So-called Jesuit Rings: French Fanaticism, Native American Trade, and Spanish Treasure

So I just collected a new “Jesuit Ring.” It came out of a collection in New Jersey, which unfortunately is all I know. In fact, it came out of the same collection as the new Jamestown Mullet-Poll Murder Hatchet. They came together. I’d love to know where it was found, but I don’t. That’s the bad news, which took all of three sentences. Same old, same old with the vast majority of old objects – including ones found in the ground. Now for the good stuff, which has definitely taken me down a 17th century rabbit hole, led me to Spanish treasure, French shipwrecks, and more Catholicism I ever wanted to encounter after attending a Catholic High School.

Based on what I’ve learned, I’m gonna make an educated guess that this ring was dug in New York. I’ll explain why way the heck down the post.

Not the ring.

This old ring has spent time in the ground, given the patina caused by brass corrosion, and given the bent band. Some of these rings which have been found in graves have much less corrosion. And you’ll see some from shipwreck a which also look great. This is a large ring for a man. It’s an engraved version of the classic “IHS” ring. The engraving is somewhat sloppy or primitive looking, though the ring itself is very well cast. It struck me though, how large this ring really is. In fact, I’ve never seen such a large one, and it gave me pause at first, because the only other one I have is tiny. I do have extremely large hands, but still….

Not the ring.

The “plaque” of the ring, which is the surface portion of the ring – as it’s known in academic circles, *ahem* – has a classic oval shape. The band’s inside diameter is 20 mm. The plaque dimensions are 16×13 mm. If you’re not big on millimeters, as I’m not, being a red-blooded western capitalist, you’ll see below that mm’s are the industry standard, as far as these rings go, so those measurements will be useful in order to compare this ring with other rings found. When doing so down below, you’ll see that this one is actually consistent with the largest of the man-sized rings found at documented North American fur trade sites of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The ring.

What were Jesuit Rings?

So-called “Jesuit Rings” are little French Catholic pieces of jewelry – generally rings of course – which are commonly found on fur trade sites around the American Great Lakes, dating to occupation periods in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are found with a bizarre and varied set of different symbols, letters and faces. But for the most part, the puzzle of their meaning and overall purpose have not been full fleshed out.

As late was 2003 archaeologists (Mason 2003; Birmingham and Mason 2006) continued to express the pious hope that at some point work would be done in France to date designs and symbols on the plaques and make a firm chronology a real possibility.

Reading the Rings: Decoding Iconographic (“Jesuit”) Rings, by Carol L. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2010), pp. 8.

Jesuit rings seem to have been used primarily in religious contexts, “but it is, or course, possible or even probable that they may have also been used simply as trade items.” Indeed, when you read below about the La Salle Shipwreck from the 17th century, you’ll see that it has given us the largest cache of these rings ever found, and the wreck had nothing to do with the Jesuits specifically.

“That very few Jesuit rings have been recovered archaeologically from the Church or Prists’ house at Fort Michilimackinac would support the theory that these rings had become secular trade items by the second quarter of the eighteenth century.” See From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings, by Charles E. Cleland, American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1972) p. 202.

There’s no doubt though, that Catholic priests, Jesuits in particular, would give these out to Native Americans as a matter of gift-giving.

A sentence written by Father Bruyas in 1670 gives us a clue as to the way in which these rings were used; as a missionary to the Oneida he notes that “if his pupils could repeat on Sunday what he had taught during the week, they were rewarded by a gift of beads or brass rings.”

Id.

It’s likely that these rings derived from the extreme religious fervor of the day, which involved a series of wars tangled with politics and religion, in France particularly. The French Wars of Religion were a prolonged period of war and popular unrest between Catholics and Huguenots (Reformed/Calvinist Protestants) in the Kingdom of France between 1562 and 1598. It is estimated that three million people perished in this period from violence, famine, or disease in what is considered the second deadliest religious war in European history (surpassed only by the Thirty Years’ War, which took eight million lives) (Wikipedia).

One morning at the gates of the Louvre, 19th-century painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan. (Catherine de’ Medici is in black.)

