Witnesses to the Truth: Documentary Sources Recounting the Martyrdom

Evaluation of the Three Primary Sources


In the three sources accepted by the Historical Commission as primary for the re-creation of the story of the slaying of the Five Martyrs, there are several shortcomings, discrepancies and even contradictions. None of the three treats the story in an exhaustive manner or with the detail which modern scholarship would consider indispensable or even satisfactory. In all of the three there is lacking that forensic exactitude which would be demanded in a modern-day examination of a crime.


The circumstances under which the three separate sources were compiled help, however, to justify their diverse approach to the facts and help partially to explain their eventual defects or omissions and even obvious discrepancies. Twentieth-century historiography is a decidedly more exacting science than sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers recognized. Painfully developed over the centuries, present-day norms and canons in all their rigor cannot reasonably be applied in judging records emanating from a period removed by almost four hundred years.

A: "Proceso sabre la Muerte de las religiosos en la Provincia de Guale" (PM).

The earliest of the three principal sources of information about the martyrdom of the Five Franciscan Friars, PM in one sense enjoys the greatest creditability. It is the official record of statements, gathered in July, 1598, with all the formalities customary inthe highly organized and bureaucratic administration of a Spanish colony. The Governor, Don Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo, presided in person as the depositions were made and recorded, for eventual transmission to the King of Spain and the Council of the Indies. A typically legalistic document, the report embodies a statement of the facts as supplied by those who either had witnessed the slaying of one or other of the Five Martyrs, or who had knowledge of what was commonly being said among the natives about the several separate deaths. It basically reflects a legalistic and matter-of-fact frame of mind, a less religious or spiritual sense than that to be found in the two other accepted sources of information. Its special spirit is the product of the dynastic and thoroughly mundane interests of the secular colonizing power.

The treat to Spanish interests which the uprising of the natives and the subsequent slaying of the missionaries represented was real and ominous. By the late sixteenth century the conquest of both Mexico and Peru had already been effected with remarkable success. Spain's claim to those two overseas empires seemed firm and secure. Yet her need to strengthen her hegemony in the Southeast of North America, in the area then known as La Florida, was vital. Other European powers, in particular her long-standing rivals, England and France, were plotting to dislodge her from her tenuously held position. Coincidentally, that was precisely the area in which she was experiencing the greatest difficulties toward solidifying her claims.

Her galleons bearing to the mother country the gold and other valuable products from the west coast of South America and from the viceroyalties of Mexico and those on the Isthmus consistently took advantage of the Gulf Stream which sweeps by the Florida coast. In the view and the plans of the mother country, the protection of that maritime passage was indispensable for the preservation of her whole world overseas. Hence, despite the discouraging results of her persistent efforts to solidify her hold on La Florida, Spain was unwilling to cede her ambitious plans to her enemies. A vital element for the domination of this area was the success of the work of the missionaries among the natives of La Florida.

From these facts it is clear that the Governor of La Florida had an urgent need to succeed in his responsibility. He sensed a consequent urgency to apprehend and to punish the principal figures in the uprising of September, 1597. His drive to do so began immediately upon his being informed, on October 7, of the happenings in the outlying area of Guale. On that very day he hastily sent out a small contingent of the military from San Agustin to San Pedro Island. Less than two weeks later, on October 18, with an impressive contingent of 150 soldiers he himself was on that island to conduct the first official investigation into the facts of the slayings and to press the search for the culprits.

Though these first attempts to apprehend the persons responsible for the multiple massacre demonstrate the serious resolve of the authorities to bring to justice those implicated in the affair, their efforts were far from successful. Month after month of intensive search failed completely in the objective of apprehending Juanillo, known to have been the instigator and the leader of the revolt. As the search for the principal culprits dragged on for nine months without success, the Governor finally decided to bring to trial the few natives who had been taken captive. Only one of them had any clear association with the actual slayings, and none had in any demonstrable way promoted the revolt; yet, it was seen as essential for restoring and re-establishing authority that some punishment be meted out for so serious a threat to the Spanish presence. For the King's representative, it would be at least a token sign of his authority asserted and vindicated.

The lengthy document detailing the examination – it can hardly be called a trial – of the seven Indian youths is preserved in the Archivo General de Indias, Patronato 19, and has been reproduced at least twice, as indicated above.2 From this officialized account of the questioning of the captives, the following facts become evident.

