Segura was born in 1529 in Toledo in the province of Castile, Spain. According to his friend Juan de la Carrera, he was “a son of noble parents and good Christians of that city.” He studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at the University of Alcalá, receiving an M.A. He then studied theology and the Bible for four more years, also at Alcalá. During this time, the so-called Valladolid debate of 1550–1551 occurred, in which the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas argued that American Indians, as rational creatures, should be converted to Christianity by persuasion alone. The theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda responded that the natives could only be warred upon. Scholars have suggested that, based on his later actions, Segura was more influenced by Las Casas than Sepúlveda.
On April 19, 1556, Segura joined the Society of Jesus, a religious order founded in 1540 on the principles of education, military-like obedience, and worldwide missionary work. According to the historian Frank Marotti Jr., Segura “seriously cultivated the virtue of humility” and begged his superiors not to make him a priest. They ordained him anyway in 1557, and, after brief service at missions in Spain, Segura embarked on a career in academia. From 1560 until 1565, he acted as a rector of schools in Villímar and Monterrey. In 1565, he served briefly as vice-rector of the University of Salamanca before being transferred to the college in Valladolid early in 1566. There, Segura, pegged by his subordinates as an indecisive leader, became caught up in local scandals among competing Jesuits, all the while longing for an assignment to Spanish America. In 1565 he wrote to Father Francis Borgia, an old friend and soon to be the order’s new father-general: “The Lord has always made me confident that through this mission of the Indies, His overflowing goodness will give me spiritual strength to begin to serve Him in earnest.”
In January 1566, Segura wrote to Borgia again, requesting to be sent to the Spanish province of La Florida, an area that stretched from the Delaware Bay in the north to Mexico’s Pánuco River in the south, and included much of the present-day American Southeast, Texas, and parts of northern Mexico. His leadership style did not appear to be serving him well in the political hothouse of Valladolid, and on September 28, 1567, Borgia named him vice-provincial, or leader, of the Jesuits in La Florida. Segura sailed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, on April 10, 1568. Before he left, his parents insisted he transfer his share of the family inheritance back to them.
In La Florida
Segura arrived at Saint Augustine in present-day Florida on June 21, 1568. With him were two Jesuit priests, three brothers, five catechists, and six American Indians who had been baptized in Spain. Among the Jesuits were Father Antonio Sedeño and Brother Juan de la Carrera, both of whom would figure into the Chesapeake mission. In La Florida, Segura met Father Juan Rogel, who had just finished visiting Jesuit missions in Guale, on the coast of present-day Georgia, and Santa Elena, near present-day Parris Island, South Carolina. Spurred to action by Rogel’s report, Segura sailed to Havana and there began planning how to expand the Society’s presence.
The Jesuits had been in La Florida for only two years. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, governor of that province and, by 1568, of Cuba, too, had requested that they come, and Father Borgia had agreed, in part because of rumors that a shortcut to China was located somewhere on the coast. While the Spaniards were interested in the so-called Northwest Passage for commercial reasons, the Jesuits saw it as an opportunity to quickly and easily dispatch missionaries to the Far East. By 1569 Segura had traveled some way up the La Florida coast and had become convinced it was too sparsely populated and its natives too harassed by Spanish soldiers to be suitable for further missionary work. In fact, in December he suggested to Borgia that La Florida be abandoned entirely in favor of China. As late as May 1570 he told Borgia that Florida was nothing more than “one long pile of sand” where the Indians “live like beasts and are given to the most heinous sins among themselves.” He concluded, “Florida is not for the Society of Jesus.” In a letter dated September 7, 1570, Borgia agreed with his vice-provincial; however, by then Segura had sailed on a final mission.
Apparently, Segura held out hope for the Northwest Passage. In 1570 he began to campaign Menéndez de Avilés to authorize a mission to the Chesapeake Bay. It is unclear whether Menéndez de Avilés or Segura had ever traveled to the area, but the Indian Don Luís de Velasco was known to be from there. He arrived in Havana from Seville, Spain, sometime in the middle of the year and, according to Juan de la Carrera, told the Spaniards tales of the land’s rich resources and large population.
Menéndez de Avilés opposed the mission, and banned the Jesuits from traveling to areas not already occupied by the Spanish military. This ran counter to Segura’s desire for a mission unmarred by military violence; in this way he demonstrated his debt to the arguments of Bartolomé de las Casas. But he also wanted independence from the governor’s meddling, and the Chesapeake was far enough away from Havana to provide it. When Segura responded with various religious and legal arguments, Menéndez de Avilés remained unmoved. Tensions rose so that not only did the governor call for Segura’s removal from Florida, so did one of the vice-provincial’s own priests, Father Antonio Sedeño. Then Segura threatened to pull the Jesuits out of La Florida altogether. Only at this point did the governor acquiesce.
Menéndez de Avilés still attempted to convince Segura that he should allow 100 soldiers to accompany the missionaries, but the priest refused. A Spanish chronicler later described Menéndez de Avilés’s reaction: “The Governor, if I recall correctly, or another official of those provinces, used to say (it was a byword there) that these good Fathers seemed to believe that the sole purpose for which His Holiness and His Majesty and their superiors had sent them was to be martyred and cut to pieces by the savages.”
Mission to Ajacán
The missionaries sailed from Havana at the end of July and arrived in Santa Elena, on the coast of present-day South Carolina, on August 5, 1570. In addition to Segura and Sedeño, there were Fathers Juan Rogel and Luís de Quirós; Brothers Gabriel Gómez, Sancho de Zaballos, and Pedro Mingot de Linares; and three lay catechists, Cristóbal Redondo, Juan Baptista Méndez, and Gabriel de Solís. The only experienced men among them were Fathers Rogel and Sedeño, and they joined Brother Juan de la Carrera, then living on Santa Elena, in arguing that, without troops, they would certainly be martyred. When Segura held firm, Rogel and Sedeño were allowed to stay behind. A teenager then living at Santa Elena, Alonso de Olmos, joined the group as an altar boy.
On September 10 they arrived in the land Don Luís called Ajacán. A letter from Segura and Quirós to a Spanish official in Cuba, dated September 12, suggests that they were well-received by the Indians despite the effects of a long and devastating drought. Their population had declined, Quirós wrote, but they assured the Spaniards that “another sea” lay across the mountains, or five or six days’ journey from their current location. Segura urged the authorities to “send us with all speed a shipload of grain.”
Little is known about what happened next. Don Luís left the missionaries and readopted his Indian identity and name, Paquiquineo. Without his support, Segura and the missionaries struggled to survive through the winter. The anthropologist Seth Mallios has argued that the Jesuits unknowingly violated the Virginia Indians’ gift-exchange economy, while another anthropologist, Helen C. Rountree, has suggested that Paquiquineo’s actions were motivated by the shame of having been subject to the Spaniards’ control. Whatever the case, in February 1571, Paquiquineo and a group of Indian warriors attacked the Jesuit mission and killed Segura and all of his men except for Olmos.
All predictions of martyrdom had come true. “Juan Baptista de Segura was totally out of place in the wilds of America,” the historian Frank Marotti has concluded, and despite the steadfast support of Francis Borgia, his “shortcomings were a major cause of the failure of the Florida Jesuit mission of 1566–1572.”