The Most Horrible Ordeal of Juan Ortiz

I want to tell you a story about a series of events that happened 500 years ago. “Oh God No! Not this ancient history crap –” you may be saying. But you should keep reading. This is interesting. It is a tale of agony, of love, of resolution, of torture, and of death. Oh, and of course adventure and perseverance as well. The only thing that may be missing from this tale is humor, because in 1528 people were quite serious.

The subject of our tale, the most most resolute Juan Ortiz, was not a great hero. He was not the captain of any ship, nor was he a wealthy person. But Juan Ortiz was rather, and extremely unfortunately, a crew member on an ill-fated expedition that made its way to Tampa Bay in 1528 led by Panfilo de Narvaez.

If you have been to the Jungle Prado / Sacred Lands area off Park Street in St. Pete, you may have noticed the sign for Narvaez’s general landing place. The reason for the 1528 Narvaez expedition was to establish a couple towns of 100 people each, and in return for doing so Narvaez would be able to claim governorship over much of the Florida coast all the way around to Mexico. But things went badly quite quickly – storms, loss of supplies, bad wayfinding, the whole nine yards. So with that a couple days after the ships finally landed along the Pinellas Peninsula one of the five boats that was on the expedition was ordered back to Havana to fetch more supplies. Juan Ortiz, the main character of this story, was on the supply boat.

While Ortiz was on the resupply run back to Havana, Narvaez cut a terrible path of slave taking, looting, and killing as he marched around the area. The conquistador, marching Northeast from his landing spot, came to a village called Hirrihigua located at what we know as Safety Harbor on the shore of Old Tampa Bay. The chief, or cacique, was also named Hirrihigua, having the same name as the village. The Indians to this point had been a little stand-offish but not openly hostile, but then things got a little dicey.

Narvaez The Butcher

After a squabble erupted at the village with Narvaez, the conquistador had Hirrihigua’s nose cut off. He then had the cacique’s mother killed, cut up, and fed to dogs. He then enslaved several natives to act as guides.

Narvaez then moved along, presumably acting like a complete dickhead as he continued his march northward from the village demanding to be shown areas containing food and/or gold. As one might guess, the despicable turn of events that Narvaez left in his wake did not exactly leave Hirrihigua with fond feelings toward the explorer, or for any Spaniard for that matter.

But we are not here to recount the journey of Narvaez, so we will leave his story with this final word about him: His journey continued to fail and eventually he drowned on a makeshift boat near the Mississippi River while trying to make his way around the Gulf to Mexico. Only four of his expedition survived, and he was not among them.

Ortiz Gets Captured

So back to our story. When the supply ship and our innocent friend Juan Ortiz returned to Tampa Bay the crew had no idea of the series of events noted above. The ship came near the village of Hirrihigua, and the inhabitants signaled from the shore that they had a letter from Narvaez for the crew. This was a ruse, and the Spanish on the boat had a pretty good feeling that it might be a trick of some sort. To show “good faith” the villagers sent four Indians in a canoe to the ship, and in return the ship sent four people to shore to fetch the letter. One of those, the unluckiest of all, was young, handsome, and strapping Juan Ortiz.

As soon as the small Spanish landing group reached the shore the Indians took them captive. The Indians that had canoed to the ship leapt into the water and swam ashore. The four Spanish were immediately taken away with little the supply ship could do – They were not equipped to storm the village to get the hostages back.

The Travails and Torture of Juan Ortiz

Ok, so this is where things get pretty grisly. Hirrihigua as noted had his nose cut off, his mother fed to dogs, members of his village enslaved, and certainly other atrocities had occurred, committed by Narvaez. Hirrihigua was very angry and determined to torture and kill these Spaniards publicly and for sport.

So here I am going to quote the tale directly from a Spaniard who received Ortiz’s story firsthand 11 years later in 1539. This man was named Garcilaso de la Vega. Vega was on a decade-after-Narvaez expedition with Hernando de Soto as the chronicler of the expedition, and they found Ortiz. More on this later.

Hirrihigua guarded with care his prisoners, in order to increase by their death the pleasures of a feast which he was to celebrate, in a few days, according to the custom of the country. The time of the ceremony arrived, he commanded that the Spaniards, entirely naked, should be produced, and that they should be compelled to run [one by one] from one extremity of the public place to the other; that at times arrows should be shot at them, in order that their death might be the slower, their pain the more exquisite, and the rejoicing more noted and of a longer duration. They immediately obeyed, and the cacique, who assisted at the spectacle, saw with pleasure three of the Spaniards run from one side to the other, searching in vain to escape death.

