Juan Ortiz and Princess Uleleh Hirrihigua

The following article was written by F. P. Fleming and appeared in Publications of the Florida Historical Society, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jul., 1908), pp. 42-47. It recounts the true story of a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz who was rescued by a Native American princess named Uleleh Hirrihigua. A modern retelling of this story can be found in my children’s books, Uleyli- The Princess & Pirate: Based on the True Story of Florida’s Pocahontas. It is available as a 94-page, black-and-white illustrated chapter book and a 34-page, full-color junior graphic novel.

The Story of Juan Ortiz and Uleleh

Every school child, who has been taught the elements of American history is familiar with the Story of Pocahontas, who saved the life of Captain John Smith, married the Englishman John Rolfe and became the progenetor of various prominent Virginia families, who proudly trace their ancestry to the Indian princess; yet comparatively few, even among the educated of our country, have any knowledge of the Story of Juan Ortiz, the young Spaniard, or the Indian Princess Uleleh, who saved his life in Florida, seventy-nine years before the events in Virginia which made Pocahontas famous.
Juan Ortiz was a native of Seville, Spain, of noble family, and a follower of Pamphilo de Narvaez who, in 1528, with a force of six hundred, invaded and attempted the conquest of Florida, but whose great expedition came to grief, the commander and all but four falling victims of starvation, disease, shipwreck or the vengeance of the natives, who had been cruelly treated by the arrogant and proud Spanish Cavalier.

Landing first at or near the bay of Espirito Santo, (now Tampa Bay) Narvaez sent back to Havana one of his brigantines and twenty men, among whom was Juan Ortiz, with dispatches for his wife. After executing the commission the vessel with Ortiz and others returned to the bay. Those aboard were informed by the Indians that Narvaez had marched into the interior of the country. They claimed to have a letter from Narvaez which they wanted to deliver and requested the Spaniards to come ashore and receive it. Being suspicious of bad faith, this request was refused and the Indians were, in turn, requested to bring the letter to the vessel. This they declined to do, but sent four of their number to the vessel to be held as hostages for their good faith. Juan Ortiz and three others thereupon got into a canoe and went ashore. As soon as they landed the Indian hostages jumped overboard and swam ashore, and Ortiz and his companions were at once seized and made prisoners. The brig thereupon sailed away leaving the prisoners to their fate.

?Narvaez, who had made a treaty of peace with Ucita* Casique of the province called Hirrihigua, afterward treated that chief with the greatest cruelty, giving his aged mother to be torn to pieces by dogs, for complaining of an outrage which had been committed by one of the Spaniards on the person of a young Indian woman. The chief becoming incensed, threatened vengeance, when he was seized and scourged, by order of Narvaez, and his nose cut off. This chief and his family were not slow to wreak their vengeance upon the unfortunate Spaniards who had now fallen into their hands. They were taken to a square inclosed with palisades and, in the presence of Ucita, one of the four was stripped of his clothing and made to run around the inclosure while the Indians amused themselves shooting arrows into his body, until death terminated the cruel sport. This was repeated with two of the others until Ortiz was the only survivor. Believing him to be the son of Narvaez, he was reserved for slow and more lingering torture. A wooden frame was constructed on which the victim was laid and bound, and a slow fire built beneath. The tortures of the unfortunate youth, who was but eighteen years of age, excited the pity of an Indian woman who hastened to the dwelling of the Casique and made known the situation to Uleleh the Chief’s eldest daughter, then about sixteen years old. The young princess thereupon threw herself at the feet of her father and entreated him to suspend the execution and release the victim. Her request was granted and Ortiz was unbound, but suffered greatly from his burns. He was attended by the medicine man of the tribe, and the princess and her attendants did all that they could to relieve his sufferings. But, notwithstanding the importunities of his daughter, Ucita would not desist from the infliction of continued cruelties upon the young man, or relieve him from the sentence of death under which he was. He was employed in the most slavish and laborious occupations, and at times compelled to run all day in the public square where Indians stood ready to shoot him if he should stop. After about nine months of such life the chief consented to suspend execution of the death sentence for a year on condition that he be required to keep guard over the cemetery of the tribe, three miles from the village; where, according to custom, the bodies of their dead were exposed on biers or stages several feet above ground. It was necessary to keep watch over them at night to protect them from beasts of prey. Criminals under sentence of death were usually appointed to keep this watch, and were permitted to live provided they escaped from the dangers of their occupation. If the guard permitted a corpse to be carried away by wild animals he was put to death the following day. Uleleh informed Ortiz of the conditions of the suspension of his sentence, which he did not hesitate to accept.

