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450th Commemoration of Ajacán – the Spanish Mission of 1570

In April 1607, the first English settlers in Virginia planted a cross at Cape Henry. They stepped off their ships and claimed the land in the name of their king, James I. They planned to prevent any foreign powers from meddling in their new mid-Atlantic claims. This would be England’s colony, settled primarily with English settlers, establishing English governmental policies and procedures, following English religious practices, and enjoying English culture. How tolerant would they be of indigenous people already present or any European cultures that came before or would want to join them? Commemorating National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 provides an opportunity to contemplate this question.

The Virginia Company certainly didn’t intend to involve Virginia’s indigenous people in the new colony as equal participants. Company instructions informed the settlers not to anger the Indians but to Christianize them and force their submission to English rule. What about other cultural groups? Spain already had land claims and established settlements along North America’s entire southern coast and France had fur trading posts in Canada. However, what Virginia Company representatives may have forgotten by 1607 is that they were not the first Europeans to attempt a settlement in this region. Almost 40 years before they arrived in the land they called Virginia, a small group of Spanish Jesuit priests — who represented a nation the English feared — attempted a mission to the local Indian peoples in this place the Indians seemingly called Ajacán. This occurred in 1570, or 450 years ago this month.

St. Ignatius Loyola

St. Ignatius Loyola by Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664). St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuit order of priests, in Spain circa 1540.

Spain began its colonization of the Americas soon after Christopher Columbus bumped into them. Spain’s appetite for expansion drove the nation to claim lands in the Caribbean, Central America, parts of South America, into today’s Mexico, and across the southern United States. They intended to tap the riches of the Americas and to spread Spanish culture and Roman Catholicism to what they considered “pagan” peoples. They also sought the mythical passage to the Pacific Ocean and the riches of Asia and the Far East. More immediately at home, Spanish rulers hoped that revenue from the Americas could fund Spain’s insatiable fight to unify Europe under Spanish, and by extension, Roman Catholic, rule. These goals led to increased and constant exploration of North America’s southwest and southeast by the likes of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, Vázquez de Ayllón, Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo.

After locating the gold and silver mines in today’s Mexico, the Spanish moved into North America seeking more wealth as well as the elusive passage to the Pacific. Additionally, because of French privateers lurking in the region, they needed to protect the annual treasure fleet that carried New Spain’s silver and gold back to Spain. To do this, they planned fortified ports along the southeastern coast. In 1561, a ship searching for suitable port sites was blown off course to the north, perhaps as far as the Chesapeake Bay. In that region the captain took onboard two indigenous people. One, named Pacquiquineo, purported to be the son of a chief. The ship took them to Spain, where documentary evidence today exists indicating Pacquiquineo’s indigenous name. In Spain, King Philip II planned a mission to the mid-Atlantic with Dominican priests and ordered Pacquiquineo to accompany them to his homeland in Ajacán.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés by Francisco de Paula Marti, 1791.

The next year, Spain sent the two Indians to Mexico City where Pacquiquineo became ill. Dominicans who served there cared for him and baptized him as Don Luís, naming him for New Spain’s viceroy, Don Luís de Velasco. Pacquiquineo spent several years in Mexico City but a number of attempts to get to the Chesapeake failed. In 1566, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés entered the picture. This former captain-general of the treasure fleet and now governor of La Florida, which extended north to Delaware Bay, established the fortified town of Santa Elena on today’s South Carolina coast and named it La Florida’s capital. Menéndez then eagerly desired to establish a stronghold further north, in the Bahia de Santa Maria, or Chesapeake Bay.

Menéndez organized a voyage sending Pacquiquineo with several Dominican priests, accompanied by 15 soldiers. In Mexico City, Pacquiquineo had witnessed Spanish culture, religion, ambition and imperialism. When the voyage arrived along today’s North Carolina coast, he claimed he couldn’t identify anything; perhaps he had no desire to lead a military contingent to his people, fearing disaster. Fortuitously for him, storms prevented landfall and the ships headed to Spain. Pacquiquineo remained there, where he studied for several years with Jesuit priests (the Society of Jesus), a recently-formed order.

16-century perception of North and Central America, with the potential passage to the “South Sea” (Pacific) within reach of Bahia de Santa Maria, or Chesapeake Bay. Created for Clifford M. Lewis and Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572.

In 1570, Menéndez again pursued his quest for a presence in the northern part of La Florida at Chesapeake Bay, hoping to control the Atlantic coast as far north as Newfoundland and its rich fisheries. He also desired to locate the shorter route to the Pacific Ocean, and to make allies of the indigenous people in the Chesapeake Bay so he could peacefully populate the region with Spanish settlers and farmers. He argued with Jesuit priests, recently arrived in New Spain, who wanted to start a mission there. They hoped to seek both converts as well as the elusive passage to the islands of the Pacific with ample additional souls to save. The priests wanted no military contingent, thinking that could hurt their efforts. Menéndez argued that they needed soldiers but reluctantly gave in. Pacquiquineo agreed to help, especially since they were not taking soldiers.

