Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dominican Missionaries and the Luna Expedition


John E. Worth
© UWF Archaeology Institute

Though King Phillip II was principally focused on establishing a successful Spanish colony in Florida in order to head off rumored French colonization along the Atlantic coast there, and in so doing to assure the safety of Spain’s New World treasure fleets on their return voyage, the missionary potential of the Luna expedition was not far behind in Spanish thinking.  The possibility of distributing missionaries among the native peoples of southeastern North America in an effort to expand the reach of Christendom had long been a concurrent objective of Spanish exploration and colonization efforts in Florida, and not a single state-sanctioned expedition here lacked priests who served both as ministers to Spanish explorers and as prospective missionaries to the Indians they encountered.

Indeed, standard language in all royal contracts with officially-sanctioned expedition leaders included statements underlining the importance of both good treatment and conversion of native peoples.  In one of the original December 1557 decrees authorizing the Florida expedition that would eventually be led by Tristán de Luna a year and a half later (transcribed in Legajo 1013, Justicia, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain), the Spanish crown specifically directed that its leader should “bring the people of that land and provinces to the understanding of our holy Catholic faith by way of preaching and good treatment, and that among the people who might go [on the expedition] some missionaries should be sent, so that by means of them and their preaching they should come into knowledge of God our lord, and live in Christian order.”

By the time of the Luna expedition, the Dominican order had been involved in the mission effort in Florida for more than a decade, and had actually lost several members to martyrdom during the failed expedition of Fray Luis Cancer to Tampa Bay in 1549 (see Worth 2014:23-28,154-189).  Though Cancer’s idealistic strategy of converting the Florida natives using only a small group of missionaries without any military support was abandoned for the time being (though the Jesuits subsequently used the same approach in 1570 at Chesapeake Bay, with even more disastrous results), the Dominican order nonetheless sent six missionary priests on the Luna expedition.


Seal of the Order of Preachers, or Dominican Order, on the cover of Dávila Padilla (1625).

In charge of the group was provincial vicar Fray Pedro de Feria, accompanied by Frays Domingo de la Anunciación, Domingo de Salazar, Bartolomé Matheos, Juan de Mazuelas, and Diego de Santo Domingo.  A considerable amount of equipment accompanied the Dominicans; expedition financial records reveal that some 5,000 lbs. of “the ornaments and vestments necessary for the divine liturgy” were transported, along with some 2,000 lbs. of “goods and vestments” pertaining to the friars themselves, along with 900 lbs. of goods belonging to “the Indians who were going in the company of the missionaries who were going for the conversion of the natives of the said province of Florida” (Yugoyen 1569).  This latter group apparently included Southeastern Indian women that had been brought out during the 1539-1543 expedition of Hernando de Soto, who were serving as advisors to the Dominicans.  It was in fact these women who urged the Dominicans to insist that sufficient food be taken on the Luna expedition to avoid colonists having to rely on local Indian food stores, since this had been a serious cause of discord on previous Spanish expeditions (Feria et al. 1559).

Of the original Dominican party, Matheos drowned during the hurricane while awaiting shipboard to bring news to Spain, and Feria, Mazuelas, and Santo Domingo returned to New Spain after the main colony returned from Nanipacana in central Alabama to Santa María de Ochuse on Pensacola Bay (the Luna settlement).  The remaining two friars, Anunciación and Salazar, however, not only stayed throughout the rest of the expedition, but in fact played prominent roles throughout the entire Luna expedition, including having accompanied the detachment of 200 sent from Nanipacana to the chiefdom of Coosa in Northwest Georgia between April and November of 1560.  The detailed recollections of this thrust into the northern interior under Sergeant Major Mateo del Sauz formed an important part of the only major published account of the Luna expedition prior to the 20th century.  This account comprised a lengthy narrative almost certainly originally authored by Fray Domingo de la Anunciación himself, and that was subsequently embedded within the larger volume originally published in 1596 by Fray Augustín Dávila Padilla (2nd edition from 1625 online, linked below).  This narrative of the Luna expedition provides what amounts to a Dominican’s perspective on the events of the expedition, and gives amazing detail regarding the role of the missionaries within the colony, up to and including their role in resolving bitter internal disputes between Luna and his officers during the expedition’s second winter of 1560-1561, culminating in an emotional public reconciliation during Palm Sunday Mass.

