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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
30 Aug 2003

Spanish Martyrs for Virginia

by Matthew M. Anger

Fr. Segura's Lost Mission of 1570-71

In 2002, the Diocese of Richmond opened the cause for the canonization of the Spanish Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia. This has renewed interest in the fascinating, almost fantastic, tale of a lost Spanish colony in Virginia and the men who died trying to convert the Ajacan Indians. In 1571, Fr. Segura and his seven companions were killed by hostile tribesmen at the St. Mary's mission sited on Virginia's Lower Peninsula, near the Chesapeake Bay. This was close to the spot where the English would permanently settle just thirty years later. Fr. Russell E. Smith is the postulator for the martyrs' canonization and a judge with the diocesan tribunal. Fr. Smith learned about the Jesuit settlement while growing up in historic Williamsburg, Virginia and as a priest he took up the matter with the postulator general for the Society of Jesus, in Rome. The Virginia Historical Society and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities have also lent their scholarly support for evidence of the Spanish mission. Meanwhile, the Richmond diocese has designated St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in New Kent County as the new Shrine of the Jesuit Martyrs.

Spiritual Conquistadors

When Sir Walter Raleigh claimed the territory of Virginia for England's Queen Elizabeth in the 1580s, he was a relative late-comer. Some fifty years before, Spaniards had landed in what some historians estimate to be the Chesapeake Bay. Spanish attempts at colonization in the geographical limits of the present United States probably began in the summer of 1526. Judge Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, with an expedition of 600 other settlers, sailed from San Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). They were accompanied by two Dominican priests and two religious. Entering the capes along the coast the Spaniards made their way up a major river, said to be the James in Virginia. They landed at the Indian town of Guandape, which Ayllon christened San Miguel de Guandape (St. Michael of Guandape). Unfortunately for this first attempt at European settlement, conditions were harsh and Ayllon died in October from fever. The colonists lasted through a miserable winter and fended off hostile Indians, finally departing in the spring of 1527. Only 150 Spaniards reached San Domingo alive.

The conquest of Mexico had challenged Spanish fortitude and zeal. Yet by comparison, the territory of the present United States was to prove even more difficult. The northern lands were more heavily wooded and sparsely settled and the natives were hunter gatherers as opposed to the more sedentary, agricultural based populations further south. The relatively higher level of culture under the Aztecs certainly lent itself to the forging of a new civilization in Mexico. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Florida settlement (which included the entire southeastern seaboard) was logistical. Whereas a handful of Spaniards could keep the peace amongst the natives of Mexico, a significantly higher proportion of men, working with scanty resources, were demanded in Florida. Spain could spare few individuals from its vast imperial efforts for this relative backwater which, though strategically crucial, was always a losing proposition. There were no gold fields and even foodstuffs had to be imported.

Throughout the northern American territories, both French and Spanish Jesuits would endure terrible trials and sufferings with often painfully disappointing results. Unlike Mexico, which ultimately yielded millions of converts for the Catholic Church, the American woodlands produced only a few thousand new disciples. There were certainly periods of apathy and disillusionment. The Jesuits remarked that their primary aim was not martyrdom but conversion and the spread of Catholic culture, which the natives so violently resisted. Nevertheless, they were resigned to the possibility of dying for their faith, and many faced it with a heroic resolve that seems difficult for us to fathom. It was a passive heroism that rivaled the active military valor of the famous conquistadors.

In all, there were five attempts to conquer la Florida (the "place of flowers"). The last succeeded in 1565 with the establishment of St. Augustine, the first city in the United States. Dozens of mission stations and presidios (forts) dotted what is preset-day Florida, while small settlements spread along the eastern coast into Georgia and the Carolinas. The northern-most post was Santa Elena (today Port Royal, South Carolina).

