Long before the Protestant English came to the Mid-Atlantic region of America, Irish and Spanish Catholics had explored, claimed, surveyed, and even established a mission settlement. The following is a quick survey of these mostly unknown facts.6th Century:
Throughout the eastern portion of the United States there are numerous ancient rock carvings, known as petroglyphs. One petroglyph, which has been dated from around the 6th century, was found in West Virginia. The carving on the rock is written in a particular form of Old Irish used during the 6th to 8th centuries. Known as the "Horse Creek Petroglyph," it reads:
"A happy season is Christmas, a time of joy and goodwill to all people. A Virgin was with child; God ordained her to conceive and be fruitful. Ah, behold the miracle! She gave birth to a Son in a cave. The name of the cave was the Cave of Bethlehem. His name is Jesus, the Christ, Alpha and Omega. O festive season of prayer."
This petroglyph, and another at Bears' Fork in Fayette County (also written in Old Irish) can be seen on a visit to West Virginia. There are other such rock carvings in places like Kentucky, New Hampshire and Connecticut. These carvings reveal that Catholic Irishmen, possibly missionary monks, came to America long before Columbus to spread the Catholic Faith, without which, no one can be saved.
1498: John Cabot sails down along coast of North America and around the Carolinas heads back across the Atlantic to England. He neither lands anywhere nor does he claim any portion of the coast for England (which could not be done unless one landed in the first place). He was simply looking for a northern passage way to India. (In 1497, when he sailed farther north, he only claimed the island Newfoundland for England and nothing else.) This means that the English had no rightful claim of the North American eastern coast. Thus, it was still validly open to claim.
1499: On two ships, Amerigo Vespucci and others, sailing under the Spanish Crown, sail from the Caribbean, pass through the Bahamas, and go up the coast of North America to today’s Chesapeake Bay. Here they go ashore and spend thirty-seven days repairing damage to their ships. They then return to Spain. (Yes, Vespucci was sailing for Spain, and formally become a Spanish citizen in 1505.)
1525: Estaban Gomez expedition; With 29 sailors and a missionary priest, Gomez enters Chesapeake Bay and names it Bay of the Immaculate Conception. This is its original name and appears on maps as such by the 1560’s. As a result of damage to the ship caused by severe storms, the expedition lands near what is now White Haven, Maryland; stays in area for forty days before heading farther south. While there, he claims the land for Christ and Spain, and the region was known as "Gomezland" on early Spanish maps. (There was some confusion on this location and later Spanish explorers named the bay, Santa Maria Bay. The later expedition leaders mistakenly thought Gomez entered and named today’s Delaware Bay.)
1570: September 10, Mission Axacan is established along today’s James River near the future site of Jamestown, thirty-seven years before the Jamestown settlement. A party of nine men land: two Jesuit priests (with Father Juan Baptista de Segura as leader), two Jesuit brothers, three catechumens studying to be Jesuits, a Spanish youth and an Indian guide, a convert named Don Luis. A mission chapel, a residence, and school were constructed. The school for boys was well attended. The native Indians who attended were taught to read and write Spanish. There were daily Mass and daily spiritual lessons. Some adult Indians soon were being instructed in the Catholic Faith.
On February 9, 1571, the Indian guide tricked the missionaries by telling them that some other Indians wanted to help them. These Indians, though hostile to the missionaries and their work, deceived them into believing they were friendly. Having received axes to chop wood, the savages proceeded to brutally murder each Jesuit missionary. Only the young boy, Alonso de Olmos, was spared. He was kidnapped by the Indians, as was their custom, and adopted into the tribe.
Within three months of this incident, a supply ship with food and other goods was sent from St. Elena (present-day South Carolina) to the Mission Axacan. As the vessel came close to shore, the captain noticed some Indians dressed in Jesuit cassocks. He figured something was wrong and brought the ship close to investigate. Suddenly two boats full of armed warriors attacked. Two Indians were captured, and it was learned that all the Jesuits were killed. The boy made it back to the boat. The ship returned to St. Elena to report the disastrous findings.
