Ajacán Mission

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The Ajacán Mission (Spanish pronunciation: [axaˈkan]) (also Axaca, Axacam, Iacan, Jacán, Xacan) was a Spanish attempt in 1570 to establish a Jesuit mission in the vicinity of the Virginia Peninsula to bring Christianity to the Virginia Indians.[1] The effort to found what was to be called St. Mary's Mission predated the founding of the English settlement at Jamestown by about 36 years. In February 1571, all of the party were massacred by local Indians except a youth, Alonso de Olmos. The following year, a Spanish party from Florida went to the area for revenge; they reclaimed Alonso and in the course of their confrontation, killed an estimated total of 20 Indians.

Spanish exploration

Early in the 16th century, Spanish explorers were the first recorded Europeans to see the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (which the Spanish called Bahía de Madre de Dios[2] or Bahía de Santa Maria.[3]) They were searching for what Europeans believed was a Northwest Passage to India. They named the land now known as Virginia, as Ajacán ("Jacán" in Oré.[4])

The Spanish succeeded in founding a colonial settlement on the east coast of North America in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida. It was the first founded by Europeans in what is now the United States. In 1566, they established a military outpost (and the first Jesuit mission in Florida, called San Antonio de Carlos) on an island near Mound Key. The Spanish subsequently established small Spanish outposts along the eastern coast into present-day Georgia and the Carolinas. The northern-most post was Santa Elena (today Port Royal, South Carolina), located on an island offshore. From there Juan Pardo was commissioned to lead expeditions into the interior, looking for a route to Mexican silver mines. He founded Fort San Juan in 1567-1568 at the regional chiefdom of Joara as the first European settlement in the interior of North America, in present-day western North Carolina, and five other interior garrisons. All were soon destroyed by the Indians. Archeological evidence of Fort San Juan and Joara have been found.

In 1561, an expedition sent by Ángel de Villafañe captured a Virginia Indian boy from the Chesapeake Bay region and took him to Mexico.[5][6] The boy was instructed in the Catholic religion and baptized Don Luis, in honor of Luis de Velasco, the Viceroy of New Spain. The Spanish took the Indian youth to Madrid, Spain, where he had an audience with the King. He received a thorough Jesuit education. Some Dominicans headed for Florida as missionaries took Don Luis with them, stopping at Havana. They abandoned their plans for Florida.[7]


In 1570, Father Juan Bautista de Segura, Jesuit vice provincial of Havana, had just withdrawn the Jesuit missionaries from Guale and Santa Elena.[7] He wanted to found a mission in Ajacán without a military garrison, which was unusual. Despite his superiors' concerns, they gave him permission to found what was to be called St. Mary's Mission.

In August 1570, Father Segura, Father Luis de Quirós, former head of the Jesuit college among the Moors in Spain; and six Jesuit brothers set forth from their base in Havana to found an Ajacán Mission. A Spanish boy Alonso de Olmos, called Aloncito, also accompanied the priests. Don Luis went with them to serve as their guide and interpreter. They stopped at Santa Elena for provisioning.

On September 10, the party of 10 landed in Ajacán, on the north shore of one of the lower Chesapeake peninsulas.[8] The Spaniards constructed a small wooden hut with an adjoining room where Mass could be celebrated.

Location undetermined

From Spanish descriptions, historians have tried to determine the former site of the Ajacan Mission. No archeological evidence has been found to reach a firm conclusion. Some say that the location was at Queen's Creek on the north side of the Virginia Peninsula, near the York River. Recent findings suggest that St. Mary's Mission may have been in the village of Axacam on the New Kent side of Diascund Creek, near its confluence with the Chickahominy River.[9][10]

Another theory places St. Mary's Mission near the Occoquan River and Aquia Creek, in the territory of the Patawomeck tribe in present-day Stafford County. On October 27, 1935, a bronze tablet was unveiled at the Aquia Catholic cemetery in the memory of the Jesuits, listing the names of the slain: "Luis De Quiros, Priest, Baptistan Mendez and Gabriel De Solis, Scholastics, on February 4, 1571. Juan Baptista De Segura, Priest, Cristobel Redondo, Scholastic, Padro Linarez, Gabriel Gomez and Sancho Zeballos, Brothers, February 9, 1571...". This site had a significant nearby native village, a navigable stream flowing in from the north, and white cliffs. Stratford Hall also has white cliffs looming over the Potomac River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay (as well as the Rappahannock River).[11]

Abandonment and massacre

Don Luis tried to locate his native village of Chiskiack, which he had not seen in ten years. He was said to recognize distant relatives among the natives on shore, so the missionaries disembarked.[12] Don Luis soon left the Jesuits, settling with his own people at a distance of more than a day's travel. When he failed to return, the Jesuits believed that he had abandoned them. They were frightened to be without anyone who knew the language but were able to barter for some food. The mid-Atlantic region was enduring a long period of drought, which led to famine.

