The history of the state of Virginia offers few opportunities to reflect on the glories of the Catholic past. Its founding moments are primarily reminders of great Catholic defeats. The original English settlement of Jamestown took its name from King James I, Protestant son of Mary Stuart, the Catholic claimant to the throne of England executed by her Protestant rival, Elizabeth Tudor. The city of Williamsburg, now home to a historical theme park that has taught countless numbers of tourists about the founding of the United States, took its name from King William III, the Protestant who drove the English Catholic King James II from his throne in a coup d’etat that the victorious traitors dubbed the Glorious Revolution.
Still, the month of February provides us with an occasion to look back before these foundational moments to a Catholic past of far greater significance. The Catholic soil of Virginia may be thin, but it carries in it the blood of martyrs: Father Baptista de Segura and his Jesuit companions, missionaries who gave their lives to spread the Gospel among the Powhatan Indians in 1570.
Martyrdom reflects truths that transcend politics, yet most acts of martyrdom inevitably carry a political history. The story of the Jesuit martyrs of Virginia is in part an early chapter in the Reformation-era struggles that would later bring the execution of Mary Stuart and the founding of Jamestown. The Jesuit mission to Virginia, known at the time by its native name, Ajacán, reflected Spain’s long-standing commitment to evangelization in its New World possessions—as well as its increasing fear of encroachment on those possessions by European rivals. If only to establish a defensive perimeter, Spain—already overextended, its considerable resources dwarfed by the vastness of its claims—continued to expand its New World presence following its conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 1520s and 1530s.
Moving north from its main settlements in Central and South America, the Spanish explored what is now the southeastern part of the United States, naming it Florida. By the 1520s, Spanish coastal explorers identified a large bay emptying out into the ocean; Spanish cartographers named this Bahía de Santa María, known today by its Native American name, Chesapeake. Mapping aside, it took pressure from foreign rivals for Spain to consider establishing any permanent settlement in this territory. At war with France in the 1550s, Spain planned to establish a series of forts up the Atlantic coast as far north as the Point of Saint Elena (now Parris Island, off the coast of South Carolina) to prevent French incursion into Spain’s New World territories. The war ended in 1559 before Spain could carry out this plan.
In peace negotiations, France insisted on its right to explore any area where Spain had not established a presence. Philip II, king of Spain, wished to have an immediate settlement at Saint Elena, but Don Luis de Velasco, the Viceroy of New Spain, continued to send exploratory missions to the northernmost reaches of Florida. On one such mission in 1561, a Spanish sea captain named Antonio Velázquez rediscovered Bahía de Santa María. Two captured Natives informed him that this land was known as Ajacán. The witness of these Natives and Velázquez’s own report convinced Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the governor of Florida, that this area was a more promising base of settlement than Saint Elena.
Conflict with the French delayed further exploration of Ajacán. Following the peace treaty, the French made good on their asserted right to establish coastal settlements—with the decidedly unpeaceful intent of using these as bases from which to plunder Spanish ships laden with New World silver and gold. Governor Menéndez realized the need to build up a stronger presence further south in Florida, closer to the French forts and Spanish shipping lanes: in 1565, he founded St. Augustine, the first permanent Catholic settlement in North America. The French, under the leadership of Jean Ribault, sailed south from their base at Ft. Caroline to attack the new settlement. Shipwrecked French sailors gradually washed up on the shore south of St. Augustine. Menéndez and his troops encountered the survivors on two separate occasions, both of which ended with the slaughter of over one hundred (mostly Protestant) Frenchmen. To this day, the river where one of these atrocities occurred bears the name “Matanzas,” the Spanish word for “slaughters.”
The growth of Protestantism in France intensified what had previously been a purely political struggle between kingdoms. Europe remained the primary theater for the so-called “wars of religion” during the sixteenth century. The New World had its own religious drama, the great mission to evangelize the Native peoples. Governor Menéndez understood that mission as part of his responsibility to advance the boundaries of the Spanish empire. Having removed the French presence in southern Florida, Menéndez directed his resources toward the settling of Ajacán as the northern boundary for the advance of the sacred and secular missions of Spain.
To this end, he sought the assistance of a young Native, Don Luis de Velasco (named in honor of the Viceroy), who had been captured during the earlier 1561 expedition. Don Luis had, in the span of a few short years, traveled from Ajacán to Mexico to Spain, where he appeared at the court of Philip II; back in the New World after several years of living among the Spanish, he possessed the language skills necessary to assist missionaries in preaching the Gospel to the Natives of Ajacán. In 1566, Menéndez arranged for Don Luis to serve as a Native guide to two Dominican missionaries. This mission failed miserably. Don Luis proved unable to locate the entrance to the Chesapeake. Storm winds blew the ship out to sea and the captain simply directed the ship back to Spain.