1588: On May 30, Captain Vicente Gonzalez sails up from Saint Augustine, Florida, and enters what he identified as the Santa Maria Bay (today’s Chesapeake, what Estaban Gomez named Immaculate Conception Bay). Searching for evidence of an English presence, he reached the 39th latitude (where today’s Annapolis, MD, is located) searching both sides of the bay. He came back down to the 37th latitude, and, near the mouth of what is now the James River, found evidence of English presence. He returns to St. Augustine and reports of his findings.
1589: Governor of Florida, Menendez Marques, visits what is now called the Chesapeake Bay, which by this time was called Santa Maria Bay. His ship travels up to the 38th latitude (just above the MD-VA line). They meet a baptized Indian convert named Vicente. He indicates that he was one of the Indians evangelized at the Mission Axacan in the early 1570’s. He had kept the Faith on his own as best he could for all this time. Marquez takes the convert back with him. In the early 1590’s other Spanish ships sailed into Santa Maria Bay (Chesapeake) and explore region.1607: English Protestants establish the Jamestown settlement along the James River in today's Virginia under the leadership of Captains John Ratcliffe and John Smith.
1609: A ship arrives from England bringing white slaves, including Irish and English Catholics, to labor as indentured servants and slaves. Over the next one hundred years many English ships bring white men, women and children involuntarily taken from England, Ireland, and Scotland to the Virginia and Maryland colonies where they are purchased and forced into labor for the landowners and plantations. Many of these are Catholics whose only "crime" was practicing their Faith and being imprisoned for it. (Black slaves did not start arriving until 1619, and then came only few in number at first.)
1610, November: News of an English Protestant settlement near Santa Maria Bay (Jamestown, VA) reaches San Augustine, Fl. Since Spain had rightful claim to this region, a Spanish caravel was sent in early 1611 to investigate. The vessel entered James River in February and came up to the settlement. When they landed, the English took the Spanish captive, and forced them into slave labor for the next five years. In spite of the situation, the prisoners devised ways to inform the governor of Florida, who then informed the King of Spain, about the situation in what by then was called Virginia. Catholics would not settle again in Virginia until 1647, at Aquia Creek. They built a small log chapel dedicated to St. Mary, served by visiting priests from Maryland.
1612: Two French Catholic priests, Frs. Peter Baird and Enemond Masse, along with some Catholic Abnaki Indian converts, were attacked at their mission in Maine (Holy Savior), taken prisoner, brought down to Jamestown, and forced into slave labor at the Virginia colony. They were never heard from again. The attack, in September of 1612, was led by the infamous and bigoted Captain Samuel Argal who, after capturing the two courageous priests, hunted down the Indian converts like animals and killed many of them simply because they professed the Catholic Faith.
So it was that Protestant English took and settled a region that had many years before been claimed by Catholic Spain, explored some half a dozen times by Catholic Spaniards and, for a while, was settled by Catholic Spaniards and Indian converts thirty seven years previously. Sadly, the first slaves of this colony were most likely Catholic.
But of course, the Protestant dominated history texts of America’s schools over the last two centuries have conveniently left out these facts. But now you know the truth: Virginia has had the blood of courageous Catholic martyrs upon its soil long before the Protestant English arrived, and whose first slaves were both white and Catholic.
As we have seen above, Maryland had been claimed for Catholic Spain by Estaban Gomez back in 1525, and the Immaculate Conception (Chesapeake) Bay region had been explored by Catholics on a number of occasions before the establishment of Jamestown. Nevertheless, Maryland itself was never colonized by the Spanish. In the mid-1620's, an English Catholic named Cecil Calvert sought a royal charter in the New World for a colony of Catholics. His request was granted by King Charles I and Calvert received the Charter of Avalon for lands in Newfoundland. With two priests and colonists, both Catholic and protestant, they landed at Ferryland on July 23, 1627. Calvert, whose official title was Lord Baltimore, immediately had trouble with the Protestant minister of the colony. There were serious disagreements on policies and governance in the colony.
It also turned out that the climate was much too severe for Calvert's liking, as well as a number of the colonists. He sailed down to the Virginia Colony in October, 1629, with the hope of relocating his settlement there. However, the acting governor, John Pott, along with Clayborne, demanded that he renounce his Catholic Faith and take the Oath of Supremacy (i.e. profess that the King of England was the head of the Church in England). Calvert refused, and knew that Catholics could not establish a settlement in Virginia. He then requested that the king give him, as he had with the charter of Avalon, a charter for lands north of the Potomac River. This he did receive from the king in 1632. (Calvert was obviously on good terms with the king.)
