The Spanish in Virginia Before Jamestown

The English were not the first Europeans to try to colonize the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish discovered what they called the "the Bahia de Santa Maria," explored the eastern coast of North America extensively, and tried to establish settlements in several locations in order to:

1) find a sea passage to China and the Spice Islands
(Columbus had also sought faster passage for more-profitable trade in his 1492 voyage.)
2) block French expansion from Canada and South Carolina south towards the Spanish settlements in Florida
(The oldest continually-settled city in North America is St. Augustine in Florida, founded a year before Pedro de Menendez de Aviles sailed into the Bahia de Santa Maria.)
3) block English privateers or pirates from creating a base of operations in the Chesapeake Bay to raid Spanish gold/silver shipments sailing from the Caribbean
(Privateers had authorization from a government, so they were essentially mercenaries working on commission. Pirates had no "political cover" but could keep all the loot The distinction was rarely 100% clear in practice...)
4) convert the Natives to Christianity
(Faith was an arm of government, monarchs served by "divine right," and control of religious belief was considered necessary to control political and economic behavior.)
5) discover unknown riches that may exist in unknown territories
(The wealth of Mexico and Peru was a surprise - perhaps the interior of North America would surpass it.)

the Spanish sought to block rivals from areas north of St. Augustine, Florida
the Spanish sought to block rivals
from areas north of St. Augustine, Florida
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas
1562 map showing Chesapeake Bay as Bahia de Santa Maria
1562 map showing Chesapeake Bay as Bahia de Santa Maria
(can you identify the possible locations of the James and the Susquehanna - or Potomac - rivers?)
Source: Library of Congress, 1562 map by Diego Gutiérrez -
Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio

One of their first attempts at settlement on the east coast of North America was in 1526, when Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón founded the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape. It could have been at Charlesfort/Santa Elena (near modern-day Parris Island) in South Carolina, or in Georgia around the 33 degree of latitude1, but some2 have confused this 1526 effort with the 1570 attempt by the Spanish to start a settlement in the Chesapeake Bay.

Half a century after discovering the New World, the Spanish had established successful colonies in Central and South America and were actively pillaging the native tribes of their gold and silver. The primary threat to the fleet carrying New World wealth back to Spain came from the French, English, and Dutch. By the mid-1500's, those nations were busy trying to capture ships that were bringing booty back to Spain from Central America, and at risk of establishing bases in North America to support the intercept-the-Spanish-fleet efforts.

The other major colonial power at the time was Portugal. Under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, Portugal claimed Brazil and Spain claimed the rest of the New World. As a result, Portugal focused on Africa and Brazil, plus control of the slave trade, and never sought to plunder/settle North America.

The Spanish did not have a large enough population to plant settlements up the North American coast, in addition to settling Mexico and later New Mexico (including much of the land now included in the United States, from Texas to California). Between 1539 to 1543, Hernando de Soto and his successor explored north from the Gulf of Mexico, but did not attempt to establish any long-term settlements - and turned west before he reached the modern-day boundaries of Virginia.

possible paths of Hernando de Soto expedition through the Southeast, 1539-40
possible paths of Hernando de Soto expedition through the Southeast, 1539-40
Source: National Park Service Cultural Overview, Ninety Six National Historic Site

The Spanish did recognize the need to control the North American coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, to protect their shipping and to block Euopean rivals from getting established before the Spanish could "grow north." In a conscious plan, they decided to use their base at Havana to establish new Spanish towns in Florida, and to eliminate rivals north of the new settlements.

The short-lived Spanish settlement in Virginia, established by Father Juan Baptista de Seguera in the Bahia de Santa Maria (Chesapeake Bay) watershed, was part of the Spanish defense network. Spanish activity in Virginia was spurred by the international rivalry between separate nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1561, Pedro de Menendez de Aviles sailed into the Bahia de Santa Maria. He convinced (or seized) the son of a chief to travel to Spain.3 The captured Virginia natives were Paquiquino, the 17-year old son of the werowance at "Ajacan," and a companion from the Kiskiack/Chiskiak town on the York River. They were the the first Virginians to visit the Old World.

