtle hold, now a gift shoppe of authentic wares made in exotic ports of the far east.

This article was a bit tongue in cheek, and while I’ve tried to shed some light on the true nature of Leviche, there is no consensus about him personally. His story has turned into legend. I certainly respect the work of the historians mentioned here, but there are too many conflicts to paint a truly accurate picture outside the basics. That said, hopefully you do know a little more about the man for whom John’s Pass was named and why it was named that. You may also have just a little insight on why the tall tales seem to have persisted.

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