The European Presence on the Chesapeake Bay before Jamestown

Karen Paar
University of South Carolina

The Englishmen who established Jamestown in 1607 were not the first Europeans to visit—or even to inhabit—the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. This great body of water, known to sixteenth-century Spaniards as the Bahía de Santa María, or St. Mary's Bay, first appeared on European maps in the early 1500s. The bay then received little attention from Europeans until 1561, when Antonio Velázquez, the supply agent for a Spanish expedition, landed there after a storm drove his ship north from its intended destination. At the Chesapeake Bay, Velázquez and his men encountered a young Powhatan man they believed to be of noble rank and took him back to Spain with them. This man, known to the Spaniards as Don Luis de Velasco, lived there and in Mexico for nearly a decade before returning to his homeland in the company of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 1570. In addition to this evangelization effort, the second half of the sixteenth century brought Spanish, French, and, later, English exploration of the Chesapeake region in the search for the sea which was thought to connect the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean and the wealth of the Orient.

European voyages to the Chesapeake took place as part of a sixteenth-century contest between empires to explore and settle the lands of today's southeastern United States. Long before the English founded their colony at Roanoke in 1585, both the French and the Spanish had established settlements along the present United States Atlantic coast. A map Click to See a Larger View, engraved by Theodor de Bry after the original by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, shows the sites of two French forts in the present-day southeastern United States. The first appears here in the upper right hand quadrant of the map as "Charlefort," or Charlesfort, built on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina in 1562. The second, oriented directly center on the map, was "Carolina," or Fort Caroline, constructed on the River May, now the St. Johns River, in 1564. Spaniards sought to establish a permanent presence along this coast as early as 1526, when Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón founded the short-lived town of San Miguel de Gualdape on the shores of present-day South Carolina or Georgia. More successful Spanish settlement efforts in La Florida, which in the sixteenth century included much of today's southeastern United States, came with the establishment of Santa Elena on Parris Island, South Carolina in 1566 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. The town of Santa Elena only lasted until 1587, when Philip II ordered it dismantled for strategic and financial reasons, but Santa Elena's sister city of San Agustín has been continuously occupied from 1565 until the present day.

By the time the English arrived at Jamestown, the peoples who inhabited the Chesapeake and, more broadly, the coast of the southeastern United States had had long experience with Europeans, whether directly or indirectly. At times, the Europeans who visited these shores captured coastal residents in their quest for information about unknown lands. De Bry's engraving of a Le Moyne illustration Click to See a Larger Viewshows how the Guale helped the French at Charlesfort when supplies there ran low in 1562. The types of support portrayed in this image—gifts of food cultivated by the Indians, transportation in the dugout canoes that Europeans found so precarious, and guidance about the means of subsistence in this land—were typical of the help indigenous peoples provided to Spaniards and Frenchmen throughout the sixteenth century. Powhatan and his followers gave similar assistance to John Smith and his men at Jamestown. Indigenous groups inland who had not yet encountered Europeans learned of them through trade and communication networks. Some of the food and other items that coastal Indians offered Europeans traveled along established trade routes from peoples of the interior, who received manufactured goods in return. Ultimately, Indians paid a high price for this contact in the form of death and disease.

The competition for territory in the New World was not the only manifestation of the sixteenth-century rivalry between France and Spain. In this age of religious wars, their struggle also involved the battle for souls. Don Luis de Velasco, the Powhatan man taken from the Chesapeake in 1561, found himself at the heart of Spanish attempts to convert his people to Catholicism and so save them from the heresy of Protestantism. Following his initial voyage to Spain in the company of Antonio Velázquez, Don Luis traveled to Mexico, where he lived in a Dominican monastery and received instruction in the Christian faith. He participated in one failed expedition to find his homeland and place Dominican priests there before joining the Jesuit missionary effort in 1570. By then, the Jesuits, who traveled to La Florida as part of Pedro Menéndez's conquest and settlement venture, had failed in their evangelization of the Orista and the Guale on the present-day southern South Carolina and northern Georgia coasts. The Chesapeake region offered the Jesuits one last chance to establish a successful mission in these lands. The Jesuits believed that by refusing any military accompaniment—following years of observing soldiers abuse and anger Indians—and relying on Don Luis to assist them with their work, they would greatly improve their chances of bringing the peoples of the Chesapeake to Catholicism.

By founding their mission on the Chesapeake Bay, the Jesuit fathers anticipated a return on their efforts beyond the evangelization of this region. Like other Spaniards of their day, the Jesuits believed the Chesapeake was the site of the passage to the Pacific Ocean. They sought to establish a presence there for access, not to the wealth of China, but to its souls. Instead, the Chesapeake mission proved a disaster for the Jesuits and led to the order's withdrawal from La Florida. Soon after their arrival at the Chesapeake, Don Luis left the Jesuit fathers and catechists and, to their despair, returned to the ways of his people. After five months of pleas from the Jesuits that he act according to Christian teachings and provide them with food and other assistance, Don Luis and his followers killed most of the religious, sparing only one Spanish boy, Alonso de Olmos. Alonso lived among the Indians until 1572, when a ship carrying Pedro Menéndez and other members of the Jesuit order arrived to learn the fate of the missionaries. When Alonso told the story of their death, Menéndez hanged eight or nine Indians from his ship's lateen yard in retribution. Don Luis was not among them. He likely lived on to tell future generations of Powhatans stories of his experiences among the Spaniards.

The Spanish never again attempted colonization of the Chesapeake region, although they continued their reconnaissance of this coast. When the English settled at Jamestown, they were constantly on the lookout for a Spanish attack against their foothold in the New World. They knew how Spain had responded to previous challenges to its claims made under the Papal Donation of 1493, including Pedro Menéndez's massacre of Frenchmen in La Florida in 1565. The Spaniards were indeed watching the English at Jamestown, as the diplomatic correspondence from this period demonstrates. A drawing of James Fort, part of what is known as the Zúñiga map, arrived with a letter to Phillip III from the Spanish ambassador to England, Don Pedro de Zúñiga, in 1608. The Spanish knew of Jamestown's difficult, early days, but ultimately declined to send a force there to expel the English.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Barbour, Phillip L., ed. The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter, 1606-1609. Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Hoffman, Paul E. A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast During the Sixteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Hulton, Paul H. The Work of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues: A Huguenot Artist in France, Florida, and England. 2 vols. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1977.

Lewis, Clifford and Albert J. Loomie. The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570-1572. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Virginia Historical Society, 1953.

McGrath, John T. The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Quinn, David B., ed. New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612. 5 vols. New York: Arno Press and Hector Bye, Inc., 1979.

Wright, Irene A. "Spanish Policy Toward Virginia, 1606-1612: Jamestown, Ecija, and John Clark of the Mayflower." The American Historical Review 25 (1920): 448-79.