Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part X

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

From the sixteenth-century Spanish viewpoint, North America was a backwater. Explorers like De Soto and Coronado had found no mines of gold and silver, and the Indian population was too decentralized and too hostile (thanks to Soto and Coronado's tender mercies) for Spain to exploit. The southern Atlantic coast of the continent, however, was very familiar to home-bound Spanish mariners, who generally followed that coast after they left the Gulf of Mexico and picked up the Gulf Stream. In the 1550s King Phillip II of Spain supported the establishment of Spanish outposts in Florida to guard the treasure fleets and provide aid to shipwrecked sailors. In 1565, Spanish officer Pedro Menendez de Aviles finally accepted the king's commission and built a string of settlements on the Florida and South Carolina coast, anchored by the garrison town of Saint Augustine. Menendez didn't think small: he hoped one day to establish Spanish colonies in the Chesapeake Bay region, and so he encouraged Jesuit missionaries to open a mission for the Algonquian Indians living there.

Eight Jesuits did set out for the Chesapeake in 1570, accompanied by an Indian translator who was very familiar with the area and its native population. This individual, the son of an Algonquian chief, had been captured by Spanish sailors in present-day Virginia in 1561. The mariners had brought him to Mexico City, where he learned Spanish, became a Christian, and adopted the name of his godfather, Viceroy Luis de Velasco. On at least two occasions during the next five years, Velasco traveled to Spain and was presented to Phillip II. By 1570 he was one of the most well-connected people in Spanish Florida, and not surprisingly the Jesuits named their new home on Virginia's York River after him: "Don Luis's Land." (David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America [Yale, 1992], 64-71.)

Unfortunately for the Jesuits, they established their mission during a time of prolonged famine, and the Algonquians were unwilling to provide them with food. Moreover, "Don Luis" soon abandoned the missionaries and moved to an Indian village, where he proceeded to marry several women and live like the chief's son that he actually was. Facing mounting criticism and hostility from the Jesuits, Velasco soon decided to terminate their mission with extreme prejudice. In early 1571 he organized a Indian war party which killed the eight missionaries and burned their chapel. (ibid, 71-72.)

Nor was that Luis de Velasco's last act of defiance toward Europeans. He later took the name Opechancanough, "He whose soul is white," and became an adviser to his brother, paramount chief Powhatan. When Powhatan died in 1617, Opechancanough became the military leader of Powhatan's confederacy, and in 1622 organized the military strike that killed over 300 English colonists and nearly destroyed the colony of Virginia. Opechancanough somehow survived the bloody ten-year war that followed, and was reportedly around 100 years old when, in 1646, an English settler finally shot him in the back near Jamestown. So ended the life of one of the first inhabitants of Virginia to have visited Europe.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

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