Letter by Villarreal 29 January 1568

“The first known letter sent from what is now known as Miami to Europe was penned on 29 January 1568. Brother Francisco Villarreal, a Jesuit, headed a mission to convert the Tequestas, the indigenous people who called Miami home. The letter describes the resistance by the Tequesta to European culture, as well as the obstacles Villarreal encountered finding food and managing the weather and mosquitos. Interestingly, Villarreal organized Biblical plays featuring Spanish soldiers to attempt to convert the Tequesta. Although they failed in their objective, these plays are widely recognized as the first European theater performances in the continental US. Bailly first discovered Villarreal’s letter when doing research for one of his projects. His search for the original copy led him to The Society of Jesuits in Rome. While they were not able to provide the original document, they did have the oldest available copy transcribed by the recipient of Villarreal’s letter, Friar Giovanni Rogel. They responded immediately, granting him the rights to reproduce the transcript. This copy is located in the Vatican archives. Francisco de Villarreal’s letter as transcribed by Giovanni Rogel is reproduced thanks to the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.” Monica Perez, Assistant Curator to “John William Bailly-In Situ” at the Deering Estate in 2022

Francisco de Villarreal, page 1. Copyright Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.
Francisco de Villarreal, page 2. Copyright Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.
Francisco de Villarreal, page 3. Copyright Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.

The Spanish built a Mission in Tequesta, present day Miami, in 1567. Brother Francisco de Villarreal, a Jesuit, began living in Miami and attempting to convert the Tequestas in March 1567. The mission was comprised of approximately 30 structures and 40 Spaniards. The mission only lasted a year, but Villarreal’s letter from 29 January 1568 survives, thus many details of this experiment are known. He describes producing a spiritual play for the Tequesta, and this is widely considered to be the first ever European theatre production in the US. It is the first known letter to be written from the land we now call Miami.

This letter was transcribed by  Father Ruben Vargas Ugarte of Peru It is  in the Vatican Archives. This was reproduced in the first edition of Tequesta in 1941 in “The Caloosa Village Tequesta: Miami of the Sixteenth Century” by Robert E. McNicoll. Historians have now determined that the Tequesta were a different people than the Calusa.

My reverend Father in Christ:

I never thought your reverence would be so long in coming to hear confession and to visit this poor people. I was expecting you since you told me Candamo had gone there but it appears my sins merited your non-appearance or rather kept you away. Certainly I have many things to report to you some of which I shall take up in this letter leaving others until the time the Master is pleased to send me there. I failed to write you because I intended to send you from this fort a little flour for hosts and wine for the mass which they gave me in Havana but the Indians told me they were afraid to go there and that ten Indians and two canoes would be necessary for this trip. I was fearful that I would not arrive with so many people nor had I heard of the arrival of Candamo. It may be that my negligence has been the principal cause in which case I hope your reverence will forgive me for the love of the Savior.

I and all of us here remain in good health, glory to God who helps us to endure in this land trials which would appear insufferable in another place. I say this for we have had for the past three months or more a plague of Mosquitoes so bad that I spent several days and nights without being able to sleep an hour. On top of this we suffered some days for lack of food. I say no more about this but to add that the only sleep we could obtain was close to the fire and half smothered in the smoke, otherwise one could not endure it. At this time the majority of the Indians went to an island a league from here to eat coconuts and palm grapes. No more than 30 remained here. It was then I went to Havana and spent some twenty days in going and coming. I confessed to the priest and took communion. I brought back some food but very little since there was no boat in which to bring it. I have been teaching the doctrine to the Indians or up to fifteen years of age, the others will not come to the lessons although I believe there is none who does not say he wants to become a Christian but in the matter of learning the doctrine they find great difficulty and thus do not come to the classes. Those who attend, most of them, know the four prayers and nearly all the commandments. There are many here now because some of the nearby villages have come in to help in building a house for the chief. They now have food from the whales they kill and from fish. Before they suffered from hunger for two or three months so that they failed to attend because they all said they were hungry and begged that which I had little to give them. With all this the young chief is very fond of the Christians and it seems he will become one. He had a sick child and brought it to me saying through the interpreter that he didn’t want them to do witchcraft over it but wanted me to pray and make the sign of the cross over it. I recited the evangels and made the sign of the cross over it and in another day it was well, thanks to God. He and his wife brought me many turtles but I refused to receive them and they remained very much impressed. Other sick children have got well after hearing the evangels, some of them are very devoted to the cross, I believe they are continuing to improve. Some of the older people will become Christians and nearly all the children will be, if it please the Lord.