Despite Ayllon's failure in 1526, there were continued Spanish expeditions to the Chesapeake Bay, named "La Bahia de la Madre de Dios" (the Bay of the Mother of God) or "La Bahia de Santa Maria" (the Bay of St. Mary). On one of such journey in 1560, the son of an Algonkian chief in Ajacan (as Virginia was called) was captured and brought to Mexico. He was instructed in the Catholic religion and baptized Don Luis, in honor of Luis de Velasco, his sponsor, the Viceroy of New Spain. It would seem that the Indian convert was favored with a trip to Madrid, an audience with the Emperor and a thorough Jesuit education. The next serious foray into Ajacan was not until 1570, when a group of missionaries sailed north from Santa Elena. This small band consisted of Father Segura, Vice-Provincial of the Jesuits, Father de Quiros, six Jesuit brothers and a servant. They were accompanied by the Indian Don Luis as their guide and translator.

Fr. Segura's Ambition

We can gather a reasonably detailed picture of the mission and its members through the collection of primary source materials and the indispensable work of Clifford M. Lewis, S.J. and Albert J. Loomie, S.J. published in 1953. Some material is admittedly conjectural interpolation by men writing after the event, but there is enough agreement in the essentials to provide a portrait of the events that transpired. The only surviving eye-witness of the mission was Alonso de Olmos, the boy who accompanied the Jesuits as their altar server and assistant. He was probably between the age of twelve and fourteen at the time of Fr. Segura's mission, and it is from his recollections that all subsequent accounts are drawn.

The leader of the ill-fated expedition, Fr. Juan Baptista Segura was roughly forty-one at the time of his martyrdom. He had been ordained in 1557 and entered the Society of Jesus at Alcala, Spain in 1566. Fr. Segura was a well read individual and a popular teacher. He spent many years as a professor and rector at a number of institutions before taking a position at the college of Valladolid. There he had the misfortune of stepping into the crossfire of petty factional squabbles and attempts at impartiality only seemed to worsen his reputation amongst the querulous locals. He was an extremely reticent man who devoted a great deal of effort to cultivating in himself the virtues of humility and obedience, yet he felt more and more drawn to the idea of an overseas mission. No doubt the scandal-mongering which confronted him at the university was a strong incentive to go abroad. Says Florida historian, Frank Marotti

An easy-going leadership style and a scrupulous conscience had served Segura well in remote areas of northern Spain. This was not true in pressure-packed Valladolid, where vehement political disputes rocked his college. Segura was ambitious, but only in the spiritual sense; he desired a post in the Indies [i.e. the New World], where he believed he could demonstrate his love for Christ in a heroic manner.

The memory of St. Francis Xavier, who died in 1552 while almost single-handedly building the Church in Asia, was still fresh in everyone's minds, including Fr. Segura's. With the permission of his superiors, Fr. Segura was permitted to go overseas. In 1567 he was named vice-provincial of Florida and after a rather eventful trans-Atlantic crossing, including a hairbreadth escape from Caribbean headhunters, he arrived the following year in the New World with three other Jesuit priests.

Inexperienced but enthusiastic, Fr. Segura was inspired by a favorable account of the northern Florida missions given by Fr. Juan Rogel who had recently toured Guale and Santa Elena. Yet when it came to talk of an Ajacan mission, Rogel and the district superior, Fr. Martinez, were dubious. Nor was their skepticism unjustified. The Florida apostolate was doing all it could just to meet its present obligations. Why increase its burdens? Fr. Segura countered by saying that the slow progress of the existing missions demanded new opportunities. Furthermore, accounts of the great Chesapeake Bay near Ajacan held forth the ever elusive hope of a direct water route to Asia, which European explorers were to pursue even two centuries later. Fr. Segura also wanted to establish a mission without a military garrison. As startling as this demand was to his contemporaries, it was not totally unreasonable. One of the chief stumbling blocks to converting the Indians was the often deplorable conduct of the colonial soldiers, which missionaries were forever lamenting in their letters to Spain. Soldiers on garrison duty, not challenged by the prospect of fighting, were apt to seek an outlet for their boredom in drunkenness, thievery, bullying and sexual license. It was an age old problem.

Despite concerns about the plan's feasibility, Fr. Segura eventually obtained a green light from his superiors for the founding of St. Mary's mission. In August 1570 he and his ten companions, including the convert Don Luis, sailed from their base of operations in Havana to the Santa Elena settlement (South Carolina). This was the final stop-over before Ajacan. At Santa Elena they were outfitted with the best religious articles, including chalices, monstrances, and vestments by Br. Juan de la Carrera.