Paquiquino and his fellow captive were exposed to Spanish-style living, and partially acculturated before being exhibited to the Spanish royal family and society "at court" in Spain. This allowed Menendez to impress people (including potential financial backers and political supporters) at home, and to expose the Native Americans to the grandeur of European culture.

Exhibiting the exotic Native Americans also showed other Europeans that Spain continued its leadership position in exploring and discovering riches in the New World, roughly 40 years before the English sailed to Jamestown. Exploration in the colonial era was a two-way discovery process between two societies. Some Virginia natives explored Europe (thanks to the Spanish) before the English explored Virginia.

(When American astronauts returned from the moon in 1969, President Nixon sent slices of the moon around the world to highlight the American success. Paquiquino was a 1560's equivalent of a moon rock.)

Paquiquino was taught the Spanish language and the Catholic religion by Dominican friars initially, then later by Jesuits in Mexico. Paquiquino was also quizzed at length about the mineral resources in his area and any rivers that could have offered a path to the Pacific.

villages of Werowocomoco and Kiskiack (at modern-day Yorktown Naval Weapons Station) about 50 years after Paquiquino met the Spanish
villages of Werowocomoco and Kiskiack (at modern-day Yorktown Naval Weapons Station) about 50 years after Paquiquino met the Spanish, with possible route of Spanish from landing site (x) to Kiskiack
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

The "freshman year of college" in Spain lasted from September, 1561 to May, 1562. Menendez then took Paquiquino to Mexico for more training. In 1566, Menendez arranged for Paquiquino, by now known by the name of "Don Luis," to go back to the Bahia de Santa Maria/Chesapeake Bay.

Apparently the Spanish ship could not find the entrance to the bay, however, so Paquiquino/Don Luis was carried to Spain again. In 1570, he was finally brought back to Virginia in a party of Jesuit missionaries led by Father Juan Baptista de Seguera.

The Spanish were trying to build a Jesuit mission that would block rival Europeans from occupying the area:4

The whole Atlantic coastline, from the peninsula in the south to the island of Newfoundland in the north, was known as La Florida. Since discovery of the area in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon, no fewer than five attempts had been made by the Spanish to establish a colony in various parts of La Florida. The sixth, successful attempt, at San Augustin [St. Augustine, Florida] in 1565, came in response to two French efforts to set up a colony at Santa Elena (or Charlesfort) on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina...

Menendez believed that this region was the northernmost habitable area south of Newfoundland, separated from it by a mountain range but connected to it by a large inlet known to the Spanish as the Bahia de Santa Maria, the modern Chesapeake Bay. The Bahia de Santa Maria, the Spanish believed, was the natural boundary of La Florida, and defense of the bay was imperative to prevent French intrusion from the north...

Spanish occupation and fortification of both the Bahia de Santa Maria and Santa Elena [were essential, in Menendez's view, to keep them out of the hands of the French, who might use them as a base from which to attack the Mexican mines.

In 1564, the Spanish eliminated the remnants of the French colony at Charlesfort. Manrique de Rojas led the expedition that burned the remaining buildings. Shortly afterwards, another French expedition built Fort Caroline near what is today Jacksonville, Florida.

In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés started a settlement at St. Augustine (Florida), to support the large force (1,000 men, 10 ships) that captured Fort Caroline. Menéndez made clear that the Spanish would allow no French settlement near Florida, by executing a large number of captives at Matanzas Inlet. Menéndez then built his own fort, Fort San Mateo, on the ruins of Fort Caroline.

In 1566, the Spanish started a settlement at Santa Elena and built a fort called San Salvador. A year later, another fort (San Felipe) was constructed there on top of the old Charlesfort.