Robert Bennett is a metal detectorist in Michigan who has made some absolutely awesome discoveries along the historic coastline of Michigan. I have a copy of his book, which contains many photos of his finds. He has an entire section on Jesuit rings, which has several examples of IHS rings he’s found in Michigan. We have one little Jesuit Ring which he found, shown a little bit further down the page. Anyways, I highly recommend the book, if you like to be depressed about the sorry state of your metal detecting career.

Comparing our new ring with some of Bob Bennett’s Jesuit ring finds. That lower middle is pretty sweet.

The Jesuits

The Jesuits were (and still are) a religious order of the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome. It was founded by Ignatius of Loyola with the approval of Pope Paul III in 1540. The members are called Jesuits (Latin: Iesuitæ). The society is engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry in 112 nations. Jesuits work in education, research, and cultural pursuits. Jesuits also give retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes, sponsor direct social ministries, and promote ecumenical dialogue (Wikipedia).

After much training and experience in theology, Jesuits went across the globe in search of converts to Christianity. Jesuits had much success in Latin America. Their ascendancy in societies in the Americas accelerated during the seventeenth century, wherein Jesuits created new missions in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia; as early as 1603, there were 345 Jesuit priests in Mexico alone. (Id.)

Jesuit missions in America became controversial in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal where they were seen as interfering with the proper colonial enterprises of the royal governments. The Jesuits were often the only force standing between the Native Americans and slavery. Jesuit missionaries were active among indigenous peoples in New France in North America, many of them compiling dictionaries or glossaries of the First Nations and Native American languages they had learned. For instance, before his death in 1708, Jacques Gravier, vicar general of the Illinois Mission in the Mississippi River valley, compiled a Kaskaskia Illinois–French dictionary, considered the most extensive among works of the missionaries.[46] Extensive documentation was left in the form of The Jesuit Relations, published annually from 1632 until 1673. (Id.)

Stained glass featuring martyred priest Jean de Brébeuf, Martyrs’ Shrine, Midland, Ontario

The Jesuits became involved in the Huron mission in 1626 and lived among the Huron peoples. Outside conflict forced the Jesuits to leave New France in 1629 when Quebec was captured by the Kirke brothers under the English flag. But in 1632 Quebec was returned to the French under the Treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye and the Jesuits returned to Huron territory, modern Huronia.

Map of New France and engraving depicting the martyrdom of Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant.

In 1639, Jesuit Jerome Lalemant decided that the missionaries among the Hurons needed a local residence and established Sainte-Marie, which expanded into a living replica of European society. It became the Jesuit headquarters and an important part of Canadian history. Throughout most of the 1640s the Jesuits had great success, establishing five chapels in Huronia and baptising over one thousand Huron natives. However, as the Jesuits began to expand westward they encountered more Iroquois natives, rivals of the Hurons. The Iroquois grew jealous of the Hurons’ wealth and fur trade system, began to attack Huron villages in 1648. They killed missionaries and burned villages, and the Hurons scattered. Both Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were tortured and killed in the Iroquois raids; they have been canonized as martyrs in the Catholic Church.

The killing of Jesuit priest, Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant.
Another version, I believe.

The Jesuits undergo all these hardships for the sake of converting the Indians, and likewise for political reasons. The Jesuits are of great use to their king; for they are frequently able to persuade the Indians to break their treaty with the English, to make war upon them, to bring their furs to the French, and not to permit the English to come amongst them.

– Peter Kalm, 1749 (Forster 1771:142)

With the knowledge of the invading Iroquois, the Jesuit Paul Ragueneau burned down Sainte-Marie instead of allowing the Iroquois the satisfaction of destroying it. By late June 1649, the French and some Christian Hurons built Sainte-Marie II on Christian Island (Isle de Saint-Joseph). However, facing starvation, lack of supplies, and constant threats of Iroquois attack, the small Sainte-Marie II was abandoned in June 1650; the remaining Hurons and Jesuits departed for Quebec and Ottawa. After a series of epidemics, beginning in 1634, some Huron began to mistrust the Jesuits and accused them of being sorcerers casting spells from their books. As a result of the Iroquois raids and outbreak of disease, many missionaries, traders, and soldiers died.

