The Spanish in Virginia Before Jamestown

The Spaniards came first; the English were not the first Europeans to try to colonize Virginia. In the 1560's, Spanish officials sent a military expedition inland that explored southwestern Virginia, and tried to establish a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay. They explored the eastern coast of North America extensively, and tried to establish settlements in several locations along the Atlantic Coast 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.)

1562 map showing Chesapeake Bay as Bahia de Santa Maria - the Spanish clearly misunderstood the geography of the Eastern Shore)
1562 map showing Chesapeake Bay as Bahia de Santa Maria - the Spanish clearly misunderstood the geography of the Eastern Shore
Source: Library of Congress, 1562 map by Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio

The first permanent posts established by Europeans in North America were simple fishing camps in Newfoundland and Labrador, not in Forida or Virginia. Those camps remained as single-purpose, isolated communities; other sites led to European colonization of the North American continent in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ponce de Leon led the first major European exploration of the continent in 1513, then returned in 1521. The first attempt at large-scale settlement on the east coast of North America was in 1526, when Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón founded the short-lived colony of San Miguel de Gualdape somewhere on the Georgia/South Carolina coastline. Ayllón invested his personal fortune, shipping 600 people from his base in Hispanola to start the new settlement. They arrived in October when it was too late to plant crops, got sick and hungry, and then Ayllón died. After just three months, the survivors returned to Hispanola.1

The next major expedition to North America was also led by a Spaniard seeking to become richer from new discoveries. In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez took 300 soldiers on his expedition through Florida. They landed at the site of modern Tampa and spent the winter at Apalachee (Tallahassee), before traveling west along the Gulf Coast. The resupply ships and the land party failed to link up on the coast, leaving the expedition on its own. Eight years later in 1536, the only four people to survive the trip reached Mexico City.

The next Spanish investment in exploring North America was Hernando de Soto's party between 1539 to 1543. It travelled inland from Apalachee, going much deeper into the interior of today's southeastern United States.

De Soto brought Spanish goods and diseases such as malaria - but probably not pandemic-causing diseases such as smallpox. Those came to the Carolina Piedmont and Tennessee River watershed later, when colonists in the Carolinas set up a slave trade to capture Native Americans prior to the import of Africans.2

Hernando de Soto's expedition came close to the modern-day boundaries of Virginia. In 1540, he camped at the Native American town of Xuala (near what is now the town of Morganton, North Carolina), then turned west and headed towards Mexico.3

Throughout the 1500's, the Spaniards focused on pillaging the native tribes in Mexico and South America of their gold and silver, sending shiploads of loot back across the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal focused on Brazil and the slave trade, after dividing claims to the New World with Spain under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

For the first six decades of the 16th Century, France, England, and the Netherlands lacked the capacity to create colonies in the New World and compete with Spain or Portugal. Still, European rivals were able to capture Spanish ships carrying New World wealth back home, whether or not the nations were officially at war. To support the intercept-the-Spanish-fleet efforts, those European nations considered establishing bases in North America.

The Spanish recognized the need to establish North American bases on the Atlantic Ocean to protect their shipping, and to block European rivals from establishing fortifications on the coast. However, the Spanish did not have a large enough population in the Western Hemisphere to plant settlements everywhere. The priority locations for Spanish occupation were the Caribbean islands, South America, and Mexico. Planting settlements up the North American coast, expanding to the north, came last.

The French finally triggered the Spaniards to act. In 1562, Jean Ribault built a fort at Port Royal near the modern Marine Corps base at Parris Island, South Carolina. The resupply of the 30 men left at "Charlesfort" was interrupted by conflict back home in France (a precursor to what would happen to a later English colony left on Roanoke Island). The men mutinied after one person had been exiled and left to starve, then built a ship to return to Europe. After running out of food on that trip, they turned to cannabalism and drew lots to see who would be killed. By chance, the person who was killed and eaten turned out to be the one who had been rescued from starvation; exploration and occupation of new territory was a dangerous business.4

In 1564, the French returned to start a new settlement, this time in part to create a refuge for Protestant Huguenots who were fleeing religious persecution in France. They built Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River near modern Jacksonville, Florida. In response, the Spaniards established new towns in what today is Florida and South Carolina, and proceeded to eliminate the French. (No Spanish towns were established on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1560's because it was too far away from resupply from Cuba or Hispaniola, and the main threat was the French effort to create a base near the Straights of Florida.)

The Spanish must have suspected from previous explorations that North American tribes did not have gold or silver comparable to civilzations in Mexico and Peru. From the king of Spain's perspective, however, new towns along the coast would limit the ability of European rivals to sail from American bases and capture Spanish treasure ships.