In September, 1570, the Spaniards sailed up Powhatan's River (it would not be named after King James for 35 more years...) to what today is the Kingsmill resort, or perhaps to College Creek about 5 miles downstream from what later would be called Jamestown. Paququino/Don Luis led the group across the peninsula to what the English would later name the York River, where they discovered his younger brother was a werowance of an Algonquian-speaking town.5

Spanish settlements in the Southeast
Spanish settlements in the Southeast
Map Source: US Geologiocal Survey (USGS), National Map

The small band of missionaries expected to rely upon Paquiquino/Don Luis to negotiate with the Virginia natives to obtain food; in all the time with Paquiquino/Don Luis, no missionary learned the local language of the Algonquians. The missionaries also presumed they could convert the Native Americans.

The Spanish sailed up the James, the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads - that's a logical decision. However, unlike the English who 37 years later would stayed where they disembarked at Jamestown, the Spanish settlers walked all the way across the Peninsula. The missionaries carried everything they owned, by hand, from what the English would later call the James River all the way to the York River.

What was the attraction on the York River? The shorelines offered the same hunting and gathering habitats, and the drinking water from the York River was just as salty. Perhaps Paquiquino/Don Luis was looking for his home village, but another possibility is that the foreign missionaries wanted to locate themselves as close as possible to the spiritual center of the Native Americans.

For as much as 200-300 years before the Spaniards arrived, a site on the north bank of the York River had been "special," and would later become Powhatan's capital of Werowocomoco. If the Spanish missionaries intended to confront the pre-existing "pagan" beliefs of the Algonquians living in Tidewater Virginia, then locating the new settlement near the existing spiritual center made sense - but was also a greater threat to the existing culture, putting the missionaries lives at risk.

in 1570, Spanish missionaries located Ajacan settlement at Native American village of Kiskiack, close to Algonquian spiritual center at site Powhatan called Werowocomoco
in 1570, Spanish missionaries crossed the Peninsula from their initial landing site, to locate their Ajacan settlement at the Native American village of Kiskiack - close to the Algonquian spiritual center, at the site Powhatan called Werowocomoco
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

Paquiquino/Don Luis had been thoroughly exposed to Spanish culture in Mexico, Spain, and Havana before being returned home to the Bahia de Santa Maria with eight priests and a novice who was training to join the Jesuits. But how much was Ajacan "home" to him? Think an Algonquian who had spent much of his adolescence and all of his adult life in Spanish culture had a clear understanding of where was his home?

Despite all those years in Spain and Mexico, Paquiquino had sought to return to Ajacan. He convinced the Spanish to carry him back to the Bahia de Santa Maria twice.

Paquiquino may have called it the Chesapeake or "great shellfish bay," if he retained his pre-capture terminology. Queen Elizabeth had become ruler of England in 1558, but no one called anything in the New World "Virginia." In 1570, neither the Spanish nor the Algonquians would have used references to English leaders (King James and his son, the Duke of York), when referring to the rivers...

The Spanish gambled that Don Luis/Paquiquino would follow the Spanish way of life after being reintroduced to his village of Ajacan. Instead, Paquiquino quickly demonstrated that his personal choice was to return to his tribal lifestyle. He moved to another town, and took several wives in accordance with his status in Virginia society and in clear contrast to his Catholic teachings. Obviously 9 years in Spain and Mexico had not erased his first 17 years of Algonquian acculturation.

Paquiquino and his tribe were unwilling to support the Spanish missionaries. 1570 was a time of drought, and the Native Americans refused to provide free food or supplies to the missionaries. By December, 1570, the Spanish had traded away their tools for food. In February, 1571, after Father Seguera appealed to "Don Luis" for aid, Paquiquino eliminated the Spanish settlement. He followed Father Seguera back from the appeal for food and (with others from the town) killed him and all the other missionaries except for a young boy, Alonso de los Olmos.

possible route of Spanish to Kiskiack in 1570
possible route of Spanish to Kiskiack in 1570
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas

This was not the end to the Spanish exploration and settlement efforts, however. In 1566 and 1568, Juan Pardo explored into western North Carolina and Tennessee, perhaps reaching Saltville in western Virginia. In 2013, archeologists discovered the exact location of Pardo's Fort San Juan, built in 1567 at a site that is now 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina.6

In 1571, a Spanish ship back in the Bahia de Santa Maria (Chesapeake Bay) discovered the situation at Kiskiack. In 1572 another ship returned to "rescue" the boy and punish Paquiquino and his people. In the end, nearly 40 natives were killed, including 7 hung from the ship's rigging in full view of the people on the shoreline. The boy was returned to Spain, and future attempts at settlement in Mexico were designed to be self-sufficient in food and translators.