Excerpt from The Fur Trade, by Rachel B. Juen and Michael S. Nassaney, Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, Western Michigan University

After the collapse of the Huron nation, the Jesuits were to undertake the task of converting the Iroquois, something they had attempted in 1642 with little success. In 1653 the Iroquois nation had a fallout with the Dutch. They then signed a peace treaty with the French and a mission was established. The Iroquois took the treaty lightly and soon turned on the French again. In 1658, the Jesuits were having very little success and were under constant threat of being tortured or killed, but continued their effort until 1687 when they abandoned their permanent posts in the Iroquois homeland.

Excerpt from The Fur Trade, by Rachel B. Juen and Michael S. Nassaney, Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, Western Michigan University

By 1700, Jesuits turned to maintaining Quebec, Montreal, and Ottawa without establishing new posts. During the Seven Years’ War, Quebec fell to the English in 1759 and New France was under British control. The English barred the immigration of more Jesuits to New France. By 1763, there were only twenty-one Jesuits stationed in New France. By 1773 only eleven Jesuits remained. During the same year the English crown laid claim to New France and declared that the Society of Jesus in New France was dissolved.

Excerpt from The Fur Trade, by Rachel B. Juen and Michael S. Nassaney, Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, Western Michigan University

The Fur Trade was an ongoing trade between the generally French and Canadian traders and generally the Great Lakes area tribes. The Jesuit missionaries, and their religious trade goods, are generally found among the finds at these early fur trade sites. This is a great article on the French fur trade, pertaining to archaeology at Fort St. Joseph, where some of these religious artifacts have also been found:

The first French settlements were fishing villages in coastal areas, but soon fur became a central part of New Frances’ economy as the French entered into a Native trade network which had operated in North America long before the arrival of Europeans….

In an effort to secure the interior, establish Native alliances, and thwart British and Iroquois efforts to expand west of the Appalachians, the French established a network of trading posts, forts, and missions in the North American interior. These “islands” of French settlement in Native-controlled lands became the principal places of Native and European interaction and exchange in the fur trade.

Some of the most important posts in the western Great Lakes region included Fort Michilimackinac, Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit, and Fort St. Joseph.

The Fur Trade, by Rachel B. Juen and Michael S. Nassaney, Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, Western Michigan University at 4.

Download the article yourself, it’s quite good:

These religious trade rings were generally made of a copper alloy and fairly cheaply made, as were many of the goods intended for Native Americans:

Many “cheap” rings were made, worn, and distributed; they were shallowly engraved on a thin plaque and made of a metal frequently described as “bronze,” but more likely a simple copper-based metal of variable and mostly unknown constituents.

Reading the Rings: Decoding Iconographic (“Jesuit”) Rings, by Carol L. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2010), pp. 8.
Pere Marquette and the Indians (1869) by Wilhelm Lamprecht, at Marquette University

As the social justice academics probably fail to appreciate, the USA was born out of an Old World society which was highly intolerant and highly deserving of their hindsight moral judgment. This is, of course, assuming they applied the same standard to European nations which they so readily heap onto the USA. Religion wasn’t free, and sometimes was mandatory.

In the same year as La Salle’s expedition to search for the mouth of the Mississippi by sea, Protestantism was made illegal in France, thus nullifying the protections won by previous generations and giving Catholics a renewed reason to wear conspicuous indications of their faith. That La Salle, with hundreds of religiously decorated rings in his possession, embarked from La Rochelle, earlier a bastion of Protestant France, may have been another undercurrent in the complex interplay of religion and symbolism in the late 17th century.

Id. at 9.

The fact is, that they weren’t necessarily only used by Jesuits, but were used by other Catholic priests, and to an extent, in the secular fur trade itself. But they were clearly very much used by Jesuits. Here are the basic types.