Of those interrogated, Lucas was the one most seriously implicated. A native of Tupiqui, he was the son of Don Felipe, the former cacique of that place. Though he admitted having been present at the slaying of Fray Blas Rodriguez at his mission, it was neither alleged nor admitted that he had taken an active part in the slaying. Only one other prisoner, Francisco, of Tolomato, was even remotely associated with the death of the friar of the mission, Fray Pedro de Corpa; no direct participation in the slaying, however, was alleged or demonstrated. The other five Indians in custody were mere boys. None of them confessed to an active part in the murders. After several sessions of torture which failed to force from Lucas any further admission of guilt, he alone was put to death. On June 29, 1598, he was hanged on the gallows at San Juan de Penillo.

The principal value of this document is not that it clarifies to any great degree the details of the various slayings of the five friars. With the one exception of Lucas, none of the Indians being questioned was present at any of the sites at which the friars were put to death. The chief importance of their testimony is that they were repeating what they had heard, what was commonly being said about the case by and among the natives. Clearly, their statements are going to contain many and diverse rumors. And since they are speaking exclusively from hearsay, some of the details of what they relate will be contradictory or inexact. They overwhelmingly, however, concur on one point. It is the central element of their fragmentary reports: the missionaries were put to death for no other reason than their defense of the Christian teaching in regard to the monogamous character of a valid marriage.

Of the seven natives apprehended, one anonymous youth proclaimed he knew absolutely nothing about the affair. Of the other six who expressed any knowledge of the motives why the friars were slain, the depositions are remarkably consistent – so consistent that the conclusion is inescapable: they are bearing witness to the commonly held opinion among their people, the Guales. As revealed by the testimony of the six natives – Lucas, Francisco, Bartolome, Buenaventura, Alonso and Pedro, all baptized Christians – the motives (causa, razón, ocasión) for the slayings were the following:

1) the friars did not allow more than one wife – the depositions of Lucas, Bartolome, Buenaventura, Alonso and Pedro;

2) the friars were bellacos (troublemakers) – the depositions of Lucas, Bartolome, Buenaventura and Alonso;

3) the friars renian or reprehendian (corrected) the natives – the depositions of Francisco, Bartolome and Pedro;

4) the friars took away their ley (customs, way of life) – the depositions of Buenaventura and Alonso;

5) the friars took away their hechicerîas (practices of sorcery or witchcraft) – the deposition of Lucas.

Thus it is seen that of the six natives who gave witness to the motives assigned by their people for the slaying of the missionaries, five explicitly cite the friars' insistence on monogamy in Christian life. That was what they had heard from the conversation of their fellow natives. only one of the six deponents, Francisco, does not explicitly mention that motive as being reported in the talk he had heard, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that this reason is implicit in his more general expression that Juanillo slew Fray Pedro because the friar reprehended his bellaquerias, his troublesome behavior. Francisco's expression may rightly be viewed as another way, perhaps less explicit but certainly an implicit way, of reporting the conversations he had heard to the effect that the friar was slain because of his correcting Juanillo for his failure to observe the Christian teaching on a monogamous marriage.

This is not only the most commonly cited reason for the slaying of the five missionaries, but it may also be seen as the one reason. All, or most, of the other reasons cited may be viewed as a variation of the same theme: the correction of the natives, the taking away by the missionaries of their traditional customs or way of life.

There can be no question that the natives commonly saw the friars' teaching on a monogamous union between a man and his wife as the reason why they were put to death.

B: La Florida (LF).

A limited but not negligible source of information about the events of September, 1597, the epic poem titled La Florida was composed probably in the first decade of the 1600's. Dating from a period close to the martyrdom, and written by a friar who had at least a passing acquaintance with the physical conditions of the struggling mission and who had personally known some of the victims of the massacre, among the recognized sources for the story it enjoys a certain authority. Despite its undeniable drawbacks and deficiencies, it must rank as a significant and precious supplement to the two other sources; but it is no more than a supplement.

Little is known about the person and the career of the author, Fray Alonso Gregorio de Escobedo. In a document dated July 27, 1587 (AGI, Contratación, 5538, fol. 30), the names are recorded of the friars authorized at that time to go to the Florida mission; it is the group of which Fray Alonso was a member. He is listed as Fray Alonso de Santa Maria, who had come from the friary at Garrovillas, (AIA 31 (1971): 524). A member of the Andaluzian Province of the Franciscan Order, he was one of the group of twelve religious recruited in 1587 by the veteran promoter of the Florida mission, Fray Alonso de Reinoso.

