Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia (August 28, 1572)


In this letter, translated from the Spanish and dated August 28, 1572, the Jesuit Juan Rogel updates his superior, Francis Borgia, on his trip to bahía de Madre de Dios, or the Bay of the Mother of God, the Spanish name for the Chesapeake Bay. Rogel journeyed to the bay in search of Alonso de los Olmos, a Spanish boy who the year before had survived an Indian attack on the Spanish mission, Ajacán, led by Don Luís de Velasco (Paquiquineo), a Virginia Indian who over the previous decade had visited Spain, Mexico, and Cuba, and converted to Christianity. Borgia died on October 1, 1572, and therefore likely never received the letter.


Our Most Reverend Father in Christ,

At the end of last June, I wrote to Your Paternity from Havana, telling how, under an order of holy obedience, I made ready to make this journey in search of Ours who had come to these parts. Although I had written from there that at the end of the trip I had to go to the Isles of the Azores, because the Governor Pedro Menéndez was obliged to take the ship, in which I had come here, for the trip to Spain; nevertheless, when he reached San Agustín, he changed his plans. He decided to make this trip in person at the head of his fleet, and on completing the trip, to give me a ship in which I might go back to the island of Cuba. Thus, on July 30, we left San Agustín for this purpose, and after staying at Santa Elena for five days, we arrived at the Bay of the Mother of God. With me are Brothers Juan de la Carrera and Francisco de Villareal and the small store of supplies we had on Santa Elena. After this we will all go to Havana to await the order of Father Provincial since Father Sedeño would order me to do that.

Reaching this bay, the Governor immediately ordered us to search for Alonso, the boy who came with Father Baptista. He has not died, according to what we heard from one of the Indians of this region, who was captured by the pilot on his second trip. This Indian has been brought along in chains. Anchoring the fleet in a port of this bay, the Governor sent an armed fragatilla with 30 soldiers to a fresh-water stream where Ours disembarked when they came here. This place is 20 leagues from this port. It seemed best to me to take the bound native in my company to be our spokesman. The order of the Governor was to take the uncle of Don Luis, a principal chief of that region, as well as some leading Indians. On taking them, we were to ask them to give us the boy and we would let them go. Everything happened in excellent fashion, for within an hour after our arrival, he took the chief with five of his leaders and eight other Indians.

This was the method of capture. After we had anchored in the middle of the narrow stream, Indians soon appeared on the bank and some entered the boat. To these the Spaniards gave gifts and made some exchanges. When they left the boat very contentedly, others arrived. With a third group came the chief and his leaders; one of them wore as a decoration or trinket a silver paten that Ours had brought. At once the Spaniards seized them and forced them down into the boat, and dressing the ship, passed to the mouth of the stream 3 leagues away by oar. On the way, the soldiers killed some Indians who were trying to shoot arrows at us and had wounded a soldier.

At the mouth of the river, which was very wide, we anchored again an arquebus shot away from the shore. Canoes of Indians came in peace, and they said that the boy was in the hands of a leading chief who lived two days journey from there, near this port. They asked that we give them time to send for him and bring him. This we did and we gave them trinkets to give the chief who held the boy and we stayed there waiting for him. It seems that as soon as the chief learned of the capture of the others and about the fleet and the imminent death of the Indians, he sought to curry favor with the Governor. For he did not want to let the boy be brought to our ship, but he sent him to this port with two Indians. It is a marvelous thing in how short a time the Governor learned what was happening there from the mouth of the boy.

When the Indians did not bring the boy, we fought off an ambush of many canoes loaded with archers ready to attack the vessel. First there came two large canoes filled with Indians who were so concealed that no one was seen except the two who steered and they pretended they brought us oysters. Before they got aboard the watchman discovered them. We made ready and the others retreated. At my request, the steersmen were not fired upon, for we were still not certain whether it was an ambush or whether they came in peace. When the time was up and the boy did not come we waited for a night and further into midday and finally we set sail with our captives. By way of farewell, the pilot steered the ship towards land with the excuse that he wanted to speak to them, and then he ordered a blast from the arquebuses into the group of Indians who were standing crowded together on the shore. I believe many of them were killed, and this was done without any knowledge of mine until it happened. Then we returned to this port.

