New Words for an Old Story

Published:April 22, 2014 by Brendan Wolfe


In 1953, two Jesuit scholars, Clifford M. Lewis and Albert J. Loomie, published The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia 1570–1572. The book is a collection of primary documents that tells the tale of Paquiquineo, one of the most fascinating figures in all of Virginia history. He was a Virginia Indian who was picked up (kidnapped?) by the Spaniards in 1561, traveled to Madrid, met King Philip II, was baptized Don Luís de Velasco in Mexico City, studied with Dominicans and Jesuits both, and finally returned home in 1570 with a party of Jesuit missionaries. Six months later, give or take, he and his fellow Indians killed the Jesuits, after which Paquiquineo—poof!—disappeared from history.

These documents collected by Lewis and Loomie are mostly Spanish letters and after-the-fact recollections, many of which are included in Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on Paquiquineo. (We also link to transcriptions of several ships’ logs and, thanks to the scholar Camilla Townsend, feature a bit of the Spanish document in which Paquiquineo’s name is written out for the first time.) Making sure the translations are accurate is critical, of course, which is why a reviewer of the book seems so frustrated. Writing in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, in 1954, C. J. Bishko complains that while “readable enough,” Lewis and Loomie’s renderings of the Spanish are “only roughly accurate and must be used with caution.”


Take just one of the letters, written by two of the Jesuit missionaries not long after they had landed in Virginia. Dated September 12, 1570, it contains praise for Paquiquineo, instructions for a resupply mission, and news of a troubling interaction with some Indians. Bishko, then a scholar of early modern Spain at the University of Virginia, points out words he would have translated differently and several instances of garbled grammar that change the meaning of sentences.

I asked Anna Brickhouse about such criticism. She’s a U.Va. English professor whose book on Paquiquineo, The Unsettlement of America, is due from Oxford University Press in November. She had noticed Lewis and Loomie taking certain liberties, but when I sent her Bishko’s now sixty-year-old review, the problem struck her as being even larger than she had thought. Problem was, these are the only translations currently published.

Until now, that is.

At Encyclopedia Virginia, we decided to track down that letter from September 1570—it’s one of the most important of the Spanish documents—and commission a new English translation. If our entry on another of Virginia’s most interesting people, Sally Hemings, boasts perhaps the most complete collection of primary documents related to her life anywhere online, then for Paquiquineo, we would boast the most accurate collection. In other words, we hoped we could find a way to actually improve the documents.

Our first challenge was that the original letter, penned by Fathers Juan Baptista de Segura and Luís de Quirós, has been lost. All that remains is a transcription made by a “B Smith” in 1889 at the archive in Seville. The seven-page document is now housed at the New York Historical Society.

Upon receiving the digital images, we sent them along to another Smith—Dr. Susan M. Smith, Elliott Professor of Modern Languages at Hampden-Sydney College and an expert on medieval and early modern Spanish literature. She made a transcription of the Spanish and produced what we are pleased to say is an outstanding new translation.

What’s different? In a number of cases, long and convoluted sentences are shortened and simplified. Other changes are more significant. In the letter, Father Quirós tells the story of a sick young boy whom Paquiquineo requested be baptized by the priests. Lewis and Loomie identify the boy, who is the son of a chief, as Paquiquineo’s brother; our translation shows the chief, not the boy, to be Paquiquineo’s brother. In addition, it is this chief, not the priests, who observes the boy to be near death, and rather than “request” that the priests give the boy holy water, he “begs” them for it.


The anthropologist Seth Mallios has argued that Father Quirós’s description of a “poor trade” between the Spaniards and the Indians contains the seed for the violence that followed. In The Deadly Politics of Giving (2006), Mallios explains—as he does in an EV entry—that these particular Indians preferred gift-giving to trading. Gifts assumed a debt to be repaid at some future date, while trading required the exchange of goods of equal value. At some point, the Indians changed from giving gifts to the Spaniards to trading. But because he relies on Lewis and Loomie’s translation, it’s possible that Mallios may have some of the details wrong. Father Quirós never mentions a “poor trade,” only an “attempt to barter,” and after the trade, the Indians did not give their goods first, but demanded Spanish goods first.

Such details matter because they are the bricks and mortar by which excellent scholars such as Mallios build theories as to why Paquiquineo might have turned so violently on the Jesuits. And what this translation project has suggested to me is how fragile our understanding of history can sometimes be. With luck, even relatively modest efforts like this one by EV can nudge us a little bit closer to fully understanding Virginia’s past.

IMAGES: An engraving of Paquiquineo killing Father Juan Baptista de Segura (1675); the last page of a nineteenth-century Spanish-language transcription of a letter by Segura and Father Luís de Quirós, dated September 12, 1570; detail from a Spanish document, dated September 1561, with the name Virginia Indian name Paquiquineo highlighted in blue; cover of The Deadly Politics of Giving by Seth Mallios; Dr. Susan M. Smith with a student