Nonetheless, the main stimulant for the first Spanish settlements in North America was the desire for private profit. Pedro Menendez de Aviles got authority from the King of Spain to govern the Atlantic coastline from the Florida Keys to Newfoundland, and proceeded to raise money for developing his claim. He thought the silver mines in Mexico were only 1,000 or so miles to the west, and planned to build a series of towns along the route.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés built St. Augustine in Florida in 1565, and quickly attacked and destroyed Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River. At the same time, the Spanish got lucky - ships sent from France to support Fort Caroline were wrecked by a storm off the Atlantic Coast. The French survivors ended up stranded on a beach near St. Augustine, where the Spanish found and executed them (including Jean Ribault).

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

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés built the town of Santa Elena near the site of Charlesfort in 1566. It was designed to be an agricultural colony, not a military base, but the King of Spain sent Juan Pardo with 250 men as reinforcements after the conflict with the French at Fort Caroline.5

There was not enough food for everyone at the settlement, so Pardo led half of the force on an exploration of the interior, towards the Spanish settlements in Mexico. In 1567, the Juan Pardo expedition established Fort San Juan near the Blue Ridge, at the same town where de Soto had camped in 1540 (though in 1567, Xuala was called Joara).

Juan Pardo attempted to maintain a series of inland forts. The forts gave Spain some control inland from the coast, but the main benefit was that the soldiers could live off resources other than what was available at Santa Elena. Pardo left his sergeant Hernando Moyano in command at Fort San Juan, moved further inland to build another fort at at Guatari (near modern Salisbury, North Carolina), and then returned to Santa Elana.

In his efforts to maintain the support of the Native Americans at Joara, Moyano got ensnared in local disputes between different Native American groups. He took 20 soldiers north into what is now Virginia and attacked the Chiscas tribe's town of Maniateque, near modern Saltville in Smyth County. The first Europeans to enter Virginia (other than occasional sailors seeking water, food, and female companionship on the shoreline...) were members of that 1567 expedition led by Hernando Moyano.6

in 1567, Hernando Moyano led a foray from Fort San Juan near modern Morganton to destroy a Chiscas community near modern Saltville
in 1567, Hernando Moyano led a foray from Fort San Juan near modern Morganton to destroy a Chiscas community near modern Saltville
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The inland forts of the Spanish were all destroyed in 1568, but Spanish retained control of the seacoast. Santa Eleana was abandoned in 1587 after Sir Francis Drake attacked St. Augustine. That town remains as the oldest continually occupied European place in North America, first settled 42 years before Jamestown in Virginia.

Spanish activity in Virginia, like its efforts further south, was spurred by the international rivalry between separate nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish officials took advantage of an unplanned visit to the Chesapeake Bay to expand their defensive perimeter further north.

In 1561, a Spanish ship was blown off course and sailed into the Bahia de Santa Maria. The captain convinced - or more likely, seized - two Native Americans in order to obtain future translators. The captured Virginia natives were Paquiquino, the 17-year old son of the werowance at "Ajacan," and a companion probably from the Kiskiack/Chiskiak town on the York River.

They were the the first Virginians to visit the Old World - thanks to the Spanish, Virginia natives explored Europe before the English explored Virginia. Exploration in the colonial era was a two-way discovery process between two societies.7

Paquiquino and his fellow captive were exposed to Spanish-style living, and partially acculturated before being exhibited to the Spanish royal family and society in Spain. This allowed potential financial backers and political supporters in Spain to see how their colonial aspirations were bearing fruit, and to expose the Native Americans to the grandeur of European culture.

Exhibiting the exotic Native Americans also gave Spain an opportunity to demonstrate it was the European leaders in exploring and discovering riches in the New World, comparable to the way the Unites States used its success in space exploration and landing men on the moon during the Cold War. When American astronauts returned from the moon in 1969, President Nixon sent slices of the moon around the world to highlight the American success, and Paquiquino was a 1560's equivalent of a moon rock.

Paquiquino was taught the Spanish language and the Catholic religion. His "freshman year of college" in Spain lasted from September, 1561 to May, 1562, before he was sent to Mexico, which was expected to be a short stop on the way back to Virginia. However, Paquiquino became ill and had to stay in Mexico. After recovering, he said he had converted to Chistianity and took the new name of "Don Luis de Velasco."