IHS Rings

This particular ring is what’s known as an “IHS” monogram ring, and they are one of the types found on North American fur trade sites – and this specific pattern is commonly found, though always slightly different, being that they are obviously hand engraved, in an apparent lackadaisical (try that spelling bee style without using Google….) fashion.

Many of the rings were decorated with the IHS monogram, sometimes also written as JHS or YHS. This symbol has been popular since the 14th century and began to appear as early as the 12th. IHS is, of course, a representation of the first three letters in the Greek form of Jesus (“of course – we all knew that….) it occurs as a three-letter abbreviation because it is part of the nominee sacra – sacred names – that were frequently abbreviated because they were repeated often or because of their special nature. Interestingly enough, such abbreviations were often signaled by a line drawn over them, a trait seen in some IHS iconographic rings and occasionally on initialed rings as well, where the line may be wavy.

Eventually this line became the familiar cross resting on the crosspiece of the H. The IHS monogram has often been specifically associated with the Jesuit order, and it massively bedecks such 17th century Jesuit churches as the Church of the Gesu in Rome, but it should be noted that the Jesuits were founded in 1534, long after the monogram had been in common use in Europe.

When the Jesuits adopted it as an important symbol, they were in good company since many others used it as well; IHS should not automatically be construed as a sign of Jesuit involvement. A case in point is La Salle, whose antipathy to the Jesuits is well known, but among whose rings the ubiquitous IHS appears in respectable numbers.

Id. at 9.

Speaking of La Salle, the non-Jesuit sailing to the Mississippi River with trade cargo, including these rings, one of his ships wrecked – the “La Belle,” and the wreck has been found:

The hull of the shipwreck La Belle from the La Salle expedition.

In the sunken cargo were trade rings, including what we would term, “Jesuit Rings,” including the L-Heart and an IHS, pictured below. Therefore, it must be safe to assume that they were included with trade goods by non-Jesuits. Perhaps there were non-Jesuit missionaries with La Salle, or perhaps they were just trade jewelry.

Brass rings found in the shipwreck La Belle, off the coast of Texas. La Belle was one of Robert de La Salle’s four ships when he explored the Gulf of Mexico with the ill-fated mission of starting a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1685.  Note that there’s both an L-Heart ring and an IHS ring. And again, La Salle was not Jesuit.

L-Heart Rings

The aptly-named “L-Heart” rings have been found on archaeological sites in North America. The symbols stand for mon coeur set a’ elle, which as my French professor brother would probably tell me, meaning my heart is hers. Or it may alternately mean mon coeur set a elle – she has a heart. Maybe that definition differs depending on whether it’s worn by a Catholic priest, or a layperson…..

A classic stamped/embossed L-Heart ring. This is likely 16th century, and was found in Virginia.

Archaeologically recovered L-Hearts come from many parts of New France – Mason (2009) provides a detail discussion – excluding any rings identified as drifted-design L-Hearts.

Reading the Rings: Decoding Iconographic (“Jesuit”) Rings, by Carol L. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2010), pp. 10.

The L-Heart design may be among the very earliest of the religious trade rings. They begin cast/stamped/embossed, as the one above, with a large and clear heart.

“Rings . . . from the Hopewell and Fleming sites, Iroquois sites in upper New York, show the simple reduction of the heart element which finally disappears entirely.” The resulting ring bears only a large “L” centered on the plaque. See From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings, by Charles E. Cleland, American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1972) p. 203.

Excerpt from From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings, by Charles E. Cleland, American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1972) p. 203.

Letter “Rebus” Rings

Many of the rings found at these sites merely have letters on them, known as “rebus messages.” LACD means elle a cede or “she has agreed” – to marriage presumably. LCME means elle said aimer, or “she knows how to love.” ME stands for aime, which means “love.” These letter phrases became popular in the 18th century. For logistical reasons presumably, the longer phrases haven’t appeared on trade rings. But single or double initials are common. Id. at 11.

Rings with the single letter M occur among 18th century rings at such sites as Rock Island, Bell, Ft. Michilimackinac, and others, while the more common single N is even more widespread, although its meaning is certainly less obvious and may not actually be part of a rebus message. Id.

