Ajacán Mission

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The Ajacán Mission (Spanish pronunciation: [axaˈkan]) (also Axaca, Axacam, Iacan, Jacán, Xacan) was a failed attempt in 1570 to establish a Jesuit mission on the Virginia Peninsula intended to bring Christianity to the Virginia Indians.[1] The effort to found what was to be called St. Mary's Mission predated the establishment of the English settlement at Jamestown by about 36 years.

Spanish exploration[edit]

Early in the 16th century, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to see the Chesapeake Bay (which the Spanish called "Bahía de Madre de Dios".[2] or "Bahía de Santa Maria"[3]) while in search of the fabled 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 in the New World in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida. It was the first founded by Europeans in what is now the United States. They 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). From there Juan Pardo was commissioned to lead expeditions into the interior, founding 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.

In 1561, an expedition sent by Ángel de Villafañe captured a Virginia Indian boy along Chesapeake Bay 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. Don Luis traveled to Havana with some Dominicans who were headed for Florida as missionaries, but the Dominicans 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In 1570, Father Juan Bautista de Segura, Jesuit vice provincial of Havana, had just withdrawn the Jesuit missionaries from Guale and Santa Elena,[7] and wanted to establish a mission in Ajacán without a military garrison, which was unusual.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 on their Ajacán Mission. The young Spanish boy Alonso de Olmos, called Aloncito, also accompanied the priests. Don Luis served as their guide and interpreter. They stopped partway at Santa Elena for provisioning. On September 10, the party of 10 landed in Ajacán.[8]

The Spaniards constructed a small wooden hut with an adjoining room where Mass could be celebrated.

Location undetermined[edit]

Some say that the location they chose 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] Others speculate that the location was much further north, on or near the Delaware Bay, such as the present Calvert Cliffs State Park near where the Susquehanna River flows into Chesapeake Bay.[citation needed]

Another theory places the Jesuit 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 in their memory at the Aquia Catholic cemetery, 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...". Like the other locations, this site had a significant nearby native village, a navigable stream flowing in from the north, and white cliffs (although the Aquia sandstone was used to build the U.S. Capitol and other buildings in the early 1800s). 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[edit]

Don Luis attempted to locate his native village of Chiskiack, which he had not seen in ten years, but thought he met distant relatives so the missionaries disembarked.[12] Soon after the Spanish ship had departed with their reserve supplies (since the trip had taken longer than expected), Don Luis left the Jesuits, purportedly to seek food and recruits from the nearby native people. When he failed to return, they decided he had abandoned them, perhaps disagreeing with their monogamy policy, as well as personal celibacy. Moreover, the mid-Atlantic region was enduring a long period of drought, which led to famine. The missionaries successfully traded with nearby natives for some food, but it was increasingly in short supply as the winter continued.

Around February 1571, three missionaries went toward the village where they thought Don Luis was staying, but he killed them in the forest, then brought warriors to the main mission station, killed both the priests and all six brothers, and stole all their clothing and supplies. Only Alonso Olmos, the young servant boy, was spared.[12][13] He soon escaped and took refuge with a rival native chief, who lived close to the main coast on the Chesapeake Bay.


When a Spanish supply ship arrived 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 boy who survived. Rescued more than a year after the massacre, Alonso told them about the murders and his escape, which account was duly forwarded to the Jesuit's headquarters. In August 1572, Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived from Florida to take revenge for the massacre.[14] His forces never discovered Don Luis, but hanged eight other Indians after accusing them of the missionaries' murder.

Following the deaths of Father Segura and his companions, the Spanish effectively abandoned plans for further activity in the region. 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.[15] However, the Spanish attempted no further colonization of the Chesapeake region before 1587, when English settlers arrived and attempted to found a colony (which likewise disappeared before the relief ship arrived).

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b 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 
  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. ^ a b "Spanish Martyrs for Virginia". Seattle Catholic. 2003-08-30. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  13. ^ "Chesapeake Bay - Colonial Period - The Mariners' Museum". Marinersmuseum.org. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  14. ^ Parramore, Thomas (2000). Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. p. 11. Retrieved 2011-11-05. 
  15. ^ 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[edit]

  • 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. Describes the rescue of a young boy, the sole survivor of the Indian massacre at Ajacán, and the revenge taken by the Spanish forces. University of Virginia Library.