In 1570, Pacquiquineo sailed with several Jesuits to Cuba. From there they traveled up the Atlantic coast to Santa Elena, already served by Jesuits. Santa Elena probably had a population of about 300, including farmers, tradesmen and their families residing in about 40 houses, according to archaeological investigations in the 1980s. Several additional Jesuits from Santa Elena joined the group from Cuba for a total of eight. They also took along a 13-year-old boy named Alonso de Olmos, who served as an altar boy for the Jesuit priests.

The planting of the Jesuit mission at Ajacán, from Clifford M. Lewis and Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572.

The group, led by Father Juan Baptista de Segura, proceeded to the Chesapeake Bay. The ship came up the James River, and on September 10, 1570, Pacquiquineo took them ashore near College Creek, just downstream from the spot where English settlers would establish Jamestown many years later. The group was welcomed by Pacquiquineo’s family, whom the priests intended to teach and convert. Before the ship left, the fathers recorded their goals and sent them with the captain: “the conversion of these people and the service of Our Lord and Majesty, and [finding] the way to the mountains and China.” They also wrote about an unexpected extreme drought in the area, indicating that “Our Lord has chastised it with six years of famine and death, which has brought it about that there is much less population then usual.”

For some unknown reason, Pacquiquineo then led them across the Peninsula to an area close to the Kiskiack people on the York River (near today’s Yorktown Naval Weapons Station). There the priests set up their Ajacán mission. Within a few days, Pacquiquineo abandoned the priests for his family’s town upriver, perhaps along the Chickahominy River in the area of the Paspahegh Indians. Had Pacquiquineo used the priests’ plans as a means to get home without bringing a military force upon his people? Without his support the Jesuit fathers had a tough winter of food shortage and illness. Anthropologist Seth Mallios believes that the two groups held differing notions of exchange — traditionally the Indians gave gifts and incurred a debt, or an unspoken promise of future gifts (gift-exchange), while the Spanish priests expected their Indian converts to give them food and assistance with little repayment except the gifts of baptism and eternal life. This may have worked, until a Spanish crewmember gave the Indians some European goods in trade for food. The Indians learned about commodity exchange and thereafter expected immediate satisfaction, in fact, the type of exchange Pacquiquineo had witnessed in Spain and Mexico City.

Further, the Jesuits expected a relief mission but none came. Forced to trade some tools and other items with the local Indians for food, in February 1571 the priests sent a message to Pacquiquineo, begging him to assist them. However, Pacquiquineo and his people decided to rid their country of the Spanish. They killed all the priests, sparing only the boy Alonso. Spain tried to land a relief effort later that year but warriors on shore attacked it. The capture of a couple of the Indians revealed that Alonso still lived.

The Killing of Father Segura and His Companions. Engraving by Melchior Kusell, published in Father Mathias Tanner, Societas Jesu Usque ad Sanguinis et Vitae Profusionem Militans (1675).

In 1572, Pedro Menéndez himself arrived in Chesapeake Bay with a force of four warships and 150 soldiers. In a retaliatory action, he captured and killed 20 Indians and hung nine more from a ship’s rigging. Pacquiquineo eluded Menéndez’s grasp. Menéndez rescued Alonso, returning him to Santa Elena where he narrated his story. Ironically four years later, Indians to the south attacked Spanish towns along the Atlantic coast, including Santa Elena, and killed settlers, including Alonso de Olmos. The Jesuit order never tried a mission in the Chesapeake region again, but moved their efforts to today’s Mexico and the American Southwest.

Would the Spanish government attempt to colonize Chesapeake Bay? Military and religious leaders in La Florida argued about the best course, but the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada in England weakened Spain’s resources, opening the door for English colonization. Spain decided to remain in southern La Florida, periodically irritating the English as they began their mid-Atlantic settlements.

Although Virginia’s first English colonists may have known of the attempted Jesuit mission at Ajacán almost 40 years earlier, they may not have known the numbers or impact of the Spanish in the region from 1570-2. They didn’t stumble upon evidence related to the mission, and didn’t report that they heard any Indians speaking Spanish. They left the hunt for the elusive mission to recent archaeologists who have been trying with hope, but little success. Anthropologist Martin Gallivan of the College of William & Mary and others before him have conducted archaeological excavations at the site of a Kiskiack Indian town located on the Naval Weapons Station along the York River, but the site of the 1570 Spanish mission also lies hidden from them.

Nancy Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation


Selected Sources

Clifford M. Lewis and Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Seth Mallios, The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacán, Roanoke, and Jamestown. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.

David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Brendan Wolfe, “Don Luis de Velasco / Pacquiquineo (fl. 1561-1571).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 18 Mar. 2019. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Don_LuA


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