In the history of the settlement of America by Europeans, Catholic missionaries played a vital role in establishing footholds in the new world, with the intention of bringing the Gospel to the native people of America. Most famous, of course, are the Franciscan missions that stretch along the coast of California. But one of the earliest efforts at establishing a missionary presence in North America was the little-known Jesuit Ajacán Mission.
Five years after the founding of the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine Florida, the Jesuits decided in 1570 to initiate a mission in Ajacán, in present-day Virginia. Some nine years earlier, a exploratory expedition had captured a native boy in the area, and brought him back to Spain where he was baptized Don Luis, and given an education by the Jesuits. In 1570, Don Luis would travel from the Jesuit base in Havana with eight Jesuit priests and brothers. Their intention was to find Don Luis’ people, and set up a mission — without the usual military garrison.
As the Spaniards began to construct some rudimentary wooden buildings, Don Luis set out in search of food. Seizing the opportunity, he abandoned the Jesuits, and returned to his own people. By then the Spanish ship that had brought them had sailed. Eventually a famine and drought set in, leaving the missionaries entirely dependent on trading with the Virginia natives for food. Eventually Don Luis did return, but only to steal the clothing and supplies the Jesuits needed to survive the winter. Finally, all the Jesuits were killed in a raid. Only a young servant boy escaped, who was eventually rescued two years later.
Today the precise location of the Jesuit mission at Ajacán remains a mystery. The Catholic Diocese of Richmond opened the cause for canonization of the Virginia Jesuit martyrs in 2002. St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Parish in New Kent County Virginia contains a shrine to the missionaries.