For some unknown reason, Reinoso had Escobedo sail from Spain before the other members of the contingent, with orders to await their arrival in Havana. On that journey his vessel was attacked by English corsairs, who took him prisoner and abandoned him on a small and inhospitable island near la Yaguana, a Spanish outpost on the island known as Hispaniola. After spending there a month of hardship and privations, he was able to secure travel to Cuba on a Portuguese vessel, eventually reaching Havana. After the arrival there of the other members of the group, with them in September of 1587 he continued on to Florida, reaching San Agustin soon after the feast of St. Francis, October 4.3 Escobedo was shortly assigned to Mission Nombre de Dias, near the struggling town of San Agustin. In his poem (fol. 448v) he recounts that in this village he once baptized a hundred men, though he does not indicate when exactly this took place. Likewise in his poem (fol. 343v) he relates that on a certain occasion he went to "the coast of Carlos" – identified as the area now known as Charlotte County of the west coast of Florida – as chaplain of a sea expedition intent on capturing a corsair who had been attacking Spanish vessels.

Quite reliably it is thought that Escobedo was not in Florida at the time of the slaying of the friars in 1597. Though merely negative, one argument for that supposition is that his name does not appear on any list or document relating to the mission at that period. Further negative confirmation of this assumption is given by Ore, who in compiling his Relación had official records and lists at his disposal: he says (RH, Vol. 1, p. 91) that when the mission group of I 595 arrived in La Florida, seven friars were then working there. He goes on to name the seven, and Escobedo is not among them. We may therefore say without any doubt that by 1595 Escobedo had definitively left the mission in La Florida. But a more pointed argument is his own insinuation in the poem (fol. l55r) that he was in Spain when, in July of 1595, the group including Fray Miguel de Añon was dispatched by royal authority for the mission in the New World. "Thirteen learned Castilians, including (Fray Miguel de) Añon, were sent to the New World. I can report this because I was a witness to the fact. Añon departed from Sanlucar for the West…" on July 14, 1595.4

Exactly where or when the poem was written remains a mystery. Its length alone – well over 400 folios, each folio typically consisting of six strophes of eight lines – postulates an extended period of time for its composition. So detailed are some of the descriptions that it is a necessary assumption that the composition of at least many of the sections took place when Escobedo had at hand some ready source of information, either written or personal.

The poem is organized according to topics rather than by chronology. The text describing the martyrdom begins on folio 149r and extends to 164v. The story of the several slayings is recounted with imaginative flourishes and literary liberty, much of which it is difficult to condone under the rubric of poetic license. Corroborating in general the basic facts supplied by the more prosaic sources, at the same time the poem introduces some details not elsewhere recorded, as well as some which patently are fictions of the poet's imagination. One must approach Escobedo's account with a strong attitude of caution, in the realization that the author is not endowed with the historian's sense of exact detail but rather with the poet's love for colorful and dramatic features. In reading Escobedo, one must not forget that he is intent not so much on recording firm and established facts as he is on entertaining, and perhaps edifying, the reader by means of colorful and dramatic descriptions of unusual happenings.

The total absence from the story both of the martyrdom .and even of the name of Fray Blas Rodríguez is, among other criticisms, perhaps the most serious that must be leveled against LF. That Escobedo was no longer in Florida at the time of the Revolt may be some explanation for this mysterious omission. The poet had arrived in Florida in the same group which included Corpa and Badajoz; he had witnessed the departure for Florida of Añon and Verascola. Though it is hard to believe that he was confined in his thinking to those four friars whom he had personally known or at least seen, that may be a weak explanation for the omission of Rodríguez' name. Omaechevarría offers a different suggestion for the absence of the name of Rodríguez: the poet did not consider sufficiently heroic the spirit with which that friar at Tupiqui faced his agony, since he had endeavored to dissuade the natives from their evil plan when they informed him that they had come to take his life.5 That theory, however, lacks convincing power, since Escobedo, by his own statement already far from Florida, could not have known the supposed thoughts of the martyr. Disturbing though it is, however, the omission of Fray Blas' story is perhaps less mystifying when it is recalled that even in the official martyrology used in the Order for centuries after the slaying, there were errors, hardly less egregious, in regard to the identification of the friars slain in the Revolt of 1597.

