The Spanish successfully established colonies and missions along the eastern coast of Florida and Georgia in the sixteenth century. Though this territory collectively called “La Florida” was not rich in gold and silver, it was a strategic location since Spanish galleons full of riches sailed back to Europe along the coast. Fearful of British attacks and unfriendly natives along the coast, the Spanish had an interest in colonizing the region. After the successful founding of Saint Augustine in present-day Florida in 1565, the Spanish founded a string of missions along the coast, both on the mainland and barrier islands.
By 1597 there were five missions in Coastal Georgia where Franciscan friars preached the Gospel, learned the indigenous Guale language, and lived peacefully with the native population. Most Guale natives not only embraced Christianity but also welcomed European goods such as glass beads, metal tools, various cloths and other luxury items. The friars lived among the Guale without any military presence, giving evidence to the good relations between the Guale and the missionaries.
Friar Luis Geronimo de Oré (a Peruvian Franciscan friar) recorded in 1618 after visiting La Florida, that on September 1597, the friar assigned to the mission of Tolomato (near Eulonia, Georgia) did not allow a baptized, Guale man to take a second wife. Juanillo, who was the heir to a Guale chiefdom, opposed Friar Pedro de Corpa’s fidelity to Christian teaching on marriage and killed him on September 14th, 1597. Juanillo and the men he assembled continued to the other missions to kill all the friars.
Before arriving to Saint Catherines Island, Juanillo ordered the chief of the island to execute the two friars stationed there, Friar Miguel de Añon and Friar Antonio de Badajoz. Unwilling to carry out the order, the chief begged the friars to flee south to the mission on San Pedro Island (present day Cumberland Island). The friars refused to believe the rumors of coming murder. Once Juanillo and his men reached Saint Catherines, the two friars were brutally killed after they prayed fervently inside the mission, today marked by twelve palm trees. The Guale men also killed Friar Blas de Rodríguez near Darien and Friar Francisco de Veráscola as he returned by canoe from Saint Augustine to his mission on present-day Saint Simons Island. A sixth friar, Francisco de Avila, was kidnapped and experienced horrible tortures until he was liberated months later.
Picture of the Five Georgia Martyrs from Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia. Check their great website here.