Around February 1571, three missionaries went toward the village where they thought Don Luis was staying. He killed them, and took other warriors to the main mission station. He and his party killed both the priests and the remaining six brothers, stealing their clothes and liturgical supplies. Only Alonso de Olmos, the young servant boy, was spared.[12][13] He was put under the care of a chief.


When a Spanish supply ship went to the mission in 1572, canoes of men dressed in clerical garb tried to get them to land, then attacked. The Spaniards killed several, and captives told them about the young Spanish boy who survived. They exchanged some of their captives for Alonso, who told them about the massacre of the mission brothers. Floridian Jesuit Missionary Father Juan Rogel wrote an account to his superior Francisco Borgia, dated August 28, 1572.[14] That month, Floridian Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived with armed forces from Florida to take revenge for the massacre of the Spanish and hoping to capture Don Luis.[15] His forces never discovered Don Luis, but baptized and hanged eight other Indians after accusing them of the missionaries' murder, and killed a total of 20 in their attack.[15]

Following the massacre of the missionaries, the Spanish abandoned plans for further activity in the region. Rogel noted that it was more densely settled than more southern areas of the East Coast, and that the people lived in settlements.[14] Recalled from St. Augustine, remaining Jesuits were sent to Mexico. In 1573, another governor of Spanish Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Márquez conducted further exploration of the Chesapeake Bay[16] but the Spanish did not attempt further colonization. In 1587, English settlers tried to establish a colony on Roanoke Island off the Virginia coast. Relief supplies were delayed for nearly two years, and the colony had died out before the relief ship arrived. They did not found Jamestown until 1607.

See also


  1. William Baptist Hill (1970). The Indians of Axacan and the Spanish Martyrs: The Beginnings of Virginia, 1570. Prestwould House. 
  2. Oré:20
  3. Lowery:459
  4. Oré:21
  5. Loker, Aleck (2010). La Florida: Spanish Exploration and Settlement in North America, 1500 To 1600. p. 184. Retrieved 2011-11-05. 
  6. Stephen Adams (2001), The Best and Worst Country in the World: Perspectives on the Early Virginia Landscape, University of Virginia Press, p. 61, ISBN 978-0-8139-2038-2 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Lowery:360
  8. Woodbury Lowery (1905), The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States: Florida 1562-1574, G.P. Putnam's Sons, p. 361, ISBN 978-1-174-84782-0  Lowery on page 471 lists the "scant evidence" that exists as to the precise location of the 1570 mission, declaring that it could have been on any of the southern Chesapeake tributaries.
  9. [also designating St. Elizabeth Anne Seton Parish in Quinton, New Kent County as the Shrine of the Jesuit martyrs. Matthew M. Anger, "Spanish Martyrs for Virginia"], Seattle Catholic, 6 Aug 2003 available at http://www.seattlecatholic.com/article_20030830.html
  10. Flach, Michael F. (2003-02-09). "Editor's Desk: Busy Time in Richmond". The Arlington Catholic Herald. Catholicherald.com. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  11. "Stratford Cliffs". Stratford Hall. 2010-02-27. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Spanish Martyrs for Virginia". Seattle Catholic. 2003-08-30. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  13. "Chesapeake Bay - Colonial Period". Mariners Museum. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Letter of Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia", 28 August 1572, Virtual Jamestown Project, University of Virginia Library, accessed 8 January 2015
  15. 15.0 15.1 Parramore, Thomas (2000). Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. p. 11. Retrieved 2011-11-05. 
  16. Parramore, Thomas (2000). Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. pp. 1–16. Retrieved 2011-11-05. 


  • Lowery, Woodbury. (1959) The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States: Florida 1562-1574. Russell & Russell.
  • Oré, Luís Gerónimo de, O. F. M. Translated by Maynard Geiger, O. F. M. "The Martyrs of Florida". In David Hurst Thomas. (1991) Ed. Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks 23: The Missions of Spanish Florida. Garland Publishing, Inc.

Further reading

  • Rountree, Helen C. Powhatan Foreign Relations: 1500–1722. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies, New York: Viking, 2001.
  • Jamestown 2007, America's 400th Anniversary
  • "Ajacan, The Spanish Jesuit Mission", The Mariners' Museum, 2002
  • Lewis, Clifford M. and Albert J. Loomie (1953). The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia 1570-1572. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 
  • "Letter of Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia", 1572. Letter by Floridian Jesuit Missionary Juan Rogel to Spanish noble and Jesuit Francis Borgia, 4th Duke of Gandía describes the rescue of Alonso, the sole survivor of the Indian massacre at Ajacán, and the revenge taken by the Spanish forces. University of Virginia Library.