In 1580, over 25 years before Jamestown was settled, Father Juan Baptista de Seguera was long dead - but there were 400 people living at Santa Elena. Spanish fortifications on the coastline north of Saint Augustine were abandoned in 1587, after Sir Francis Drake attacked and captured Saint Augustine in 1586 (before stopping at Roanoke Island and bringing English settlers at that colony back to England). The Spanish then concentrated their military resources in Florida to protect the sea traffic through the Caribbean.... leaving South Carolina and Georgia open to future English colonies.

The Spanish did not attempt to settle Virginia again. Instead, they tracked English activities in North America through spies in England, and perhaps at Jamestown itself.

The Treaty of London in 1604 opened the way for English colonies in the New World, at least as the English interpreted it. The treaty was not crystal clear, and instructions to the Jamestown colonists made clear that an attack by the Spanish on the new colony was to be expected.

As a result of the Spanish visits to the Chesapeake Bay in the 1500's, the Native Virginians gained a warped - or perhaps clear - understanding of European behavior. Seeing their captured men hung from the ship's masts in 1572 must have left a lingering image that affected the greeting given the English visitors in sailing ships in 1607.

One especially-intriguing possibility is that the Native Americans in Tidewater Virginia learned about European culture and empires from Paquiquino/Don Luis. The English who settled at Jamestown discovered an unusual confederation of the tribes under Powhatan. The political sophistication of the Powhatan Confederacy may reflect the unique understanding of another culture, provided by one Virginian who had been trained by the Spanish in the European liffestyle.

NOTE: Saint Augustine, Florida, settled in 1565, rightly claims to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. The English started 20 years later, but failed in their first efforts to settle the New World at Roanoke Island in 1585 and 1587. The English failed again at Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine in 1607-08, but Jamestown hung on. The English colonists briefly abandoned Jamestown in 1610, loading everyone onto ships and sailing down the James River towards the Chesapeake Bay before running into the supply expedition led by Lord De La Warr. Jamestown is famous now as the oldest successful English settlement in North America... but it's a latecomer, compared to Spanish settlements, and it's just an historic site rather than a settled town.

1584 map speculating on how Chesapeake Bay may reach inland
1584 map speculating on how Chesapeake Bay may reach inland
Source: Library of Congress, Peruuiae avriferæ regionis typus / Didaco Mendezio auctore. La Florida / auctore Hieron. Chiaues. Guastecan reg. (1584)



1. Hackett, Charles W., "The Delimitation of Political Jurisdictions in Spanish North America to 1535," The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Feb., 1918), p.49;
2. For example, see the Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón reference in the Catholic Encyclopedia (last checked September 30, 2012)
3. Sturtevant, William C., Spanish-Indian Relations in Southeastern North America, Duke University Press, 1962, p.55
4. Charlotte M. Gradie, "Spanish Jesuits in Virginia: The Mission That Failed," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 96, No. 2 (April 1988), p.133, p.135, (last checked September 30, 2012)
5. Clifford M. Lewis, Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572, Virginia Historical Society, 1953, p.viii, (last checked September 30, 2012)
6. "Spanish fort discovered in Morganton," Charlotte Observer, July 24, 2013,; Jim Glanville, "16th Century Spanish Invasions of Southwest Virginia," Historical Society of Western Virginia Journal, XVII(l): 34-42 (2009), (last checked August 9, 2013)

Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers
Was Virginia Destined To Be English?
Jamestown - The First English Capital
Virginia Places