Native Village 
Youth and Education News

October, 2013

Oldest Fort Built By Europeans In U.S. Interior
Spanish 'San Juan' Garrison, Found In North Carolina
Condensed by Native Village

North Carolina: Before there was Roanoke, Jamestown, or Plymouth, there was Spain's Fort San Juan. Built by gold-hunting conquistadors in the 1567, it is the oldest European garrison found in the U.S. interior.

Recently, archaeologists uncovered the fort's remains.

In 1540, Hernando de Soto led a Spanish army up the eastern edge of the Appalachian mountains through present-day Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. This expedition recorded the first European contact with the people of Joara, which de Soto's chroniclers called Xuala.

In December 1566, Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés ordered Captain Juan Pardo to leave Spanish Florida and claim the interior for Spain.  Pardo and his 125 men were told to pacify the natives, convert them to Catholicism, and establish a route to Spanish silver mines near Zacatecas, Mexico. (The Spanish thought they were much closer to the mines than they were)

The garrison was built by Captain Pardo and his men in about 1567 at the Native American site of Joara (today's Morganton, N.C.)  Built 300 miles inland, Fort San Juan is believed to be the first and largest fort in Pardo's attempt to colonize the American South.







The base of the Spanish moat, part of a garrison nearly 450 years old

It's also the only one to have been discovered.

"Fort San Juan and six others that together stretched from coastal South Carolina into eastern Tennessee were occupied for less than 18 months before the Native Americans destroyed them, killing all but one of the Spanish soldiers who manned the garrisons,"  said archaeologist Robin Beck from the University of Michigan.

"We have known for more than a decade where the Spanish soldiers were living," said another excavator, Christopher Rodning of Tulane University.

The team of archaeologists was investigating a Mississippian mound at the site when their excavations inadvertently exposed part of the fort.

"For all of us, it was an incredible moment," Rodning said.

Along with excavations, researchers used techniques like magnetometry to probe the site. This enabled them to detect features buried below the surface. This included the fort's graveled entryway and V-shaped moat, which measures 5.5 feet deep and 15 feet across.

Among the artifacts found at the site were nails, tacks, pottery and an iron clothing hook for fastening a jacket or attaching a sword scabbard to a belt.

As for the size of the fort, the researchers are not sure.

"We are not yet sure of the fort's dimensions. That will be one of the surprises," Beck said. The team has exposed about 60 feet of the 15-foot-across moat. They suspect another 100 feet of moat or palisade will link up with the now-exposed section.

The Spaniards were prospecting for gold while they occupied the site, but they never found the goldmines that made North Carolina's settlers of the early 1800s rich. Archaeologists believe the colonizers' downfall was due to their presumptions about trading with Native Americans.

"The soldiers believed that when their gifts were accepted, it meant that the native people were their subjects," Beck said. "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."

An iron clothing hook was among Spanish artifacts found at the site

England exploited Spain's failure when they established Jamestown in 1607. This set in motion the American frontier narrative in our history books today.

"For Native Americans ... this was the beginning of a long-term and often tragic reshaping of their precolonial world," said archaeologist David Moore Moore.

The crew suspects the site will yield more discoveries.

"We also think we've identified a blockhouse or casa fuerte inside the fortifications, and this is where the soldiers would have stored their supplies — ammunition, tools, food, etc.," Beck shares. "In the field seasons to come, we'll focus on getting a much better understanding of this fort."

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