On Friday the second of January 1568 there was here an old Indian woman who was very sick and so thin that she was nothing but skin and bone. I asked her whether she wanted to become a Christian two or three days before she said yes. In these days I carried her some food and she said she wished to be a Christian and that she was sorry she had lived in such a bad sect and that she believed in a single God and in Jesus Christ who had died for her and the other things the Christians believe. She always affirmed she was not going to be like another one who had said she wanted to be a Christian and later changed her mind. Seeing her desire and such good things I baptized her because she seemed near the end of her days. Monday on the fifth of the said month she died in my hut because as soon as she was a Christian we brought her there. She kept saying Jesus, Mary until she could speak no more. Those who were with her at the end said that she begged God to pardon her sins.

After this there fell sick a child of four or five months, the granddaughter of one of the principal Indians of this town. They brought her to me so that I might recite prayers over her. I did so and as I saw that she was very ill I asked the permission of the parents and grandparents and of the old chief to baptize her a Christian so that they might have no fear if she died for she would go to heaven. They gave me this permission and I baptized her in the presence of the captain and the soldiers. As the parents loved her very much and it seemed that she was not getting better, the parents later called the witchdoctors in who performed all sorts of rites squeezing her body till it seemed they would crush her, but as she continued to get worse the witchdoctors said they might have cured her if I had not touched her. It was the Lord’s will that she die and we buried her in the fort near a cross where we had previously buried the old woman. I baptized her on the ninth and she died on the eleventh of January. The interpreter told me that if we had not been present, according to their old law they would have sacrificed four other children with her. He also told me that the grandfather had said since the Christian usages had begun with the child he loved so much that he wished to leave the old sect and take the law of the Christians. If he becomes a Christian many will follow him as he is highly respected here. Afterwards in talking to a witchdoctor who is very old I told him that he would die and go to hell where he would suffer great torments if he did not become a Christian. The father of the dead child was present and spoke up and said he believed this, so they all seem better disposed than before.

I need to have your reverence inform me the manner in which I can explain to these people the immortality of souls and also the manner I must use in baptizing and whether there are not some doubts or difficulties in administering this sacrament, also whether I should go and visit them when they are sick because then they readily consent to become Christians and I am in doubt whether they do this in fear or in lack of understanding or whether they do it to get some meal of corn. Your reverence will inform me on these matters as these Indians take matters with so little seriousness that I am frightened.

I teach the doctrine in the house of the chief where many adults are present and I believe they learn it too although they do not recite it like the children. I think the chief is learning too, I teach them the prayers and commandments and afterwards the credo. They say the words in their language so they can understand it. I say it in our language and they repeat it in theirs up to where it says “was conceived by the holy spirit.” I live in a house with a soldier and we get along well, thank God. Morning and night I commend myself to the Lord, and recite the doctrine. We hold fiestas with litanies to the cross. we have put on two comedies one on the day of St. John when we were expecting the governor. This play had to do with the war between men and the world, the flesh and the devil. The soldiers enjoyed it very much. Some of them however have resented my not going to Havana with Candamo to obtain them more supplies. I did not go because so many Indians were here and I could teach the doctrine to large numbers, there is another reason which I cannot mention here. I am very doubtful about this matter on account of the soldiers.

I have tried to make the Indians like me as your reverence commanded and bought a little corn for this purpose, for as I said I live apart and they give me a ration little larger than that of the others so that up to now I have had nothing to give them and when there is nothing to give them I believe there is little friendship. I shall continue giving them some but seeing the little there is always in this fort I believe it is of more service to give it to Christians. I hope to hear from your reverence whether he excuses me from going to confess. From Tequesta, January 29 of 1568, from your reverence’s unworthy servant in the lord.


04 September 2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: