Santa Elena Foundation heads to Spain for research

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMay 9, 2014 

An excavation at Fort Felipe on Parris Island can be seen in this undated file photograph. Fort Felipe was about 100 feet away from the boundary of Santa Elena and predating that settlement by about 11 years.


Delegates from the recently created Santa Elena Foundation are heading to Spain this weekend on a trip they hope will open new doors as they work to change how America looks at its history.

"All the history books, including those in Beaufort County, start with Jamestown and then go on to Plymouth Rock," foundation board member Daryl Ferguson said.

But there's more to the story, he said.

The real beginning of colonization in America began on Parris Island, when the Spanish founded Santa Elena in about 1566, he said. There was also the short-lived French outpost of Charlesfort founded in 1562, Ferguson said.

For more than two decades, Santa Elena was the capital of the Spanish Florida, and its placement on the shores of the deep Port Royal Sound was ideal for shipping gold brought overland from Mexico, he said.

"It's got an extraordinary history of where it all began," Ferguson said.

The group envisions creating an interpretive center where visitors can learn about Santa Elena and other early American settlements. Board member Dick Stewart said he is still working on plans to buy a portion of the Port of Port Royal property, directly across Battery Creek from Parris Island.

A purchase offer earlier this year was declined by the S.C. State Ports Authority because it wasn't enough and was not for the entire 317-acre property. The authority has since indicated it is willing to sell the property in three defined parcels, but those plots don't match the foundation's needs, Stewart has said.

As they ponder a permanent home, board members also have been working with the Spanish Embassy to gain access to research, documents and artifacts, as well as Spanish officials who could help in their endeavor, the foundation says.

Those officials could be museum curators or the keepers of archives. They could be the country's secretary of tourism or the mayor of the 16th century town of Santillana del Maror a relative of the first governor of Santa Elena -- Pedro Menèndez de Avilès -- who Ferguson hopes will allow access to family files.

The benefits are immense, Ferguson said, for both Spain and Beaufort County, in terms of tourism and other economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is pushing to keep a $220,000 appropriation in next year's state budget to catalogue artifacts and organize research from previous archaeological digs at the Santa Elena site. Those artifacts are being stored in Columbia as part of an agreement between the state and the federal government.

Davis and foundation directors hope to have the dig reopened for additional excavation. Only two percent of the site has been uncovered, Ferguson said.

"We do know this: This is the first major settlement in the United States," he said. "This absolutely rewrites history."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at

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