More than 30 people filled the meeting room at the Beaufort County Library last week in Beaufort to hear a presentation about progress at Fort Frederick.
After watching S.C. Department of Natural Resources videos, the group piled into cars and followed DNR archeologist Meg Gaillard down to Port Royal, eventually rumbling down a dirt path behind Beaufort Naval Hospital to an 18th-century fort, thought to be the oldest tabby structure in the state and built by the British to defend Port Royal Sound and the city of Beaufort from the Spanish.
The archelogical work is not done, Gaillard stressed. There are still underwater readings to be made on the east side of the fort, which is now submerged in the Beaufort River not far from McTeer Bridge.
But eventually, the facts learned from artifacts on the site could lead to informational materials and signage to better tell Fort Frederick's story.
The fort is one of several efforts Beaufort County to better document, explain and market the history of the area -- especially in northern Beaufort County.
County and municipal leaders hope the push will be a boon for tourism and even economic development. They also hope it is a way to educate a local population that might not know what has gone on in its backyard.
The consensus is that the area has not always done a great job of telling its own story.
"The short version is that it's been a little bit embarrassing that a city that prides itself on this rich history and longstanding culture of over 300 years has been remiss in packaging it -- first for the young people who grow up here because having a sense of place is really what a hometown is about," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
There are other efforts across the county.
The Santa Elena Foundation seeks to bring to life the story of the 16th-century Spanish settlement on what is now Parris Island.
Keyserling is leading an effort for a center downtown to tell the story of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
The county is working on Fort Fremont on St. Helena Island to include an interpretive center to show visitors about the fort built in 1898.
Expectations not met with experience
Most Beaufort County visitors expect history to play a role in their trips, but only a little more than half of them end up incorporating history on their itinerary, according to a recent study by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and USC Beaufort.
The study showed that 79 percent of those visiting the county rank history as important on their list of things to do.
Only 55 percent ended up participating in something related to history, said Robb Wells, tourism director for the Beaufort Regional Chamber.
He said the experience isn't matching tourists' initial expectations. Recent efforts, though, are bridging that gap, he said.
"As someone whose job is to market an area and create a first-time visitor experience, this is an exciting time," Wells said. "I think what has been talked about in years past, now you're starting to see it executed at a full-scale level."
Mayors from the county's four municipalities are compiling lists of historic and cultural sites for global information service mapping.
Sites will be identified using a color-coded system: "green" for sites that are good to go and can be learned from right away; "yellow" for sites that need work to be interpreted properly; and "red" for sites that probably aren't good fits for public viewing.
Beaufort's website for visitors includes a self-guided tour of the city's churches via an embedded Google map and another map showing historical markers.
Some of the area's sites aren't appropriate for the public -- such as ones on private land or those too difficult to access, like Daws Island Heritage Preserve, another DNR site.
Others still have archeological work to be done.
Such is the case with Santa Elena, tucked on the south end of Parris Island and through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot's intimidating gates.
The site's supporters are bringing the story out of the gates to the old federal courthouse on Bay Street.
An emerging story
Chester DePratter, the archeologist who discovered the location of Charlesfort, which the French established in 1562, says only a small percentage of Santa Elena has been uncovered.
"We like to call this an emerging story for that reason," Santa Elena Foundation director Andy Beall said.
Santa Elena was founded at the site of Charlesfort by the Spanish in 1566 and is part of the story of an ongoing conflict with the French. Early excavations led researchers to believe the settlement was French.
But Spanish artifacts eventually came to light.
Artifacts from the site will be displayed in the Santa Elena History Center in the downtown courthouse the foundation is leasing from the county before being stored in Columbia at the S.C. Institute of Archeology and Anthropology.
The center could also be a place for gatherings like festivals and formal evening events, Beall said.
Beall and development director Meg Meyer -- the foundation's only full-time staff member -- want the center to be a county-wide collaboration and work together with other sites like the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center and Mitchellville on Hilton Head Island to tell the story of area's past.
The complete story would include Gullah Geechee, Reconstruction, Santa Elena, Penn Center, Mitchelville and rice culture, Beall said.
"You put all that together, you've got a lot of reasons people would want to come and spend some time here," he said.
Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.
- Beaufort County tendering lease with Santa Elena Foundation for historic courthouse , Feb. 9, 2015,
- Santa Elena Foundation hires first director , July 14, 2014