Even though the Dominicans were sent primarily as missionaries tasked with initiating the conversion of the native peoples of Florida, their missionary work at Ochuse was actually quite limited; documents indicate that there was little interaction between the Luna settlers and scattered local Indian groups in the Pensacola Bay region, whose habitations were described as only consisting of “some few camps of Indians who appear to be fishermen,” and who had only “few possessions and roots” and were thus not seen as a reliable source of food that the colonists could trade for (Velasco 1559; Priestley 1928: v.1:116-119, v.2:274-275).  In fact, Anunciación himself reported only having baptized a single elderly Indian woman on her deathbed in the chiefdom of Coosa more than a hundred leagues into the interior, marveling at the irony that the entire expense and hardship of the Luna expedition had only achieved a single conversion (Dávila Padilla 1625:221-222). 

The actual role of the Dominicans on the expedition was much broader, and included ministering to the spiritual needs of the Luna soldiers and settlers themselves.  Even though the Dominicans were not the only clergy on the Luna expedition, the secular cleric Licenciado Juan Pérez de Barandalla was described by Viceroy Luis de Velasco as being opinionated and having a “rough” temperament (and apparently completely illegible handwriting), and thus the viceroy suggested that if he could not get along with the Dominicans he would be granted permission to leave, even though his service was needed as a supplement to the Dominicans in administering sacraments to so many Spaniards (Priestley 1928, v.1:110-111, 126-127).  Barandalla did ultimately remain until the April 1561 evacuation of most remaining settlers, but clearly occupied a secondary position.

The Dominican friars thus played a prominent role in acting as priests for the diverse members of the Luna expedition, leading daily Masses and administering other routine sacraments throughout the duration of the expedition.  Catholicism was very much a part of daily life for mid-16th-century Spaniards, and even the annual calendar itself was framed in the Catholic liturgical cycle, and each day was commonly known by its association with individual saints or religious feasts (see overview online here).  The importance of personal religiosity is also evidenced by the common presence of strings of wooden rosary beads and Latin prayer books among even the most ordinary sailor or soldier’s possessions inventoried and documented upon death (many such documents, called “bienes de difuntos,” are found in the Contratación section of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville).  Amazingly, some of these wooden prayer beads have even been recovered on the nearby Emanuel Point shipwrecks, along with a fragmentary amber bead probably from one of the more expensive rosaries in use at the time, also commonly made from jet, coral, bone, crystal, and jasper (see pictures below). 

Field shot of wooden bead from Emanuel Point II wreck (courtesy of Dr. John Bratten).


Amber bead fragment from Emanuel Point II shipwreck.

Every Spanish colonial town had its principal church on the main plaza, and the Luna settlement was no different; the Dávila Padilla narrative describes the church at Santa María de Ochuse as “a poor ramada that served as a church,” from which “the greater part of the people” processed daily to and from a large cross erected on the beach while saying the Litanies.  Though we have yet to find direct evidence of the location or configuration of the church at the Luna settlement, it doubtless would have been one of the largest structures on the site, fronting on the plaza in the main public district of the town.

While the Dominicans who accompanied the Luna expedition comprised only 6 out of the original population of 1,500 settlers, they nonetheless generated a comparatively substantial documentary record of the expedition as it unfolded on the ground, and played a pivotal role in the daily life of the settlement and its inhabitants.  Although the archaeological signature of the religious component of the expedition will likely be small in comparison to the more mundane realities of subsistence, housing, and other daily activities on site, we hope we will eventually be able to find some traces of the Dominican presence and the places they lived and worked in at the Luna settlement.

Selected References

Dávila Padilla, Augustín
1625    Historia de la Fundación y Discurso de la Provincia de Santiago de México de la Orden de Predicadores, por las vidas de sus varones insignes y casos Notables de Nueva España (pp. 189-229 for the Luna section).  Online Here

Feria, Pedro de, Domingo de la Anunciación, and Domingo de Salazar
1559    Letter to the Spanish Crown, May 4, 1559.  Legajo 280, Mexico, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain.

Priestly, Herbert Ingram
1928    The Luna Papers: Documents Relating to the Expedition of Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano for the Conquest of La Florida in 1559-1561.  DeLand: Florida State Historical Society.  Volume I online Volume II online

Velasco, Luís de
1559    Letter to the Spanish Crown, September 24, 1559.  Legajo 19, Ramo 9, Patronato, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain.  Faulty transcription from Legajo 280, Mexico, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain, included in Priestley (1928, v.2:268-277).

Worth, John E.
2014    Discovering Florida: First-Contact Narratives of Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville (ISBN: 978-0813049885).

Yugoyen, Martín de
1569    Audit of the accounts of Alonso Ortíz de Urrutia, deputy treasurer of Veracruz, March 21, 1554–January 31, 1559.  Legajo 877, Contaduría, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain.  Translations by R. Wayne Childers (1999) on file, Archaeology Institute, University of West Florida, Pensacola.

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