Having heard of Calvert's plan to found a settlement for Catholics north of the Potomac River, in 1631, a group from Virginia set out and established a settlement on Kent Island, on the eastern side of the bay just south of today's Annapolis. (Of course, Maryland had already been claimed by for Catholic Spain by Gomez more than one hundred years earlier.) It took two years to organize, but finally in March, 1634, a group of more than 200 English colonists, invited by Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert) and led by Leonard Calvert (Cecil's brother), sailed into what is now known as the Chesapeake Bay. They came on two ships named the Ark and the Dove, and included among them both Protestants and Catholics, and two Jesuit priests. Despite protests from the colonial government of Virginia, the Catholic-led party landed on March 25 on an island they named after St. Clement. One of the priests, Father Andrew White, S.J., described their initial arrival:
We celebrated the Mass... After we had completed the holy Sacrifice, we took on our shoulders a great cross, which we had hewn out of a tree, and advancing in order to the appointed place, we erected a trophy to Christ the Saviour.The party then sailed a little farther and put ashore on the mainland. They named the land "Mary-land." They did so publicly after Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I. Privately, they did so also after the Blessed Virgin Mary. On that day, after making an agreement with the local Indians to obtain some land, they founded St. Mary's City in honor of Our Lady. Manor houses were eventually built and estates developed. Farming, especially tobacco, was successfully developed, as was a fishing industry.
Thus, Maryland was discovered by Catholics; regions of it were first explored by Catholics; its first European occupants were Catholics (see 1499 and 1525 above where, though only temporary, nevertheless, the region was occupied by Catholic explorers on two separate occasions for some three months); it was first named by Catholics (both Gomezland and Maryland) and it was first established as a colony by Catholics. (Those Protestants who established a settlement in 1631 on Kent Island did so without any legal charter, nor did they intend on establishing a separate colony, only a settlement in what they thought was the northern part of Virginia.) Thus, the civilized foundation and origin of both Virginia and Maryland was Catholic.
The two Jesuit priests who arrived also set out to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the local native Indians. Though their efforts were not appreciated by their Protestant neighbors, Fathers Andrew White, S.J. and John Altham, S.J. courageously labored among the Patuxent and the Piscatoway tribes for a number of years. Their efforts would eventually bring conversions.
The chief village of the most powerful of the Maryland tribes, the Piscatoway, was along the Patuxent River just below present-day Washington, D.C. Father White often traveled up the river to proclaim to the natives the Christian Faith, and specifically, that faith and obedience to Jesus Christ was the only way to Heaven. The Piscatoway were very receptive of his preaching. Their chief allowed the Jesuits to go to the other villages of the tribe and proclaim the true religion.
Fr. White’s efforts soon bore fruit. The chief of the Piscatoway converted to the Faith. On July 5th, 1640, he was baptized and took for his Christian name, Charles. He became known as Charles, King of the Piscatoway. He proceeded to proclaim to his own tribesmen the true God and the need to repent from their idolatry and believe the Christian Faith. Encouraged by King Charles, Fr. White composed a catechism, a grammar, and a dictionary in the language of the Piscatoway. Whole villages soon embraced the Faith. Between the years 1639 and 1650, nearly the entire Piscatoway tribe converted to the Catholic Faith. With news of this great event, Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore, gave the Jesuits in 1651 a grant of 10,000 acres near Calverton Manor for their Indian missions.
- Adam S. Miller
(Taken from the soon-to-be published Journey America: Pathways to the Present, Marian Publications, Inc.)
-Bound Over: Indentured Servitude & American Conscience John Van Der Zee (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985)
-The Catholic Pioneers of America, John O'Kane Murray (Philadelphia, PA: H. L. Kilner Co., 1882)
-Documents of American Catholic History, John Tracy Ellis (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1956)
-Our Catholic Heritage, By a Benedictine Monk (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1950)
-The Spanish Missions in Virginia, Clifford Lewis & Albert J. Loomie (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1953)
-Spanish Roots of America, Bishop David Arias (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992)
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