Now I will relate to Your Paternity how Ours who were here suffered death, as this boy tells it. After they arrived there, Don Luis abandoned them, since he did not sleep in their hut more than two nights nor stay in the village where the Fathers made their settlement for more than five days. Finally he was living with his brothers a journey of a day and a half away. Father Master Baptista sent a message by a novice Brother on two occasions to the renegade. Don Luis would never come, and Ours stayed there in great distress, for they had no one by whom they could make themselves understood to the Indians. They were without means of support, and no one could buy grain from them. They got along as best they could, going to other villages to barter for maize with copper and tin, until the beginning of February. The boy says that each day Father Baptista caused prayers to be said for Don Luis, saying that the devil held him in great deception. As he had twice sent for him and he had not come, he decided to send Father Quirós and Brother Gabriel de Solís and Brother Juan Baptista to the village of the chief near where Don Luis was staying. Thus they could take Don Luis along with them and barter for maize on the way back. On the Sunday after the feast of the Purification, Don Luis came to the three Jesuits who were returning with other Indians. He sent an arrow through the heart of Father Quirós and then murdered the rest who had come to speak with him. Immediately Don Luis went on to the village where the Fathers were, and with great quiet and dissimulation, at the head of a large group of Indians, he killed the five who waited there. Don Luis himself was the first to draw blood with one of those hatchets which were brought along for trading with the Indians; then he finished the killing of Father Master Baptista with his axe, and his companions finished off the others. This boy says that when he saw them killing the Fathers and Brothers, he sought to go among the Indians as they inflicted the wounds so that they might kill him too. For it seemed better to him to die with Christians than live alone with Indians. A brother of Don Luis took him by the arm and did not let him go. This happened five or six days after the death of the others. This boy then told Don Luis to bury them since he had killed them, and at least in their burial, he was kind to them.

The boy stayed in the same hut for 15 days. Because of the famine in the land, Don Luis told him that they should go and seek grain. Alonso came in this way with him to the chief where he remained. The chief told the boy to stay and he would treat him well and hold him as a son. This he did. Finally Don Luis distributed the clothes of the Fathers among himself and his two brothers who shared in the murders. The boy took nothing but the relics and beads of Father Baptista which he kept till now and handed over to us. After this Don Luis went away very anxious to get hold of the boy to kill him, so that there would be no one to give details of what happened to Ours, but because of his fear of the chief with whom the boy was staying, he gave up the idea.

When he had learned the truth, the Governor acted in this fashion. He told the captured chief that he must bring in Don Luis and his two brothers for punishment, and if he did not do this, the Governor would punish all those captured. Since three had been killed in that chief’s lands, he could not escape blame for the murders. The chief promised that he would bring them within five days. We are waiting for this time to elapse, and I am not sure whether the Governor will send us on our trip to the island of Cuba before the time is up. He will report to Spain, God willing, whatever action he will have taken. The country remains very frightened from the chastisement the Governor inflicted, for previously they were free to kill any Spaniard who made no resistance. After seeing the opposite of what the Fathers were, they tremble. This chastisement has become famous throughout the land, and if this further one is done, it will be all the more famous.

I have noticed something about this region. There are more people here than in any of the other lands I have seen so far along the coast explored. It seemed to me that the natives are more settled than in other regions I have been and I am confident that should Spaniards settle here, provided they would frighten the natives that threaten harm, we could preach the Holy Gospel more easily than elsewhere. We are keeping this boy with us. He is very fluent in the language and had almost forgotten his Spanish. After he was freed from his captivity, we asked him if he wished to be with us, or go with his father who is also here. He said that he wanted to be with us only. In order to make sure that he retains the language and does not forget it, I am debating whether to bring along with me an Indian boy, who has come along with Alonso, leaving his parents and home to be with him. Thus he might train in the language, unless, meanwhile, Your Paternity or Father Provincial order otherwise.

For my part, I can say to Your Paternity that if it is judged in Our Lord that this enterprise ought to be begun, and if you desire that the task should fall to me, I would consider myself most fortunate. I fear that there will be the same difficulty among these people in making conversions, as has been found in the places where we have been. If there is to be some fruit here, it will have to be by wearing them away like water on a rock. I believe there are fewer inconveniences and difficulties than in regions where I have already stayed. First, because the country is so cold, there will be no reason for long absences away from their huts in winter. Also it appears to me that there are more tribes and more natives in this region than in others where I have dwelt.

When this boy was with Don Luis, following the death of the others, Don Luis left the vestments and books and everything else locked up in chests. On returning, they took up their share of spoils. He said that a brother of Don Luis is going around clothed in the Mass vestments and altar cloths. The captured chief told me that Don Luis gave the silver chalice to an important chief in the interior. The paten was given to one of those Indians we captured, while the other images were thrown away. Among other things there was a large crucifix in a chest; some Indians told this boy that they do not dare approach that chest since three Indians who wanted to see what was in it, fell down dead on the spot. So they keep it closed and protected. About the books, Alonso said that after pulling off the clasps, the Indians tore them all up and threw them away.

If I should learn any other details, whether those sent out by the Governor bring in Don Luis and his companions, I will write them from Havana to Your Paternity, when, in Our Lord’s pleasure, we arrive there.

As I can not think of anything else to write, I close. I commend myself to the holy sacrifices and prayers of Your Paternity and of the Fathers and Brothers of the Company. God Our Lord grant Your Paternity His Holy Spirit for all success in fulfilling His Divine Will.

From the Bay of the Mother of God in Florida, August 28, 1572.

Your Paternity’s unworthy son and servant in Our Lord,

Juan Rogel

August 28, 1572
Jesuit Juan Rogel writes his superior, Francis Borgia, on his trip to the Chesapeake Bay in search of Alonso de los Olmos, a Spanish boy who had survived an Indian attack on Ajacan the year before.
APA Citation:
Rogel, Juan. Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia (August 28, 1572). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Rogel, Juan. "Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia (August 28, 1572)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 28
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