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Sunday Favorites: The Port of the Pirates

Published Sunday, September 23, 2012 12:05 am

ELLENTON -- Rocky Bluff, named for a ledge of flat rocks that extended over the Manatee River, has always been cloaked with an air of mystery. A strange and mystical music used to emanate from the coffee colored waters of the Manatee and has been the subject of local lore for centuries. But in 1892, many residents remember an event that justified the legends – proof that a crude stone carving of a ship actually marked the hidden treasure of Pascual Miguel, the infamous pirate. 

 

Born in Portugal, Miguel first earned his sea legs as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, which landed him in the Caribbean. When he came of age, he began gunrunning for Latin American revolutionaries, finally earning the intimidating title of professional pirate, according to a Sarasota Tribune article by Dale White. 

 

Several sources name Miguel as “El Carnecero” or “The Butcher” because he never took prisoners and liked to carve his victims open. 

 

White’s article goes on to explain how Miguel used his stolen fortune to purchase a sugar plantation on Terra Ceia Island in the early 19th century. However, the planation was merely a front for Miguel’s illicit pillaging operation. 

 

“During the daylight hours neighbors and naval officers visited the gentleman farmer. At night however, Miguel’s island empire literally became a den of thieves,” wrote White. “After Miguel’s slaves and overseers retired to their cabins, Miguel’s gang of armed marauders emerged from their hiding places in nearby marshes.”

 

Miguel and his gang had three bases of operation, Terra Ceia, Anna Maria and Rocky Bluff. A watchtower on the northern end of Anna Maria Island was maintained as a lookout. The crew would watch for smoke signals of passing ships. Then, the cutthroats made way under a cloak of darkness and sailed stealthy to the un-expecting vessels. By dawn, as plantation workers were starting their day of tithing, the pirates had already returned and hidden their loot. 

 

In the event that things didn’t go well, they would retire to a hideout at Rocky Bluff, located at the present-day site of the I-75 bridge, according to Joe Warner in his book The Singing River.

 

Rocky Bluff has always been a strange place. At certain times of the year, an eerie sound could be heard by residents -- it seemed to come from the beneath the surface of the water. Jack Leffingwell, an early historian, described the sound as a “musical humming like a telephone pole well loaded with wires.”

 

Charles Moore, the lighthouse tender on Egmont for over 40 year, would often recount the legend of how the mystical music came to be. Moore said that one time during a storm, Miguel spotted a ship in distress off of Egmont Key. The boat had run aground on the Palatine Shoal. Seeing an obvious opportunity for piracy, Miguel easily captured the crew and towed the ship into protected waters, finally killing all the prisoners, so no sailors could bare witness to his crime.  

 

While scavenging the vessel, he found a prize more valuable than any cargo or bronze hardware. A lovely Spanish girl named Carlota was hiding in a closet in the main cabin. Overjoyed, Miguel took her to Terra Ceia where he sought to conquer her. Little did he know she was he was the daughter of the Commandant at Pensacola. 

 

Miguel decided he would keep her as his female companion. However, the Commandant immediately dispatched a fleet of ships in search of the missing girl. When Miguel’s watch alerted him of the approaching convoy, he fled up the Manatee River to Rocky Bluff, confident that a larger ship could not navigate the shallow waters. 

 

He lived with Carlota for several days while the search went on, but as Warner recounts in his book, “His beautiful prisoner became despondent and despaired of being rescued. In order to keep her happy, Miguel created an Aeolian harp made of steel strings strung across a porthole for her amusement. When the wind played across the strings it set up a vibration which sounded like a musical hum.”

 

As the search continued, Miguel prepared to set sail with his crew, he locked Carlota in a cabin as he readied the boat. Carlota knew she couldn’t escape, but she forced open a tiny hatch into the bilge. As the men were loading provisions for the passage, she was drilling tiny holes all along the bottom of the boat in an attempt to sabotage the getaway. Carlota knew she would sink with the ship, but felt she would rather die than stay associated with the dreaded pirate.  

 

The crew escaped into the woods. As the ship sank into the water depths, Carlota’s beautiful face could be seen through the porthole and the humming of the harp strings echoed off the rocks, and continued to do so for centuries. 

 

While Moore’s story was thought to be only friendly local lore, some said it was substantiated by a peculiar rock on the bluff. Someone had carved a crude ship into one of the prominent stones, and it was well known among members of the community who would hike to the ledge and recount the legend of Carlota and Miguel. In addition, the sunken ship could be seen on days with good water clarity from the ledge.

 

But in 1892, a strange event occurred which was well recounted by many members of the community. The event is documented in Warner’s book.

 

“A strange black schooner sailed up the Manatee River, passing all the settlements without hailing or stopping. She arrived at Rocky Bluff at dusk and cast anchor.” Warner writes.

 

During the night an explosion echoed throughout Ellenton. Warner writes that the next morning a party of men led by Dudley Patten journeyed upriver to investigate the blast. Upon reaching the bluff they discovered a hole where their favorite rock with the carved ship had been blasted to pieces, and a square object had been removed from the sand beneath the rock. There was no sign of the ship, which had departed during the night.

 

Did the pirates find the hidden treasure of Pirate Pascual Miguel? You be the judge. When Major Alden Adams began work on his castle Villa Zanza in 1881, he heard the legend and dove on the sunken ship. He recovered much of the beautiful teak wood from the interior, which he used to create his castle’s stairway and other wooden framework.

 

Today the sound of engines humming over I-75 has faded the mystical music of the Aeolian harp into obscurity. Perhaps if you listen closely enough in the months of May and April, you may be able to hear Carlota strumming her sad song.

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Once again, great story!! Thanks again.
Posted by ron turner on September 23, 2012
 

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