Br. Carrera, a hardened veteran of the Florida missionary circuit had conflicting views about the journey north. Fr. Segura's plans were "praiseworthy, for they came from a holy, sincere Christian heart, and I gave him high praise. But I pointed out the difficulty in the execution of the plan, saying that the Indian [Don Luis] did not satisfy me...." No doubt Br. Carrera shared the bitter experience of other missionaries, who found the Indians often dissimulated before their European overlords. They would proclaim loyalty to the Spanish crown and church to gain favors and alliances against rival tribes, but would frequently come up short on their end of the bargain. Br. Carrera saw that Don Luis was "a liar" and "a clever talker," but Fr. Segura could not be dissuaded from the idea that the Algonkian was another "Paul of Holy Faith," referring to the Japanese convert who helped St. Francis Xavier in Asia. The mission's "second-in-command" was Fr. Quiros, also fresh from Spain and eager to claim new conquests for the Church.

The Ajacan Mission

On September 10, the Jesuits landed in Ajacan. Previous research placed the spot at Queen's Creek on the north side of the Lower Peninsula, near the York River. New findings, however, 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. This would have been reached via the James River. Both spots, however, are relatively close to one another (and to the later English settlement). Certainly the physical details remain elusive. This is true for most early explorations, such as the mysterious "Lost Colony" at Roanoke under Sir Walter Ralegh in 1587. But there is little doubt as to the basic facts or the chronology of events.

Don Luis led them there in search of his native village of Chiskiak (or Kiskiak) which he had not seen in ten years. It was near this spot that a small wooden hut was constructed with an adjoining room where Mass could be celebrated. After establishing their camp with the help of the ship's pilot, Fr. Quiros wrote a letter (with a postscript by Fr. Segura) to the Treasurer of Cuba who was a chief benefactor of the Jesuits in New Spain. It is the only writing that has survived from the Ajacan mission. Fr. Quiros relates that Don Luis was uncertain as to the exact spot of his tribe. Ravaged by drought and famine, many of the inhabitants had removed to other areas. Contact was eventually made, and relatives of Don Luis greeted them with good will and "seemed to think that Don Luis had risen from the dead." A "brother" (possibly a nephew) of Don Luis, in a nearby village, was reported to be fatally ill, and the Indian asked that one of the Fathers baptize him.

The Algonkians who inhabited Ajacan were, according to Spanish and later English narratives, remarkably tall (up to six feet in height), athletic and more fair skinned than other tribes. Yet their existence was primitive and austere. Clothing consisted of animal skins while many lacked even that luxury, going about almost naked with nothing more than skirts made of grass or leaves.

While spiritual prospects seemed hopeful—the local chief was interested in hearing the Gospel preached—material conditions posed immediate challenges. The missionaries were forced to share half their rations with the ship's crew, who had run low on food during the long journey from Santa Elena. The Indians did not know how to properly harvest and store food for use in the winter, since they would eat most of the food as it was gathered. Nevertheless they did generously share some of their corn with the missionaries upon their arrival. During the cold months, however, they would barely eke out an existence on roots and berries. Fr. Quiros requested an urgent shipment of grain in the hopes that the missionaries could impart the rudiments of agriculture which would make the natives more sedentary and less prone to starvation.

The Massacre

Don Luis was on his best behavior during the two days that the ship's crew remained to assist the missionaries and, following his example, the locals were quite hospitable. Yet almost as soon as the ship disappeared over the horizon, the Jesuits were left completely at Don Luis' mercy and his demeanor began to change. No longer was he constrained by the mores of Spanish civilization. In the Virginia wilds, with the old ways of his people beckoning, Don Luis seems to have quickly shed his Christian scruples. Accounts show that "marital immorality" was his downfall, since he was a member of the native aristocracy for whom polygamy was de rigueur.