More interested perhaps in other pursuits, whether literary or exploratory, Fray Alonso Escobedo seems to have left Florida definitively after a stint perhaps as short as a year or two and certainly no longer than seven years. No more is heard or recorded of him, though four centuries later his single literary creation is a legacy that continues to perpetuate his name. With due awareness (and consequent caution) of that special quality of this poetic source of information, the value of LF for reconstructing the story of the martyrdom is immense.

Escobedo draws on his personal knowledge, brief and limited though it may have been, of the physical setting of the tragedy and of the customs and the spirit of the protagonists. "The Indian reveres the rainbow," he tells us in words that are pure poetry:

"…the morning star, the terrible noise of thunder, the constellation known as the Seven Stars, the sea, the sky and the earth. He adores the mountains, the highlands and the fountains. He wonders at the countless grains of sand on the beach…” (fol. 210v).

At the same time the poet allows himself the liberty of weaving into his narrative dramatic and picturesque details, even though some of them are patently the creation of his own imagination. No reader can reasonably be expected to accept as literally true his description of the elaborate court-scene preceding the death of Fray Francisco de Verascola (fols. 150r to 152r). And yet, the basic historicity of the account is not seriously impugned by the more prosaic account as compiled from the two other sources.

C: Relación de los Mártires que a ávido en las Provincias de La Florida (RM)

Of the three sources which the Historical Commission for the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs has accepted as primary in reconstructing the events of 1597, for many reasons RM enjoys the most authoritative position. It is a serious attempt by a qualified commentator to record the growth and development of the Florida mission – from its antecedents in the failed evangelizing efforts of the Jesuits ( I 566-72) to its solidification and climax in the first Chapter ( canonical meeting) of the Franciscan Province of Santa Elena, held on Zapala (Sapelo) Island in December of 1616. This account of that saga highlights the martyrdom as a central and decisive happening in the development of the Franciscan Order, and hence of the Church, in La Florida.

A synopsis of antecedent events briefly alludes to the discovery of the peninsula by Juan Ponce de León in 1513 and the early efforts of the Spanish explorers to take effective possession of the land in its unknown vastness. The heroic odyssey of Pánfilo de Narvaez and that of Hernando de Soto constitute the prelude to the story of Spain's efforts to repel the pretensions of the French to infiltrate the land. The founding of San Agustin (1565) and of Santa Elena (1567) as outposts of Spanish colonization signaled also the definitive efforts of the Catholic Church, largely through the instrumentality of the Franciscan Order, to establish itselfin the vastness of the territory which the Spanish Crown considered its rightful possession. The very title of the work insinuates the view of the author of this history, that the martyrdom of the missionaries was a central happening in this earliest period of the Church's life in La Florida. The martyrs alluded to in the title include the eight Jesuits slain in February of 1571 in the distant area known as Jacán (in present-day Virginia, then considered part of La Florida). In the original printing of Oré's Relación, the mission of the Jesuits and their slaying in Jacán are recounted on folios 4r to 5v, which correspond to pages 63 to 68 in the López edition.

The main theme of the Relación de los Mártires, however, the saga which more directly is implicit in the title of Oré's work, has to do with the Franciscan Martyrs of 1597, the Servants of God, Fray Pedro de Corpa and his four Companions. Beginning on folio 9r of the original printing (page 74 of the López edition) of Oré's work, there is a history of the early Franciscan enterprise in La Florida. It serves as the background for the recounting of the martyrdom of the Five Servants of God, which (including the long report on the captivity of Fray Francisco de Avila) in the original printing runs from folio 14r to folio 23r, and in the López edition from page 86 to page 105.

Written by a trained scholar, who likewise was an experienced administrator and a theologian of considerable reputation, RM is one of the author's eight works dealing with various aspects of the life of the Church. The Historical Commission for the Canonization of the Five Martyrs of Georgia has opted to consider it the basic historical record of the Martyrdom of the Five Servants of God. It enjoys a special degree of reliability as it was composed by the Commissary appointed by the supreme authority of the Franciscan Order in Rome to supervise the establishment of the first Province of the Order in the territory which today comprises the United States of America.

The author, Fray Luis Jerónimo de Oré, was born in Ayacucho, Peru, in 1554. While yet a youth, he joined the Franciscan Order in the Peruvian Province of the Twelve Apostles, and in the schools of that Province he received his training for the priesthood. After ordination at the age of twenty-eight, among the other offices which he discharged in his native Peru was that of predicador in Lima, Cuzco, Trujillo, Guanaco and Arequipa. He spent almost fifteen years ministering to the native people at Callaguas and Santiago de Coparanque in southern Peru. Within the Order he was at various times Guardian of the friaries at Valle de Juaja and at Potosi, becoming eventually the Minister Provincial of the Province of the Twelve Apostles.

