Jesuit missions in Spanish North America, 1566--1623

Date of Completion

January 1990


Religion, History of|Anthropology, Cultural|History, Latin American




The early years of Jesuit missionary activity in Spanish America, 1566 to 1623, were significant in the history of Jesuit missions because during this time the order developed goals for American missions and methods by which these goals could be reached. Conflicts with Indians who resisted Jesuit presence and proselytyzing were major challenges to this effort, but conflicts with Spanish authorities and within the order itself over the scope of Jesuit missions and the training the missionaries should receive also had to be resolved.^ The degree of success with which the Jesuits were able to define their role in Spanish America is illuminated by the order's reaction to two significant events in its early history in America. The first was the 1572 destruction of the Ajacan mission by the Powhatan Indians of Virginia. The second was the Tepehuan Revolt of 1616 in Nueva Vizcaya in what is now northwestern Mexico. The death of the Ajacan missionaries resulted in the withdrawal of the Jesuits from La Florida. The reasons for the withdrawal were missionary inexperience, conflicts with Spanish authorities in La Florida, particularly governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and disagreement among the order's leadership over the extent of Jesuit commitment to missions among uncivilized peoples.^ By 1616, these problems had been solved and the order was able to face a similar challenge by the Tepehuan Indians. The commitment to missions and the expertise in the mission field that the Jesuits had developed between 1566 and 1616 enabled the order to meet the challenge of the Tepehuan Revolt without internal disagreement or demoralization and continue successful missionary activity in northern Mexico.^ The Tepehuan Revolt was also a significant event in Tepehuan history because it was an attempt to revitalize Tepehuan culture. Tepehuan country was the site of profitable silver mines and Spanish commitment to the exploitation of these mines was a factor in the Jesuits' success in rebuilding the missions after the revolt. The Spanish presence also contributed to the defeat of the Tepehuanes and the loss of much of their traditional culture. ^