In 1566, Spanish authorities arranged for Paquiquino/Don Luis to go back to the Bahia de Santa Maria (Chesapeake Bay). The ship missed the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and reached Chincoteague Bay before storms forced it to go to Spain, giving Paquiquino/Don Luis his second exposure to Europe. Control over his education was shifted from the Dominicans to the Jesuits. In 1570, he was finally brought to Havanna and then back to Virginia in a party of Jesuit missionaries led by Father Juan Baptista de Seguera, the Jesuit leader in La Florida.

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 first attempt to establish a Spanish settlement in Virginia was caught up in the rivalry between the Catholic church and Spanish colonial government officials. The Jesuits wanted a base in Virginia as part of their competition for power with Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the adelantado or governor of La Florida. Though no soldiers were part of the initial Jesuit settlement, the governor wanted a base to advance Spanish defenses after the conflict with the French at Fort Caroline:8

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 September, 1570, the Spaniards sailed up what later would be called Powhatan's River (it would not be named after King James for 35 more years...). They landed at what today is the Kingsmill resort, or perhaps at 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.9

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 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.

Spain established bases in Florida and South Carolina before Virginia
Spain established bases in Florida and South Carolina before Virginia
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas
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 nine 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.

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.

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 lifestyle.

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

The Spanish did not attempt to settle Virginia again. 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.

Instead, they tracked English activities in North America through spies in England, and perhaps at Jamestown itself. England's failure to colonize the Outer Banks in the 1580's was no secret - nor was England's continued interest in creating a base in the Western Hemisphere after defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588.

the first Spanish to see Virginia were sailors, but the first to explore inland were the soldiers with Hernando Moyano who attacked Maniateque, near modern Saltville (red X) in Smyth County
the first Spanish to see Virginia were sailors, but the first to explore inland were the soldiers with Hernando Moyano who attacked Maniateque, near modern Saltville (red X) in Smyth County
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS online (with Virginia_DCR_2004_Boundaries - Virginia DCR 2004)

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

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.

NOTE: The oldest continuously occupied European capital in North America is Sante Fe, New Mexico - not Jamestown. In 1598, Spanish explorers settled in the Tewa town of Ohkay Owingeh, renaming it San Juan de los Caballeros. The Spanish established the first capital of New Mexico nine years before Jamestown. They moved along the Rio Grande to another town (Yunque), then finally settled at Sante Fe in 1610.

Saint Augustine, Florida, settled in 1565, rightly claims to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. Jamestown is famous now as the oldest successful English settlement in North America - but it is a latecomer compared to Spanish settlements, and today Jamestown is 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. David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, Yale University Press, 1992, pp.35-37, (last checked July 1, 2014)
2. Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement - Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715, University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp.47-62,,673322.aspx (last checked July 3, 2014)
3. "De Soto Expedition," North Carolina History Project,; "Panfilo de Narvaez," Palm Beach County History Online,; "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 July 1, 2014)
4. "Charlesfort Identified," Archeology, September/October 1996, Volume 49 Number 5,; Stanley South, "A Search for the French Charlesfort of 1562," Research Manuscript Series Book 169, University of South Carolina Scholar Commons, 1982,; "Local archaeologist defends history of Fort Caroline," Historic City News, March 15, 2014, (last checked July 1, 2014)
5. Eugene Lyon, "Santa Elena: A Brief History of the Colony, 1566-1587," Research Manuscript Series Book 185, University of South Carolina Scholar Commons, 1984, pp.1-5, (last checked July 1, 2014)
6. Beck, Robin A., Jr. "From Joara to Chiaha: Spanish Exploration of the Appalachian Summit Area, 1540-1568," Southeastern Archaeology, Vol. 16 No. 2 (1997), p.163,; Jim Glanville, "16th Century Spanish Invasions of Southwest Virginia," Historical Society of Western Virginia Journal, Vol. XVII No. l (2009); Robin A. Beck, Christopher B. Rodning, and David G. Moore, "Limiting Resistance Juan Pardo and the Shrinking of Spanish La Florida, 1566–68," in Enduring Conquests: Rethinking the Archaeology of Resistance to Spanish Colonialism in the Americas, edited by Matthew Liebmann and Melissa S. Murphy, School for Advanced Research Press, Sante Fe (New Mexico), pp.21-24, (last checked July 1, 2014)
7. Sturtevant, William C., Spanish-Indian Relations in Southeastern North America, Duke University Press, 1962, p.55
8. 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,; Wolfe, Brendan, "Don Luís de Velasco / Paquiquineo (fl. 1561–1571)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (last checked July 1, 2014)
9. Clifford M. Lewis, Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572, Virginia Historical Society, 1953, p.viii, (last checked July 1, 2014)

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