Double M Rings

This early version of religious ring began with a fairly complicated design of an inverted M superimposed over an upright M in the center of the bezel, with three radiating spikes in the upper portion, and the lower portion having a small heart flanked by spikes. This turned into a simple M, and then further morphed into different designs, based on the M, but no longer actually being an M.

The M stands for Mater Misericordia, or “Mother of Mercy.” Later variations also show a small horizontal line in the center, creating something close to a superimposed A and M, probably meaning Ave Maria. Or at least a symbol of it.

Excerpt from From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings, by Charles E. Cleland, American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1972) p. 205.

I believe this little Jesuit ring, found by Bob Bennett at an early to mid 18th century Ottawa site in Michigan, is one of these progressive forms of the Double-M. It looks more like an H, but if you look at the progression given by Cleland, it’s pretty close to a couple of them.

Gentleman’s Rings

Another type of ring which are included in the fur trade ring context, a.k.a., “Jesuit Rings,” are known as “Gentleman’s Rings,” or bagues a la chevalieres – basically a signet ring. These became popular in the 15th century as symbols of nobility, and were generally round, oval or rectangular. Eventually the mere peasants said, “the hell with it,” and began making their own crude looking signet rings, with their initials. Nobody really knows how to decipher the letters and numbers on these “plaque” rings. They may signify initials, some sort of trade, etc., etc.

One other thought is that, in the fur trade context, they may have been customized for, or by, the intended Native consumer of such goods. Take a look at this example in our collection, dug at an Ottawa site in Michigan. What does it mean, who knows? Well someone knew at one time…..

Here are some of the plaque designs from rings excavated at Rock Island, Wisconsin, which they tentatively date (the site)

Excerpt from Jesuit Rings from Rock Island, Wisconsin, by Carol I. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 10 (1976), pp. 113-120.

They noted that many of the plaque rings from Rock Island which are circa 1670-1730, as far as occupation goes, are “set off from the bands with a single deep file mark on either side.” Note that the one was recently acquired has two on each side:

As far as dating these rings goes, there seems to be a “speculative affair.” The early western Great Lakes rings seem to indicate the embossed or stamped rings are the earliest forms, and that thereafter, engraved versions were made to replicate those originals. But there are very early engraved examples found in New York. The earliest sites for which Jesuit rings are known in New York was a circa 1635-1650 site, in which an engraved IHS ring was found. Id. at 118. Another New York site, circa 1645-1660, produced 17 engraved rings, all being either IHS rings, or L-Heart rings.

A table showing the measurements and the types of the rings found at Rock Island. Excerpt from Jesuit Rings from Rock Island, Wisconsin, by Carol I. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 10 (1976), pp. 113-120.

It is likely the case that the very first of these rings were stamped or embossed, in one of the three main designs, either IHS, L-Heart, or Double M. At some point those began to be engraved, copied after those originals, which then ultimately mutated into various different designs and shapes.

Stylistic drift in the Dual-heart series is different from what occurs for the L-heart, Double-M, and IHS rings in that there are no known examples from the period when the first replications probably appeared. The absence of a clear early prototype is also puzzling unless, of course, the suggested religious medal design is in fact the true progenitor.

Jesuit Rings from Rock Island, Wisconsin, by Carol I. Mason, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 10 (1976), pp. 118-119.

Maybe the archaeologists haven’t seen this one. This is a stamped/embossed L-Heart of probably the early/first/classic design, which was found in . . . Tidewater, Virginia, of all places. This is an early ring.

Charles Cleland theorized in 1972 that, based on finds known at the time, that the stamped/embossed rings on round or oval plaques dated between 1624 and 1700, while the engraved designs dated from 1700 to 1780. See From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings. Of course, the earlier research I just cited, shows that there were definitely engraved rings earlier than 1700, because many have been found in New York. But he did base his findings on “14 historic sites of the Great Lakes area and the Mississippi Valley.

