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The Ajacán Mission (Spanish pronunciation: [axaˈkan]) was a failed attempt in the 16th century by Spanish Jesuit priests to Christianize the Native Americans on the Virginia Peninsula in the New World. The mission, which would have been known as "St. Mary's Mission," predated the establishment of the English settlement at Jamestown by about 36 years.

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Spanish exploration

Early in the 16th century, Spanish explorers discovered the Chesapeake Bay while in search of the fabled (and non-existent until recent times) Northwest Passage to India. They gave the land now known as Virginia the name "Ajacán."

After several failed attempts to colonize the portion of the New World now known as the United States, the Spanish succeeded in 1565 with the establishment of St. Augustine, the first city founded by Europeans in what is now the United States. Small settlements spread northward along the eastern coast into Georgia and the Carolinas. The northern-most post was Santa Elena (today Port Royal, South Carolina).

Spanish exploration northward in the area of the Chesapeake Bay continued into the late 16th century. During one such trip in 1560, an Indian boy captured by the Spanish was brought to Mexico. He was instructed in the Catholic religion and baptized Don Luis, in honor of Luis de Velasco,the Viceroy of New Spain. The youth was transported to Madrid, Spain, and had an audience with the Emperor. He received a thorough Jesuit education. Don Luis returned to the New World as part of a mission to create a Jesuit outpost in his homeland. Having difficulty recognizing his home land from the ships' viewpoint, he convinced his Spanish captors he was in the right place - he may not have been in his homeland, but may rather have sensed the captain's frustration and claimed the land as his homeland so that he would not lose the opportunity to ever get home.

Some writers speculate that Don Luis, an Indian captive, was taken with Jesuits and planted near the York or James River in the Chesapeake Bay. This is speculation without any proof. Some writers write with authority that Don Luis was actually Powhatan or Powhatan's brother Opechancanough. This is pure speculation and is very unlikely. Captain John Smith was captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough. He presented Opechancanough with a compass, with which Opechancanough was fascinated. If Opechancanough were Don Luis, he would have seen many compasses and would not have been so fascinated with it or with Captain John Smith's stories of the sun and stars.

Mission sited

In 1570, Father Juan Bautista de Segura, Jesuit vice provincial of Havana, wanted to establish a mission in Ajacàn without a military garrison, which was unusual. Despite concerns about the plan's feasibility, Father Segura eventually obtained permission from his superiors for the founding of the new St. Mary's Mission.

In August 1570, Father Segura, Father Luis de Quiros, former head of the Jesuit college among the Moors in Spain, and six Jesuit brothers set forth from their base in Havana on their Ajacàn Mission, seeking to establish a new outpost to be called St. Mary's Mission. A young Spanish boy, Alonso Olmos, called Aloncito, also accompanied the priests to serve Mass. They were also accompanied by Don Luis as their guide and translator. On September 10, the party of 10 landed in Ajacàn.

Exact location

Some say that the location they chose was at Queen's Creek on the north side of the Lower Peninsula, near the York River. Some say that there are recent findings that 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. Others speculate that the location was in Delaware Bay.

In either case, Don Luis soon set about attempting to locate his native village, which he had not seen in ten years. In the same general area, the Spaniards constructed a small wooden hut with an adjoining room where Mass could be celebrated. Soon after the ship bringing them had departed, Don Luis left the Jesuits, supposedly to seek his uncle and supplies. However, rather than returning, he rejoined his tribe, where his brother had become the weroance, and took several wives, as was the custom.

Abandonment

As time went by—first days, and then months—the small band of Jesuits realized that they had been abandoned by Don Luis. To their added misfortune, it was a time when the mid-Atlantic region was enduring a long period of famine due to drought conditions. The food they brought with them was in short supply. Immediately there was a dependence on the Indians for food.

They successfully traded with some natives for food, but it was increasingly in short supply as the winter months set in. Around February of 1571, Don Luis returned with other natives and stole all their clothing and supplies. The natives killed both of the priests and all six brothers. Only Alonso, the young servant boy, was spared, perhaps because he was not a Jesuit. Escaping the carnage, the young boy made his way to a rival native chief who lived close to the main coast on the Chesapeake Bay. There he waited until the relief expedition arrived in 1572.

Aftermath

More than a year after the massacre, a Spanish supply ship found and rescued Alonso, upon which he gave the only survivor's account. Subsequently, Florida's Governor, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, traveled to Ajacàn to punish the culprits. The native-convert Don Luis proved ever elusive and was never discovered. However, eight other Indians accused of murdering the missionaries were promptly hanged by the Spaniards.

The disastrous attempt at establishing a mission in Virginia spelled the end of Spanish ventures to colonize the area. Following the death of Father Segura and his companions in the Ajacàn Mission venture, the Jesuits were recalled from St. Augustine and sent on to Mexico.

Opechancanough

At the time of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, a fierce Native American warrior named Opechancanough was the half-brother of Wahunsonacock, the Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, The name Opechancanough meant "He whose Soul is White" in the Algonquin language.

It is speculated by some historians that Opechancanough was the same individual who had also been known as "Don Luis". This is very unlikely since Opechancanough was so interested in Captain John Smith's stories of the earth, sun and stars. What is known with certainty is that Opechancanough was violently opposed to the European settlers who arrived at Jamestown beginning in 1607. It was he who led the party that captured Captain John Smith in late 1607 and brought him before Chief Powhatan at Werowocomoco. (This was the same incident later recounted by Smith in one of his books when the Chief's daughter Pocahontas allegedly intervened on Smith's behalf, saving his life).

A period of relative peace between the Powhatans and the settlers ended not long after the death of Wahunsonacock in 1618, when Opechancanough became the new chief. Beginning with the Indian massacre of 1622, Chief Opechancanough gave up on diplomacy with the English settlers of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia and tried to force them to abandon the region both then and again in 1644, when he was captured. Opechancanough was later killed by a soldier assigned to guard him.

At the time he was killed in 1644, Opechancanough was estimated to be between 90 and 100 years old. The timing makes the possibility that he and the Don Luis who sabotaged the Jesuit Ajacàn Mission in 1571 were one and the same at least feasible.

Modern times

The Richmond Diocese of the Catholic Church has designated "St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish" in New Kent County as the new Shrine of the Jesuit Martyrs.

Sources

  • Rountree, Helen C. Powhatan Foreign Relations: 1500–1722. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 1993.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.

Further reading

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

See also

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