Appalachian-Americans rejoice, archaeologists have added a new piece to your heritage puzzle. The remains of the earliest European fort in the interior of (what is now) the United States have been discovered - and it gives new insight into both the start of the U.S. colonial era and the imperialism of the Spanish.
Though it didn't last long. Native Americans killed almost all of the Spanish soldiers and destroyed the garrisons, which stretched from coastal South Carolina into eastern Tennessee, in under 18 months, said University of Michigan archaeologist Robin Beck.
Spanish Captain Juan Pardo and his men built Fort San Juan in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in 1567, nearly 20 years before Sir Walter Raleigh's "lost colony" at Roanoke and 40 years before Jamestown, the first settlement of the Virginia Colony founded in 1607, established England's presence in the region.
Beck, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology, is excavating the site with archaeologists Christopher Rodning of Tulane University and David Moore of Warren Wilson College. It is near the city of Morganton in western North Carolina, nearly 300 miles from the Atlantic Coast. The Berry site, named in honor of the stewardship of landowners James and the late Pat Berry, is located along a tributary of the Catawba River and was the location of the Native American town of Joara, part of the mound-building Mississippian culture that flourished in the southeastern U.S. between 800 and about 1500 AD.
In 2004, with support from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Beck andcolleagues began excavating several of the houses occupied by Spanish soldiers at Joara, where Pardo built Fort San Juan. Pardo named this small colony of Spanish houses Cuenca, after his own hometown in Spain. Yet the remains of the fort itself eluded discovery until last month.
"We have known for more than a decade where the Spanish soldiers were living," Rodning said. "This summer we were trying to learn more about the Mississippian mound at Berry, one that was built by the people of Joara, and instead we discovered part of the fort. For all of us, it was an incredible moment."
Using a combination of large-scale excavations and magnetometry geophysical techniques, which provides x-ray-like images of what lies below the surface, the archaeologists have now been able to identify sections of the fort's defensive moat or ditch, a likely corner bastion and a graveled surface that formed an entryway to the garrison.
Excavations in the moat conducted in late June reveal it to have been a large V-shaped feature measuring 5.5 feet deep and 15 feet across. Spanish artifacts recovered this summer include iron nails and tacks, Spanish majolica pottery, and an iron clothing hook of the sort used for fastening doublets and attaching sword scabbards to belts.
Fort San Juan was the first and largest of the garrisons that Pardo founded as part of an ambitious effort to colonize the American South. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had established the Spanish colonies of St. Augustine and Santa Elena in 1565 and 1566, respectively, spearheaded this effort. Of the six garrisons that Pardo built, Fort San Juan is the only one to have been discovered by archaeologists.
Spanish House at the Berry site. Credit: University of Michigan and Exploring Joara Project
During the brief time the Spaniards were at Joara, Beck says, they were actively prospecting for gold but never found it. Yet the gold was there: in the early 1800s, American settlers found so much just lying on the surface near rivers that a 17-pound gold nugget was used as a doorstop and a U.S. mint was established in Charlotte, triggering the first gold rush in U.S. history.
Had the people of Joara given Pardo's soldiers more time to discover this gold, Spain would probably have launched a full-scale colonial invasion of the area, England would have had difficulty establishing its foothold at Jamestown, and the entire southeastern part of what is now the U.S. might instead have become part of Latin America.
Why did the Mississipians wipe the Spaniards out so quickly? Beck and colleagues speculate that, originally, the Spanish bartered with the natives for food.
"The soldiers believed that when their gifts were accepted, it meant that the native people were their subjects," Beck believes. "But to the natives, it was simply an exchange. When the soldiers ran out of gifts, they expected the natives to keep on feeding them. By that time, they had also committed what Spanish documents refer to as "indiscretions" with native women, which may have been another reason that native men decided they had to go. So food and sex were probably two of the main reasons for destroying Spanish settlements and forts."
Moore said the significance of Fort San Juan extends far beyond the Carolina Piedmont.
"The events at Fort San Juan represent a microcosm of the colonial experience across the continent," he said. "Spain's failure created an opening that England exploited at Jamestown in 1607, when America's familiar frontier narrative begins. For Native Americans, though, this was the beginning of a long-term and often tragic reshaping of their precolonial world."