These relics were all found together by a contractor in Tidewater, Virginia – not all that far from the site of Jamestown – who was clearing a homesite for a new construction McMansion, along the coastline. I have a google earth printout from the contractor showing the exact spot it was found. Perhaps that’s a finger bone, for the finger ring? These are definitely Catholic/Jesuit artifacts, and at least two of them are positively identified as being Spanish – not French. There’s a good explanation for this….

That old medallion that was found with the silver crucifix – after hours trying to figure out who that Catholic saint is…. I believe it is St. Fermin, who just happens to be the patron saint of Pamplona, Spain. Of course. This is a Spanish medallion, which also explains why it doesn’t match any of the French Jesuit medallions found on North American sites. Moreover, I’ve found records of a Spanish ship bringing supplies to Spanish Jesuit missions in Mexico (to which the Jesuits set up shop following their disaster in Virginia) named San Fermin, which eventually was sunk.

A later period Spanish Catholic medallion of St. Fermin.

Then there’s the silver crucifix. This similar style, with the metal work attributed to provincial Spain, likely dating from 1575-1600, washed up on a beach Killybegs, Ireland in the early 1900s. In 1588, it was reported that Killybegs was the last port of call for the Spanish vessel La Girona, which had dropped anchor in the harbour when the Spanish Armada fetched up on the Irish coast during Spain’s war with England. This was auctioned in 2013. I wish I could see if there was a silver mark on the back. I still haven’t made a positive ID on the Virginia crucifix silver mark. Still looking…..

16th Century Spanish Silver Crucifix, possibly from an Armada Ship, found in Killybegs. Lot 3 in Whyte’s History, Literature & Collectibles auction 26 January 2013.

I didn’t realize it before researching this stuff, but there was actually an L-Heart Jesuit ring found at Jamestown in 2005 by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists:

They also found a medallion of St. Nicholas, much like our medallion:

The archaeologist notes that they don’t really understand yet why they’ve found Catholic artifacts in Protestant Jamestown. Well, we know it wasn’t the English settlers of Jamestown. They postulate that there are secret Catholic settlers, hiding their true faith from their Anglican colleagues, or perhaps pirates, they say…. I can explain it much better. It had to be related to the Native Americans, which we know had already had contact with the Spanish Jesuits thirty years earlier.

In fact the very first Jesuit missionaries into what is now the United States was in Florida, which as I’ll note in a second, has a connection with Virginia. But did the Spanish Jesuit priests also use these rings and other artifacts, as were used by the French Jesuit priests?

The history of the Jesuits is interwoven with the history of the United States. Just decades after St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, Jesuits began arriving on the shores of America. The very first to arrive were Spaniards, who landed in today’s Saint Augustine, Florida, in the middle of the 16th century. 

In 1611, French Jesuits explored the woodlands of Maine and celebrated the first known Mass on American soil at the mouth of the Kennebec River. English Jesuits landed in Maryland in 1634 and soon established a mission there, while Spanish Jesuits founded missions in the Southwest by the 1680s. In the early 1700s, French Jesuits instituted a mission and base of operations in New Orleans, within 10 years of the founding of the city. 

By canoe, horseback and foot, the Jesuits (known to Native Americans as Black Robes) explored not only the frontiers of faith, but the frontiers of a new nation. Their diaries, hand-drawn maps, correspondence, personal items and documents trace their passages all the way to present-day frontiers and are an educational resource of great cultural, spiritual and social significance.

The Jesuit Archives: https://jesuitswest.org/story?tn=project-20180417033015030827043153

In Florida, the Jesuits began missionary work soon after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, the capital of the territory, which spread across what is today the Southeastern U.S. But they were largely unsuccessful compared with the Franciscans, who took over their efforts in the 1570s. From what I can determine from the complicated history of the Jesuits, there was no real difference between Jesuits in French held territory, or Jesuits in Spanish territory. Indeed, the large, large majority of Jesuit missionary history occurred in Central and South America. They had a hard time with the Spanish, who tended to exterminate their flock. Things were much easier with the French around New France. And consequently, there was all that much history which developed, comparatively speaking. See The Jesuits 1534-1921, A History of the Society of Jesus from Its Foundation to the Present Time, by Thomas J. Campbell, S.J. (1921), pp. 296-342.

