Digging For History



In 1567, Spanish explorer Capt. Juan Pardo traveled the Indian trails to a town called Joara, in the NC foothills. He built a fort there. Indians later killed the soldiers and burned the fort. It was a mystery, until archaeologists found evidence of the fort while researching the village. The discovery confirms the first inland European settlement in the new world.

MORGANTON - In a field near Morganton, in Burke County, archaeologists are rewriting North Carolina history. That’s because the evidence is growing that the remains of a Spanish Fort, dating back to 1567, have been found. The fort disappeared and was lost to history after soldiers were killed in a battle with Native Americans and the outpost was burned to the ground. It was lost to history, that is, until now.

“This is a piece of painted pottery that appears to come from a small medicine jar that was used to hold a salve or an ointment,” says Dr. David Moore, Archaeology Professor, Warren Wilson College. We are standing at a table in Moore’s cramped lab at the college. It is filled with drawers containing artifacts from his archaeological digs through the years. There are also maps of Native American settlements on the walls and his prized flag from a National Geographic Expedition.

“This is a jar that soldiers would likely carry with them because it is small but holds a medicine you would need in the field, and it is easily dated to the late 16th century," Moore continues.

Moore returns the pottery fragment, which appears to have come from the broken bottom of a jar, to the small plastic bag it is kept in. There are plenty of other fragments in small bags on the table; a nail, a lead ball, pottery that appears to be from an olive jar and is glazed on the inside. Individually, they are just fragments of life long ago. But together, Moore calls them proof of the first inland fort built by Europeans in the new world.

“These are items that would be carried and used by Spanish soldiers themselves,” says Moore. “It is not something that would be traded by the Spanish because the Indians had no need for nails or lead balls or pottery that had been fired. These are materials of an occupation.”

The items were discovered during the excavation of a Native American village called Joara. Moore and his archaeology students from Warren Wilson College have been researching the village, located near what is now Morganton. But they were also searching for Fort San Juan, an outpost built by gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Spanish documents suggested it should be in the area.

Native Americans settled in the area because there was good soil for farming, plenty of game and there was water nearby. Archaeologists have studied this site for almost three decades, trying to learn about the Native Americans, but also about the Spanish, because it's known they followed Native American trade routes and they built their forts in the middle of villages.

Spanish activity in the area dates to 1566. That’s when Spanish Captain Juan Pardo and his men set out on an inland journey from their settlement Santa Elena, on the coast of South Carolina. They built six garrisons during their trek, part of the Spanish effort to colonize the new world and search for gold. In what would become the North Carolina foothills, some 300 miles inland, Pardo built Fort San Juan in 1567. It was the largest of the forts and preceded England’s Lost Colony at Roanoke Island by 20 years and Jamestown by 40 years. 

Excavation of the site is painstakingly slow. Thin layers of dirt are scraped away by shovel. In more delicate areas, the soil is removed by trowel and brush. Everything is sorted through a metal screen that is positioned over a wheelbarrow. The soil is dumped away from the excavation site. Anything that could be of possible interest is put into a plastic bag for examination in the lab.

“You need to pay attention to anything that is dug and looks interesting, but it’s also important to pay close attention to the soil changes and the color,” says Carolina Loveland, a junior at Warren Wilson College. “That’s why you just sheer off a small layer of soil so you know if you are getting into a different layer.”

“These are not natural soils here,” says Moore pointing out bands of color in the soil. “The different colors come from human activity and that’s what we have to determine; what soil comes from what activity.”

Moore points out a five-foot deep trench, which follows a dark band in the soil that stretches further into the excavation. Archaeologists believe that was the moat that surrounded the fort. Dark circles in the soil nearby indicate the markings of the palisade, a fence made from cut trees that surrounded the fort. It was the soil bands, combined with the artifacts, that provided what archaeologists believe is the proof of the location of Fort San Juan.

The Spanish built their fort in the middle of the village as a way of asserting their authority over the Native Americans. However, 18 months after the fort was built, the 25 soldiers stationed there were dead.

“The Indians realized they were getting nothing from this relationship and the Spanish had ulterior motives in trying to become friends,” explains Moore.

“Indians based and cemented their relationships with bonds of mutual benefit, and the Spanish weren’t giving anything back,” continues Moore. “The reason is obvious to us now, and it became clear to the Indians; the Spanish weren’t here to trade with the Indians, they were here to take their land. Once the chief here decided this was not worth their while, and I think it was the same at all the forts, they killed the men and sent back one guy who said this is it.”

Moore goes on to explain that what he believes happened at Fort San Juan was a preview of what would happen all over the New World as European colonizers came and seized land and tried to negotiate a new cultural landscape. The Indians had to react to it and cope with it as best they could. While archaeologists know what happened at Fort San Juan, they are still trying to determine what happened about 20 years later to the Joara settlement. The Native Americans abandoned the village. No one knows why.

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