After these significant accomplishments in his native Peru, in 1604 he went to Rome, where, as also in Spain, he was to render equally notable services in the administration of affairs of the Order. Particularly involved in promoting the growth of the missions in Spanish America, his name is first significantly associated with the Florida mission when in 1612 he was responsible for recruiting a band of twenty-one friars, who under the leadership of Fray Lorenzo Martínez came to the New World. The arrival of that group of new missionaries – the largest up to that time to undertake work in the mission of Florida – signaled a turning-point in the fortunes of that struggling enterprise.

In 1614 Fray Luis de Oré was himself sent to Florida in the capacity of Commissary, to build and organize the mission on the base of the successes and the growth then being evidenced. Two years later he was again sent to conduct the first canonical visitation of the Province of Santa Elena which had been officially erected in 1612 by the General Chapter of the Order held in Rome. Following the initial years of struggles and reverses, with the culmination of tragedies in the slaying of the Five Martyrs in 1597, the creation of the new province coincided with and signaled the beginning of a period of astounding growth that has been referred to as the "Golden Age of the Florida Mission."

It was during the 1614 visitation, as well as in the second one he made in 1616, that Oré zealously gathered from all possible sources the details of the events of September 1597, centering around the slaughter of the Five Martyrs. This firsthand information, including the recollections of Fray Francisco Marrón who had been the Custodio in Florida at the time of the martyrdom, he was to incorporate in his RM, along with other more general historical facts about that time of tragedy and tensions.

No copy of the original printing of RM – which seems to have been published in Spain between 1617 and 1620 – is now known to be in existence. It is believed that there were several later printings following the first edition. At least one copy, without an indication of which printing it belongs to, exists in Spain, the text of which is presumably identical with the original. This exemplar (whether of the very first or some later non-specified printing) is a volume of 64 folios r and v, for a total of l28 printed pages, approximately one-third of which are devoted to the narration of the story of the uprising of 1597 and the slaughter of the Five Martyrs. Although the work includes a lengthy preliminary discussion of the vicissitudes and fortunes of the initial conquest and subsequent attempts at the colonization of La Florida, and extends the story of the Franciscan enterprise to the first Franciscan Chapter of the Order held in the year 1616, it is obvious that, for the author, the high point of that first century of Spanish activity in the Florida Peninsula is the martyrdom of 1597. The central importance which he attaches to that event is indicated by the very title of the work: Relación de las Mártires que a avido en las Provincias de La Florida.

That unique copy of RM – whether of the first edition or of some other non-specified edition – served as the matrix for a modern edition, enriched with a lengthy introduction detailing the colonization of La Florida. The work of the distinguished historian of the Spanish missionary effort, the late Atanasio López, O.F.M., this modern edition appeared over half a century ago under the title Relación Historica de La Florida Escrita en el Siglo XVII par el P. Fray Jerónimo de Oré, Franciscano (Madrid, Vol. I, I 931; Vol. II, 1933). An English translation of the section dealing with the martyrdom was published by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., under the title The Martyrs of Florida (1513-1616), Franciscan Studies Series, No. 18 (New York, 1936). Both these editions have very valuable notes.

Named Bishop of Concepción, Chile, on August 20, 1620, before entering into his new responsibilities which were to be the final contribution for his fruitful life in the service of the Franciscan Order and of the Church, Don Fray Jeronimo had seen to the preparation of his opus for publication. He was consecrated to the episcopacy in Lima in 1621 and took possession of his vast and troubled diocese the following year. At the age of seventy-five, having governed his missionary church with edifying zeal for more than eight years, he died at Concepción on January 30, 1630.

See above, 86.

See above, 53-54, 64.

See above, 59.

Omaechevarría, "Mártires Franciscanos," MH 12 (1955): 21, n.37. See above, 74-75.

CREDIT: REPORTATIO SUPER MARTYRIO SERVORUM DEi PETRI DE CORPA ET SOCIORUM EJUS ANNO DOMINI 1597 IN FLORIDA OCCISORUM (Editio Tertia "Positionis", 7 Maii 2002)
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