Archaeologists say they have found the site of a nearly 440-year-old Spanish fort located along the coast near Beaufort.
Historians have known for years about the existence of Fort San Marcos, a quickly-built wooden outpost meant to protect the Spanish colonial village of Santa Elena. A South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology team confirmed Santa Elena’s site on Parris Island in 1979. University of South Carolina archaeologist Chester DePratter said primary documents showed San Marcos’ rough location, but two decades of surveys and digs could not find the colonial post.
“It’s a part of our history that’s important,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “The records are there describing it. But the actual location has not always been known.”
DePratter said that changed when University of Georgia anthropologist Victor Thompson got involved in the search, using new remote sensing technology that was able to scan below ground and find soil disturbances indicating the presence of old postholes used as the foundation for the fort. The team will publish their findings this week in the Journal of Archeology Science Reports.
Santa Elena is one of the oldest European sites in the present-day United States. Spanish troops founded the settlement along the Port Royal Sound under colonial governor Pedro Menedez Marquez in 1577, more than 100 years before the first English settlers arrived in present-day Charleston. Santa Elena was the furthest north outpost of the Spanish La Florida colony and was built at the site of a short-lived French colony. The old fort was abandoned after about 10 years, when the Spanish decided to focus their resources in present-day Florida to avoid Indian attacks and other European raids.
The Spanish’s failed efforts in modern South Carolina are not well-known, even among those who study history. (American history) textbooks start with the history of English folks arriving in this part of the world,” DePratter said. “(English colonies) Jamestown and Plymouth get all the coverage with barely a mention of Santa Elena.”
Beaufort County tourism officials are hoping to bring more public awareness to the area’s history with the Santa Elena Foundation. The foundation’s new history centered opened last year for the settlement’s 450th anniversary and features several exhibits on its namesake. The site itself is located on Parris Island — an active military installation — and is not open to the public except for the occasional guided tour offered by the foundation.
DePratter said Santa Elena is the best preserved 16th century town in the country, in part because of its location, which is underneath a former military golf course that has no standing structures on it.
The Charlestonfort/Santa Elena National Historic Landmark is located on the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. The current remote sensing work is funded by the Santa Elena Foundation and SCIAA’s Archaeological Research Trust and supported by the University of Georgia’s anthropology department.