Garcilaso de la Vega

So one at a time, the villagers killed the first three of the Spanish that were forced into the ordeal. The fourth, handsome 18 year old Juan Ortiz, was sort of spared. Hirrihigua had a couple daughters and wife who took pity on him for his youth, and suggested to Hirrihigua that he should be spared since he was not with Narvaez when the offenses were committed, and also because he would make a fine slave. The cacique (chief) Hirrihigua consented:

“They said that his age was worthy of pity; that he had not taken part in the perfidy of the people of his nation; and, therefore, not having committed any crime worthy of death, it was only necessary to keep him as a slave. The cacique consented to it; but this favor only served to make Ortis die a thousand deaths. They forced him to carry, continually, wood and water. He ate and slept very little, and was tormented with so many blows that, had he not been restrained by the fear of God, he would have committed suicide.”

Garcilaso de la Vega

But Ortiz’s ordeal was only getting started. While Hirrihigua had spared Ortiz at the request of his family, he kept torturing the Spaniard mercilessly over a long period of time. He would sometimes be forced to run from sunrise to sunset for the amusement of the tribe, he was beaten, starved and otherwise forced to endure extreme misery for what seemed to have been some months, perhaps longer. One final particularly grisly account was inspired by Hirrihigua’s general disdain that the guy simply wouldn’t die on his own:

But their pity was cruel to him, for it served only to augment the barbarity of the cacique, who, enraged that Ortis could endure so many diverse hardships, ordered, on a day of entertainment, that they should kindle a fire in the middle of the public square; that they should put a griddle upon the fire; and that they should put his slave upon it, in order to burn him alive. This order was promptly executed, and Ortis remained extended upon this griddle until the ladies, attracted by his cries, ran to his assistance. They besought the cacique not to push his vengeance further; they censured his cruelty, and took off the wretched Ortis half burned, for the fire had already raised upon his body great blisters, of which some having broken covered him with blood.

Garcilaso de la Vega

Ortiz was forced to endure torture to the near brink of death only to be brought back by the sympathetic daughters of the cacique repeatedly. This went on for an indefinite period of time, and Hirrihgua continued to be irked that Ortiz wouldn’t die properly. So he approached the problem from a different angle.

Ortiz Keeps Trying

Hirrihigua told Ortiz that it was now his job to guard the burial ground, day and night. He said to Ortiz that if any animals, such as bears or panthers carried off any of the dead, which were not buried deeply, he would pay with his life. As it so happened Ortiz took on the duty and managed to kill a “lion” (probably a Florida panther, a member of the lion family) that was attempting to drag off the body of an infant recently buried. Ortiz dragged the panther to the village and showed his efforts; the villagers were impressed. Hirrihigua was just angry. So he finally decided that was it, he’s just going to kill this guy. Here’s a bit more from Vega, I’ve paraphrased it a bit:

“Ortis found the lion slain; he collected what remained of the infant, took the lion by the paw, and, without drawing out the dart which pierced him, dragged him to Harriga. But because the injuries which he had received always left some remains of hate, as often as he recalled the indignities the Spaniards had done him, he thought only of avenging himself on this nation in the person of Ortis, and his anger rekindled suddenly with more violence. He declared to his wife and daughters that, since the sight of his slave recalled to mind the affronts which he had received, he would, at the first festival, have him shot to death with arrows.

Garcilaso de la Vega

Escape of Juan Ortiz

It seems that the cacique’s eldest daughter, who was known as Ulele, knew this was going to be the end of the road for Ortiz, despite her best efforts. Her father had made up his mind to kill Ortiz. But the princess made a final plan – she would help Ortiz escape to nearby village where the cacique there wanted to marry her. She knew that he would protect Ortiz at her request. So she relayed the plan to Ortiz, and the plan worked:

…informed him of all that had happened. But as at this news Ortis appeared half dead. She told him not to despair; that she would extricate him from the danger, if he had sufficient resolution to escape.

[She would have a confidante lead him to a bridge under the cover of darkness.]

… She added that, at six leagues beyond the bridge, he would meet with a village, the lord of which, called Mucoço, esteemed her, and even wished to marry her; that he should say to him that. She had sent him to place himself under his protection, being assured that, in consideration of her, he would be protected by Mucoço.”

