Columbus’ landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492 initiated what was perhaps the most dramatic century of cultural exchange in human history. Over two continents, the native peoples of the Americas--from Tierra del Fuego to the St. Lawrence River--withstood waves of explorers, settlers, proselytizers, and profiteers from Spain, England, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and other distant centers of European colonial aspiration. Of these nations, Spain was the most ambitious in its early efforts at exploration and conquest.
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Archaeological research at the Berry site in Burke County has shed significant light on the process and practice of colonialism in the Americas, as its borderland setting was the northern frontier of Spain’s long reach. There, in January 1567 at a native village named Joara, Captain Juan Pardo founded a garrison, Fort San Juan, and manned it with thirty soldiers. Occupied for nearly a year and a half, it was the first European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States. The Berry site witnessed one of the longest periods of sustained contact between Europeans and the peoples of North America’s interior until the seventeenth century.
During the first half of the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers failed in several efforts to colonize what is now the southeastern United States. Finally, in 1565-1566, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés successfully founded two settlements on the south Atlantic Coast: San Agustín, founded September 1565 in Florida, and Santa Elena, founded April 1566 on present Parris Island, South Carolina. The latter settlement, Santa Elena, was to be the principal town of Menendez' colonial aspirations. When Philip II learned of this success, he ordered reinforcements for the new colony.
In July 1566, Captain Juan Pardo arrived at Santa Elena with a company of 250 soldiers and began to fortify the settlement. As the Santa Elena colony was ill-prepared to feed this large contingent of men for very long, however, Menendez ordered Pardo to prepare half of his army for an expedition into the interior lands that lay behind the Atlantic coast. Pardo’s task was to explore the region, to claim the land for Spain while pacifying local Indians, and to find an overland route from Santa Elena to the silver mines in Zacatecas, northern Mexico. Pardo departed with 125 men on December 1, 1566.
In January 1567, Pardo and his company arrived at Joara, a large native town in the upper Catawba Valley near the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The leader of Joara, referred to in the documents as Joara Mico, maintained some authority over several neighboring communities in the upper Catawba Valley. Pardo renamed this town Cuenca, after his own native city in Spain. At Joara, he built fort San Juan, and manned it with thirty soldiers.
Although previous expeditions in the interior had made seasonal encampments or had temporarily occupied native towns, Pardo explicitly built Fort San Juan to expand Santa Elena’s colony toward the northern frontiers of La Florida. In so doing, he founded the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States. During a subsequent expedition across the Carolinas and eastern Tennessee, Pardo built five smaller forts along the proposed route to Zacatecas, Mexico, but it is clear from his statement, as well as from the two accounts penned by his scribe Juan de la Bandera, that Fort San Juan was to be the most important of these outposts.
Over most of the eighteen months that Spanish soldiers lived at Joara, amicable relations existed between the people of this town and their European guests--on at least two occasions, for example, the Spaniards accompanied native warriors in attacks on hostile native chiefs across the Appalachians in Tennessee and Virginia. Also, when Pardo was preparing to leave the fort during his second expedition, he commanded its ensign, Alberto Escudero de Villamar, to “judge and have a care of the conservation of the friendship of the caciques and Indians of all the land.”
In the months after Pardo’s departure in November 1567, however, relations between Fort San Juan and the people of Joara took a calamitous turn for the worse. By May 1568, news reached Santa Elena that Indians had attacked all of Pardo's forts and that all were destroyed. Several factors may have played a role in the aggressive action, but two stand out: the soldiers' demands for food and their improprieties with native women. At Fort Santiago, for example, Pardo ordered “that no one should dare bring any woman into the fort at night...under pain of being severely punished.” In the end, 130 soldiers and all of Pardo's garrisons were lost, and with them Spain's only attempt to colonize these northern frontiers of La Florida; indeed, it was more than a century before other Europeans are known to have penetrated this far into the southern Appalachians.
Work at the Berry site has included systematic surface collection and gradiometer survey over the entire site. Excavations have focused on the area immediately north and south of the mound, where archaeologists have recovered a relatively large assemblage of Spanish ceramics and hardware. What is more, excavations in this northern part of the site have revealed a compound of five burned buildings. It is believed that the Spanish artifacts and burned buildings represent the material remains of Fort San Juan; none of Pardo's other frontier forts has yet been identified.
Berry site website: http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~arch/berrysite
Constance E. Richards, “Contact and Conflict,” in American Archaeology, vol. 12, no. 1
Robin A. Beck Jr., David G. Moore, & Christopher B. Rodning, “Identifying Fort San Juan: A Sixteenth-
Century Spanish Occupation at the Berry Site, North Carolina,” in Southeastern Archaeology (Summer 2006): 65-77
Charles Hudson, The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 (2005)
“Joara and Fort San Juan,” at http://antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/moore/index.html
Archaeological dig at the Berry site in 2006.