Menéndez remained committed and entrusted his next effort to the Jesuits, by far the most successful missionary order of the sixteenth century. Though a few Jesuits had begun serving in Florida in 1566, it was not until the arrival of vice-provincial Father Baptista de Segura in 1568 that Menéndez found a man capable of leading the mission to Ajacán. From the established Spanish settlements, Fr. Segura spent two years traveling through the more proximate areas of southern Florida before agreeing that Ajacán offered the greatest potential for missionary success; the presence of the Native guide Don Luis, who appeared committed to bringing the Gospel to his people, played no small role in Segura’s decision. In 1570, Segura and a mission band including Don Luis, a fellow Jesuit priest, religious brothers and laymen set out for Ajacán from St. Elena.
Spanish soldiers were conspicuously absent from this mission band. As historian Gerald P. Fogarty notes in Commonwealth Catholicism, his history of the Catholic Church in Virginia, Segura was but one of many missionaries who had come to see the presence of soldiers as an impediment to evangelization. Soldiers had a long and bloody track record of abusing Natives, one chronicled most famously by the great Dominican missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas in his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The presence of even the best-behaved soldiers fostered an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion inimical to the free acceptance of the Gospel. Segura knew the risks of venturing into uncharted land without a military escort. He no doubt hoped that the presence of Don Luis would mitigate these risks.
At first, Don Luis proved a reliable guide and committed missionary. He led the mission ship to the Chesapeake, around Cape Henry and up the James River about forty miles, to what is now College Creek. In his initial interactions with his people, he proved himself a committed Christian: he urged the baptism of his dying three-year-old brother and refused the offer of a leadership position of his clan, claiming it would interfere with his spiritual mission. Within a week, however, Don Luis reverted to his native ways. Historians can only speculate on the reasons. Perhaps his conversion was never sincere; perhaps he was an opportunist, making the most of whatever situation he found himself. The land and people he returned to had changed drastically since his departure, famine-stricken and de-populated, quite possibly due to diseases the Spanish brought with them on their earlier visit; some historians have suggested that Don Luis may have blamed the Spanish for this and turned against them as an act of revenge. Regardless of his motives, Don Luis abandoned the Jesuit mission band to live in a far territory ruled by his uncle; there, Don Luis assumed the role of a cacique (tribal chief) and took several wives.
Fr. Segura, for his part, reached out to Don Luis to persuade him to return to the mission band. Twice he sent his plea through one of the young novices among the missionaries. Finally, in early 1571, Segura he sent more authoritative representatives, Fr. Luis Quirós and brothers Gabriel de Solís and Juan Baptista Méndez. Don Luis agreed to follow them back to the mission base, but instead arranged for a band of warriors to attack them on their return, somewhere in the general vicinity of Jamestown. There, Don Luis and his men killed Quirós and Solís; Méndez, wounded, fled into the woods only to be discovered and murdered the next morning.
A few days later, Don Luis and his companions arrived at the mission base. They asked for axes, ostensibly to cut wood, but used the axes to kill the missionaries: Fr. Segura, along with Brothers Gabriel Gómez, Pedro de Linares, Cristóbal Redondo and a novice, Sancho de Zaballos. Together, these men are the first martyrs of Virginia. Don Luis spared only Alonso de Olmos, a young boy who had pleaded with the Jesuits to let him accompany them on the mission.
We know their story thanks to the arrival of a Spanish relief expedition in the spring of 1571. As the sailors approached the shore, they saw Natives dressed in the Jesuits’ cassocks. These Powhatan lured the Spanish in with gestures of welcome, only to attack them once they drew close to shore. The Spanish won the ensuing battle, capturing two Powhatan chiefs from whom they learned of the murder of the Jesuits and the survival of Alonso. A year later, Menéndez avenged massacre with massacre—a practice, as we have seen by his dealings with the French, not unique to Spanish-Native relations. This expedition rescued young Alonso, yet never managed to track down Don Luis. The whole episode soured the Jesuits on the mission to Florida; they would focus future missionary efforts on Mexico. English Protestants took the Spanish withdrawal from the Chesapeake as an opportunity to establish their own imperial presence there, ultimately founding Jamestown in 1607.
The story of the Virginia martyrs is not some forgotten Catholic founding moment in the history of Virginia, much less of the United States. Fr. Segura and his companions gave their lives for a Catholic faith that was odious to the people who settled Jamestown and irrelevant to the American Founders. The story of their martyrdom draws its meaning from the larger history of martyrdom in the Church, one stretching from St. Stephen to our own time, in which Christians, many of them Catholic, are the most persecuted religious group in the world.
The blood of martyrs is still the seed of the Church, though often indirectly. Again, Fr. Segura did not found the Catholic Church in Virginia. When, two centuries later, the Church achieved legal status in Virginia following Independence, those who founded it were more likely to trace their roots to the Anglo and Irish Catholic life of colonial Maryland rather than to the Spanish martyrs of the sixteenth century.
Still, these martyrs speak to us in a special way today precisely because they do not fit neatly into the conventional story of the development of the Catholic Church in America. Fr. Segura was a man of the Church, but also a man of the Spanish empire. He made no absolute distinction between faith and empire, yet he saw how empire, in violent conquest, could undermine evangelization. Seeing this, he put his faith first, standing apart from Spanish power to preach the Gospel. American Catholics today, divided into hostile camps indistinguishable from the two dominant secular political parties, who do well to learn from his example.