“Religious artifacts at mission sites are scarce and often limited to beads that may have been part of rosaries and religious medallions.” Much of what researchers know about life at the missions comes from meticulous records kept by the Spanish. This crucifix was found on Amelia Island, Florida, the site of the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale:

This 17th-century Caravaca cross was found at the site of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale on Amelia Island, Florida. It may have been gifted to a Native American convert by a resident friar. 
Brass crucifix found in the hold of the La Salle shipwreck. It has a skull and cross bones on it. Note, this was not a Jesuit venture. La Salle was himself once a Jesuit, but grew to hate them. There were other missionaries aboard his expedition, including Franciscans.
“Jesuit” rings found in the La Salle shipwreck.

In June of 1568, Jesuit missionaries arrived at St. Augustine, Florida, led by Juan Baptista de Segura. They struggled in their efforts, and things just got worse. Around 1560, Spanish sailors seized an Indian from the Chesapeake Bay area, whom they christened “Don Luis,” after the Viceroy of New Spain. They still thought they might find a water passage to the far west, and the Chesapeake Bay was a natural potential route. In 1566, the Spanish made an unsuccessful attempt to settle in this strategic locations, and naturally brought Don Luis along. Thereafter Don Luis went to Spain for a few years, returning in 1569, where he met the head Jesuit priest, Segura. This sparked a second attempt at establishing a settlement there, possibly converting some Natives, and maybe even one day getting to the far west a water route through the continent.

In what was a miscalculation of enormous proportions, Father Segura chose to bring valuable religious relics along instead of weapons.

Father Juan de la Carrera was charged with obtaining supplies for the missionaries. He was critical of Segura’s choice of such an inexperienced team and their lack of military protection. Segura requested chalices, vestments and other religious articles of great monetary value. Carrera argued with Segura, stating his fears that the native people would plunder the sacred items for their own gain.

Hampton Roads Murder & Mayhem, by Nancy E. Sheppard..

They built a ship and reached the Chesapeake Bay on September 10, 1570. The ship dropped them off and left them. Shortly thereafter, Don Luis, their Indian guide, abandoned the small contingent of Spanish soldiers and Jesuit priests. Now they had no interpreter, and no guide. Segura sent several men to find Don Luis, but Luis and several others killed the men on February 4, 1571.

Several days later, Don Luis visited the remaining surviving Jesuits. There they murdered everyone except a young boy named Alonso de Olmos. Alonso would later recount the gruesome tale of what had happened. See Juan Baptista de Segura and the Failure of the Florida Jesuit Mission, 1566-1572, by Frank Marotti, Jr., The Florida Historical Quarterly, pp. 267-279.

Afterwards, the Spanish retaliated, sailing to what they called the “Bahia de Santa Maria,” with a fleet of four warships and 150 soldiers. A first hand account tells of where they disembarked, and identified it as the same spot the original Jesuits also disembarked, which also is the exact location these artifacts were found over 400 years later:

Anchoring the fleet in a port of this bay, the Governor sent an armed fragatilla with thirty soldiers to a fresh water stream where Ours (Jesuits) disembarked when they came here. This place is twenty leagues from this port.

Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia, written from the “Bay of the Mother of God (Chesapeake) August 28, 1572.

A “league” is about 3.5 land miles, and is known today as a “nautical mile.” Google Earth lets us measure in that unit, so I took a look. From the believed site of the Jesuit landing at what is now “College Creek” near Williamsburg, Virginia, it’s almost exactly 20 leagues to the mouth of the James River to the bay. This is perfectly consistent as College Creek being the exact spot. I suppose this is how they determined the location, but I don’t know for sure.

Father Rogel continued in his description:

It was decided to take the bound native in my company since he knew the language. The order of the Governor was to take a principal chieftain of that region, the uncle of Don Luis, as well as some leading Indians. On taking them, we were to ask them to give us the boy and we would let them go. Everything happened in excellent fashion, for within an hour he took the chieftain with five of his leaders and some either other Indians.