Don Luis asked permission to visit his uncle, the reigning chief, who lived a day and a half away. Having heard the Indian's reasonable excuses, such as that he wanted to gather catechumens for the mission and food for the Jesuits, Fr. Segura assented. As the days passed and no word was heard from their native guide, the truth of the situation must have quickly dawned on the missionaries. According to the sole survivor, the young Alonso, the Jesuits braced themselves for the worst. Death at the hands of the local inhabitants was all too common. They increased their prayers and devotions and meanwhile coped as best they could, hoping that Don Luis might repent or that Spanish help would soon arrive. Fr. Rogel, while taking part in the belated relief expedition to Ajacan in August 1572, wrote the following account:

Father Master Baptista [Segura] sent a message by a novice Brother on two occasions to the renegade. Don Luis would never come, and [the Jesuits] stayed there in great distress, for they had no one by whom they could make themselves understood to the Indians.... They got along as best they could, going to other villages to barter for maize with copper and tin, until the beginning of February. The boy [Alonso] says that each day Father Baptista caused prayers to be said for Don Luis, saying that the devil held him in great deception. As he had twice sent for him and he had not come, he decided to send Father Quiros and Brother Gabriel de Solis and Brother Juan Baptista to the village of the chief near where Don Luis was staying. Thus they could take Don Luis along with them and barter for maize on the way back. On the Sunday after the Feast of the Purification, Don Luis came to the three Jesuits who were returning with other Indians. He sent an arrow through the heart of Father Quiros and then murdered the rest....

According to Rogel's letter, the incident would have taken place in early February, 1571.

Leaving the deputation of three Jesuits dead or dying in the forest, the Indian party swooped down on Fr. Segura's encampment. Don Luis stealthily confiscated all the tools and hatchets so as to leave the Spaniards defenseless. It was said that as a ruse he claimed he wanted the tools to fell timber in the woods. The Indians had the European axes and their own machetes ready, and Don Luis assigned one native to one Spaniard each, so that they would be killed all at once without being able to combine in self-defense. Br. Carrera, who had such grave premonitions about the mission the year before, said that the "wretched and perverse Don Luis attacked Father Baptista... to pay him back for the many kindnesses shown him." Fr. Segura lay ill in his hut on a grass mat. When his former Indian protégé entered, the priest greeted him joyfully: "You are very welcome, Don Luis!" The Indian replied with a series of axe blows to Segura's head and body. The other Jesuits were similarly dealt with. One of them, Br. Cristobal Redondo, was in the kitchen. He was described in disposition and speech as being "more of an angel than a man." When his appointed murderer suddenly appeared and wounded him he cried out: "Help me, my Fathers, they are going to kill me." But it was too late.

Alonso at first rushed in amongst the Indians to try to prevent the killing, or else to be martyred with the Jesuits, but was held back by Don Luis' brother who hid the boy in a nearby hut. One may be surprised that the Indians did not finish him off as well. It would seem Alonso was spared because he was not a Jesuit and, moreover, because of his youth. The Indians throughout colonial history had a practice of adopting the young of their enemies. Nevertheless, the treacherous Don Luis quickly regretted this oversight. He plotted of a way to dispose of the only eye-witness to the massacre in the likelihood that the Spaniards might return. Fortunately, either due to the influence of a friendly Indian or Alonso's own perspicacity, the young boy made his way to a rival chief who lived close to the main coast on the Chesapeake Bay. There he waited until the relief expedition arrived in 1572, by which time he had nearly forgotten his own language.

The intriguing question is why did Don Luis turn so suddenly on his benefactors? Fathers Lewis and Loomie offer two motives. One contributing cause was the precious vessels used by the possessed. After the massacre Don Luis and the others not only dressed themselves in the attractive vestments but also wore patens around their necks and drank from the gold chalices. But there were probably deeper motives at work than mere covetousness

[Greed] may have induced Luis' companions to follow him, and it would have been a strong motive in a tribe where wealth meant greater power and possession of more women. But it hardly explains Luis' own actions, which seem to have been immediately occasioned by the third visit and the importunity of the Jesuits, calling upon him to abandon his sins and to return to the practice of his religion. In the light of ... studies of historic Indian psychology... we may expect Don Luis to manifest extreme sensitivity to overtones of anger or public criticism, in his case a sensitivity perhaps heightened by a disturbed conscience if his conversion had been genuine.