Garcilaso de la Vega

Ortiz Gets Some Relief

The cacique known as Mucoço took Ortiz under his protection, and even despite the efforts of Hirrihigua to get Ortiz back, the other denied his request. Mucoço had listened to the story of Ortiz and felt badly for him, and of course had a bit of a thing for the princess. He let Ortiz join his village and live there in relative freedom:

After Mucoço had kindly listened to Ortis, he pitied him, and embraced him, and told him that he should fear nothing; that upon his lands he should lead a life very different from that which he had led; that in consideration of the beauty who had sent him he would protect him openly; and that so long as he lived no one should attempt to do him wrong.

Garcilaso de la Vega

So while that was great, Ortiz was now a resident of the village and lived there many years. In that time Ortiz forgot much of his native tongue; this happens to people who don’t speak their own language for years. And so this almost got him killed again in 1539 when Hernando de Soto showed up.

Hernando de Soto Kind of Rescues Ortiz

Hernando de Soto was offered, in short, the same type of deal that Narvaez had been made a decade previous. With Narvaez’s death and failed mission, Florida was once again up for grabs. So Soto starts his journey in 1539 at the same general spot, sailing into Tampa Bay but with a larger army, and a much better equipped group of explorers.

Hernando de Soto was not the same type of ruthless conqueror as Narvaez had been, and had a peace first approach with the natives, or generally tried to. The natives he met in Tampa Bay told him of Ortiz, and Soto was determined to free the Spaniard. He did that, but there was a bit of a situational difficulty that almost led to the death of Ortiz.

As noted, Ortiz had more or less lost his ability to speak Spanish, and was now dressed in native garb, sun tanned and nearly indistinguishable from the natives. Soto had sent a military detachment to find Ortiz, and they were looking for a Spaniard. Ortiz had been notified and knew his countrymen were coming. He rushed to meet them in his zeal. Accompanied by about 10 natives, Ortiz found the Spaniards and started to run toward them. The Spanish didn’t recognize Ortiz as Spanish, and a skirmish ensued.

Ortis, without heeding this advice, imagined it was enough to be a Spaniard, and that those of his nation would not mistake him. However, as he was dressed as an Indian, with a cap covered with plumes, short drawers, a bow and arrow in his hand, the affair did not turn out as he had calculated; for as soon as the Spaniards saw him accompanied by his men, they increased their steps, quitted their ranks, and, without obeying Gallego, who recalled them, charged upon the barbarians whom Ortis led, and drove them with thrusts of their lances into the woods.

Garcilaso de la Vega

Ortiz is Reunited With the Spanish

So with this Ortiz was nearly killed. The Spaniards gave chase to what they thought was a hostile band of natives, when in fact it was Ortiz that was trying to reconnect with the group of his countrymen. Luckily, it seems Ortiz remembered but one word, “Seville,” and this saved him.

As the Spanish gave chase, Ortiz turned around just before being lanced by his pursuing countrymen. He help up is hand and started yelling “Seville! Seville!” and the Spanish recognized him as the man they had been sent to free.

Hernando de Soto’s Own Account

Soto himself wrote a letter back to the Cuban Magistrates as this all went down, and that letter is still in existence. In it, he spells out and corroborates the rescue of Ortiz, leaving out some of the details:

At my arrival here I received news of there being a Christian in the possession of a chief, and I sent Baltazar de Gallegos, with 40 men of the horse, and as many of the foot, to endeavour to get him. He found the man a day’s journey from this place, with eight or ten Indians, whom he brought into my power. We rejoiced no little over him, for he speaks the language; and although he had forgotten his own, it directly returned to him. His name is Juan Ortiz, an hidalgo, native of Sevilla.

– Hernando de Soto, 1539

Our Tragic Conclusion

You might be thinking “Wow! But all’s well that ends well, right?!” Unfortunately for Ortiz that was not the case. You would think that after his decade long travails Ortiz would have been sent back to Cuba or Spain to perhaps chronicle his life. This was not what happened.

Ortiz was, unfortunately for him, now fluent in native language and was invaluable as an interpreter for Soto. So rather than getting to go home, Ortiz was made part of the expedition that wandered for years through the southern states. It was during this time that the Hernando de Soto’s journey chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega, transcribed the story of Juan Ortiz.

Ortiz was lucky enough, I suppose, to die of natural causes in what is now Arkansas in 1542. He would have been about 32 years old at the time of his death, so his cause of death may have been “natural” but was likely due to some disease at such a young age. This was a tragic ending for an explorer that had endured so much.

Personal note – It is a great disservice that many history books boil this saga down to one line: “And a Spaniard on the Narvaez expedition was captured but rescued later by Hernando de Soto.” For that I am happy to recount it here.

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