This was the method of capture. After anchoring in the middle of the narrow stream (College Creek), Indians soon appeared on the bank and some entered the boat. To these the Spaniards gave gifts and made some exchanges. When they left the boat very contentedly, others arrived. With a third group came the chief and his leaders; one of them wore a silver paten (a fancy bowl to hold water for baptisms or communion, I believe), that Ours (Jesuits) had brought, as a decoration or trinket. At once the Spaniards sized them and forced them down into the boat and dressing the ship (unanchoring?), passed to the mouth of that stream three leagues away by oar. On the way, the soldiers killed some Indians who were trying to shoot arrows at us and had wounded a soldier.

At the mouth of the river which was very wide, we anchored again an arquebus shot away from the shore (I.e., within musket range from the shore, but in excess of arrow range).

Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia, written from the “Bay of the Mother of God (Chesapeake) August 28, 1572.

Using Google Earth, this has to describe the bay at Jamestown. They must have paralleled the shore, all the while shooting at each other. This path is about exactly 3 leagues.

Ultimately, the Spanish soldiers then did what Spanish soldiers did, and killed around 20 of them, and captured 13 more. The leader, Juan Menendez Marques, demanded that the remaining survivors hand over Don Luis. When they failed to comply, he hanged nine of the prisoners from the rigging of his flagship. Marques then demanded the return of the boy Alonso, the one survivor from the original expedition. Eventually the did so, in exchange for the remaining native prisoners. However, after seeing the traumatized boy, Marques instead executed the remaining prisoners instead of handing them over.

Father Rogel also wrote about a crucifix towards the end of his report:

When this boy was with Don Luis, following the death of the others (Fathers), Don Luis left the vestments and books and everything else locked up in a chest, and on returning they took up their share of spoils. He said that a brother of Don Luis is going around clothed in the Mass vestments and alter cloths.

The captured chief told me that Don Luis gave the silver chalice to an important chief in the interior. The paten was given to one of those Indians we captured while the other images were thrown away.

Among other things there was a large crucifix in a chest; some Indians told this boy that they do not dare approach that chest, since three Indians who wanted to see what was in it fell down dead on the spot. So they keep it closed and protected.

Letter from Juan Rogel to Francis Borgia, written from the “Bay of the Mother of God (Chesapeake) August 28, 1572.

Interesting….. I wonder if that could refer to a silver crucifix?

These rings were found in Missouri:

Jesuit Rings from Missouri. University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology, https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/exhibit/jesuit-rings-missouri#

Jesuit rings have been reported from only three archaeological sites in Missouri: the Utz site in Saline County, which was occupied by the Missouri tribe from 1460 to 1650; the Brown site in Vernon County, occupied by the Osage from 1675 to 1777; and Clark County’s Illiniwek Village State Historic Site, which was visited by Marquette and Jolliet in 1673. This online exhibit presents Jesuit rings from the Utz and Brown sites that are housed by the Museum of Anthropology. These rings display some of the typical designs of this artifact class.

Jesuit Rings from Missouri. University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology, https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/exhibit/jesuit-rings-missouri#

By the way, this little ring was found at Byrnside’s Fort.

I’m not sure if this is a trade ring, or really anything about it. It definitely appears to be sized for a woman. But it does look similar to a lot of the trade rings.

3 thoughts on “So-called Jesuit Rings: French Fanaticism, Native American Trade, and Spanish Treasure

  1. HAVE ABOUT 250 JESUIT RINGS FROM THE MIDWEST. SEE MY ARTICLE IN THE, ”CENTRAL STATES ARCHAEOLOGICAL JOURNAL,” APRIL, 2017, P. 109, ENTITLED, A CASE FOR NATIVE ALTERED JESUIT RINGS.

    • Awesome, I’ll check it out. If you have a .pdf handy you could share I’d love to have a copy. jhbryan(at)me.com

    • John. I thoroughly enjoyed your research and writing. We have much in common. Both attorneys. Both collect and study early trade material. We should correspond. Best regards, Tony Stein, Kansas City.

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