Such, note the writers, was the motive behind the massacre of Franciscans at Guale (Georgia) only a few years later.


More than a year after the massacre, a Spanish supply ship found and rescued Alonso. Upon receiving news of the killings, Florida Governor Menendez arrived in Ajacan to punish the culprits, though Don Luis proved ever elusive and was never discovered. Eight other Indians accused of murdering the missionaries were promptly hanged by the Spaniards.

The disastrous attempt at a Virginia colony spelled the end of Spanish ventures in the area. Following the death of Fr. Segura and his companions, the Jesuits were recalled from St. Augustine and sent on to Mexico where the harvest, temporal and spiritual, seemed much more promising. In the judgment of Theodore Maynard, "The failure [of the Virginia mission] was made glorious by martyrdom. It was therefore not a failure under its religious aspect." At the same time it is also true that

The abandonment of the Chesapeake region... was politically disastrous for Spain. Could it have been held, an effectual barrier would have been erected against the encroachments of the English in Virginia. But not even Spanish energy was quite sufficient to keep its grip on such far-flung territories. It was already becoming as much as the authorities could do to protect the settlements already made in the Indies and Central America...

Spain expended so much energy in maintaining her Mexican colony that the initial sacrifice of conquering the U.S. seaboard did not seem worthwhile, though, as the English were to discover, this part of the New World would eventually yield the most fertile territories. Interestingly, English settlement was first prompted, in a purely negative way, by Spanish colonization. They wanted to counter Catholic activity in Florida and the Caribbean. The ill-fated Roanoke colony of 1587 and the subsequent Jamestown settlement of 1607 were in large part meant to be bases of operation for privateers and soldiers to attack la Florida.

As rum and guns flowed southwards from the English towns, many of the natives turned against Spanish rule. No doubt the Indians thought they were cleverly playing off one tribe of Europeans against another for their own short-term gain. Little did they think that in the place of the traders and missionaries who dominated the Spanish settlement would come the growing waves of English pioneers who would clear the forests and expel or kill the Indians without even the pretense of converting them. By contrast, the lack of intensive cultivation and depopulation by Spanish colonists generally favored their relations with the natives. But it hindered them insofar as they could no longer compete with English interlopers whose growth in population and territory in the New World quickly surpassed them.

It is worth noting that the colony at Jamestown faced many of the harsh conditions as endured by Ayllon and Segura, and its survival was touch-and-go for many years. Even as late as 1622—fifteen years after Captain John Smith first landed on the James Peninsula—the settlement was nearly wiped out in an Indian raid which claimed 347 lives. The Indian chief who sought the destruction of the Jamestown settlers was the aged Openchancanough. As legend would have it, he was the apostate Don Luis who had killed Fr. Segura and his companions in 1571. An ironic footnote to the noble failure of the Virginia mission.


Matthew Anger currently resides in the Richmond, Virginia area with his wife and six children. He is a frequent writer for traditional Catholic publications on historical, political and cultural topics.

· Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
· Lewis, Clifford M., S.J. and Loomie, Albert J., S.J. The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia 1580-1572. Richmond, Virginia: The Virginia Historical Society, 1953.
· Hill, William B. The Indians of Axacan and the Spanish Martyrs: The Beginnings of Virginia, 1570. Clarksville, Virginia: Prestwould House, 1970.
· Neill, Steve. "Richmond Diocese Promotes Cause of Jesuit Martyrs." Arlington Catholic Herald, July 18, 2002.
· Woodbury, Lowry. The Spanish Settlements Within the Present Limits of the United States, Florida 1562-1574. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905.
· Marotti, Frank, Jr. "Juan Baptista de Segura and the Failure of the Florida Jesuit Mission, 1566-1572." The Florida Quarterly, LXIII (Fall 1985): 267-279.
· Maynard, Theodore. The Story of American Catholicism, Vol. I. New York: Image Books, 1960, p. 44.
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