Armed with a bow and arrows he commenced his lonely watch, occupying a hut in the midst of the cemetery. The stench of dead bodies soon overpowered him. From this he recovered, however, sufficient to drive off wolves that appeared in the early part of the night. About midnight an animal carried off the corpse of a child. Ortiz terror stricken at what might result from the failure of his vigilance, followed in the direction the animal had taken and guided by the sound of the gnawing of bones, taking aim, as best as he could in the dark, shot an arrow at it, which he was rejoiced to discover next morning had penetrated the heart of the animal (a panther) and killed it. This feat won the admiration of the Indians. 

?After about two weeks of such service in the cemetery, the princess Uleleh accompanied by two faithful attendants came to the cemetery one night and informed Ortis that the priests had demanded his death at their approaching festival; that their demands would have to be complied with unless he escaped by flight. Inspired by the great beauty of the Indian princess and her uniform kindness to him, Ortiz made a declaration of his love, entreated her to accompany him in flight, seek asylum with some friendly tribe and become his wife, promising to take her to the land of his birth. But the dusky maiden was not slow to inform her white suitor that her kindness to him was not the inspiration of love, but pity for his sad condition, that she was already betrothed to a neighboring Casique, Mocoso, to whose protection she was about to recommend him. She then presented him with a girdle, as a token that she had sent him, and furnished him with a faithful guide. Accom- pained by this guide, Ortiz was prompt to seek safety in flight, arriving near Mocoso’s village, the guide then left him. Some fishermen discovered him as he was approaching the village and took up their weapons with the purpose of assailing him, but desisted when he showed them the girdle. He was then led by them through the village and to the presence of the chief Mocoso, a young Indian of handsome appearance and intelligent countenance, to whom he presented the girdle sent by his bethrothed, the princess Uleleh. with request for his protection. Mocoso assured him of safe asylum and treated him with every kindness and acception. When the Casique Ucita heard that Ortiz had escaped and taken refuge with Mocoso he sent a demand to the latter for his return to him; this Mocoso refused, causing an estrangement between the two Casiques, which delayed for a considerable time the marriage of Mocoso and Uleleh. Such marriage took place, however, at the end of about three years.

Upon learning of the landing of Hernando DeSoto in 1539, Mocoso sent Juan Ortiz to him with an escort of about ten Indians, and a message asking friendship on the grounds of his protection and kindness to Ortiz. In the meantime DeSoto had dispatched Balthasar de Gallegos, with a force, to find and bring Otriz to him. This force coming upon Ortiz and party, without kno ing who they were, proceeded to attack them, causing the Indians to flee for safety; but Ortiz, whose dress and appearance was so like an Indian as to deceive the Spaniards, remained, avoiding the thrusts of a lance directed at him, made the sign of the Cross, crying out “Sevilla, Sevilla” then informed his countrymen who he was. Most of the Indians who had accompanied Ortiz were now induced to return. Ortiz was taken to DeSoto, and Mocoso’s message delivered. Ortiz then told his story. DeSoto thereupon sent messages to Mocoso urging him to visit the Spanish Camp. In ten days the Casique arrived accompanied by his warriers. DeSoto received him with great courtesy and assured him that his people would ever be grateful to him for his kindness to Ortiz. To this Mocoso replied: “What I have done for Otiz is but little indeed, he came commended to me and threw himself upon my protection. There is a law of our tribe which forbids our betraying a fugitive who asks an asylum. But his own virtue and dauntless courage entitles him to all the respect which was shown him. That I have pleased your people I rejoice exceedingly and by devoting myself henceforth to their service I hope to merit their esteem.” This speech much touched DeSoto and his officers, who treated Mocoso with every kindness during his stay of eight days. These friendly relations were continued without interruption.

Juan Ortiz was furnished with proper clothing, armor and a horse and attached himself to DeSoto’s expedition, in which he rendered invaluable service as a guide and interpreter. He was not destined however to return to his native land. Following the fortunes of DeSoto for nearly three years, he died during the winter of 1541-2 at the village of Utiangue, west of the Mississippi, where the expedition spent the winter. His death preceded that of his great commander by only a few months. Irving says of him “His death was a severe loss to the service as he had throughout the expedition served as the main organ of communication between the Spaniards and the Natives.

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