Historic site recalls Lowcountry's French, Spanish past

August 13, 2010 

Shown is one of the many historical markers at the Santa Elena/Charlesfort historical site on Parris Island. The markers dot the southern part of the island where French and Spanish settlers built outposts and later the town of Santa Elena during the 16th and 17th centuries.

JONATHAN DYER/THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

  • The name of the French explorer who established Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island appears frequently in the Lowcountry, perhaps most prominently on Ribaut Road in northern Beaufort County. The references aren't always spelled the same, though. In addition to "Ribaut Road," the city of Beaufort also once was home to "Jean Ribaut Square" shopping center on Boundary Street that since has been renamed Beaufort Town Center. Several places and institutions in Jacksonville, Fla., are named for the explorer and use the French spelling -- Jean Ribault High School, the Ribault Club on Fort George Island and a tributary of the Trout River in Florida, the Ribault River.

Far from the booming voices of drill instructors sits a historic site near the southern tip of Parris Island. The site, historians say, once typified the rivalry between two empires aspiring to claim land in the New World.

This is the birthplace of the modern Lowcountry.

Historical markers and a large stone monument marks the spot off Belleau Wood Road where the short-lived French outpost Charlesfort and the Spanish town of Santa Elena once sat more than 400 years before the arrival of Marines and sailors.

Fleeing religious persecution by French Catholics, a group of Huguenots led by Jean Ribaut sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1562 looking for possible sites for a permanent Protestant settlement in North America, according to the University of South Carolina's Institute of Archeology and Anthropology.

What he found instead was "one of the greatest and fayrest havens in the world" on Parris Island, where he and his men built a 7,000-square-foot fort. The garrison, named Charlesfort in honor of the 12-year-old French king, Charles IX, was France's first attempt to colonize the New World.

Once construction was complete in June 1562, Ribaut departed to obtain supplies in France and vowed to return in six months, leaving 27 men to protect the fledgling settlement. Ribaut never returned to Charlesfort because of religious wars in France, according to historians. His men grew impatient, killed the man Ribaut left in charge of the fort, built a boat and sailed back to France in April 1563.

By that time, word of the new French settlement had spread to Spanish King Philip II, who dispatched Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to drive Ribaut and his men from what was long considered Spanish territory.

Ribaut's men had been gone nearly three years when de Avilés arrived on Parris Island in January 1566 and built their settlement, Santa Elena, on the exact site where the French garrison once stood.

Chester DePratter, a professor of archeology and anthropology at USC, said building Santa Elena on top of Charlesfort was symbolic.

"There was a great rivalry between Spain and France because Spain had claimed right to that part of the world since the days of Christopher Columbus," DePratter said. "In their writings, the Spanish generally mention that the French had been in Port Royal Sound but never say exactly where. My guess is that they didn't want to pinpoint a location that could give the French some claim to a certain place on the landscape."

The colony, which served for several years as the capital of Spanish Florida, occupied about 20 acres of Parris Island and grew as large as 400 people before it was abandoned in 1587.

For more than 350 years, the ruins of Santa Elena sat undisturbed as plantations, a freedman's colony and a Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot were built on Parris Island.

In 1979, a team of archeologists from USC began excavating the Santa Elena site, but the whereabouts of Charlesfort remained a mystery for another 20 years.

DePratter and Stanley South, another professor at USC, began to suspect Charlesfort may be under Santa Elena when they examined ceramicsdug up from the site and found they were not only French but from the 16th century. DePratter and South found Charlesfort in 1995.

The Charlesfort-Santa Elena Site was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Service in 2001 and remains an important piece of Lowcountry and South Carolina history.

"Not everybody has such a site in their backyard or even within a hundred miles," said Dave Smoot, a technician at the Parris Island Museum. "On occasion, we'll have tourists come from overseas just to see Santa Elena and little else."

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