The history books are wrong, claim a group of Beaufort County residents.
While generations of American children have been taught that Jamestown and Plymouth Rock were the start of this nation, the local group claims that it all started in a little Lowcountry town named Port Royal at a relatively unknown Spanish settlement called Santa Elena.
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"It really was where America began," said Daryl Ferguson of Beaufort, one of five founders of the new Santa Elena Foundation. "But in school, kids learn about Columbus coming in 1492 and the Jamestown settlement in 1607. What's missing is the first hundred years of ourselves. And it was not a dull period."
In fact, historians say Santa Elena may be the first significant European settlement in what would become the United States.
"It was at one time the most important Spanish settlement in the New World," said Karen Paar, a historian who wrote her doctorate on the settlement at the University of North Carolina. "It was a contested time when the identity of our nation was very much under question. I think that if Spain had put the energy into the settlements like Santa Elena on the coast, we'd be speaking Spanish right now."
The colony was lost for more than 300 years, before archaeologists uncovered one of its five forts in 1979 at the present day site of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Above: Count Alvaro Armada Barcaiztegui of Spain, a direct descendent of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the founder of Santa Elena, stands for a portrait at the Beaufort College Building on Nov. 12, 2014. File/The Beaufort Gazette
Additional archaeological digs and funding are needed so that the story of the roughly 400 conquistadors and citizens of Santa Elena can be told, say members of the foundation, who plan to open a historical center in Beaufort this spring.
"We are going to tell the truth, the real story of the United States," said Count Alvaro Armada Barcaiztegui of Spain in a video produced by the foundation. Barcaiztegui, who recently joined the foundation's board, is a direct descendant of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the founder of Santa Elena. He owns an extensive collection of documents recounting 500 years of his family's history.
"This is something that has to be done," said Barcaiztegui, who has visited Beaufort several times, sometimes growing emotional and placing flowers on the site of his ancestor's settlement. "How can you love your nation and know your roots if you don't know the story?"
A brief overview of the "Lost Century" From 1492-1592. This "mini" documentary dives into the rediscovery of the Santa Elena Colony founded by the Spanish. The Santa Elena Foundation
BRINGING IN TOURISTS
The creation of a Santa Elena center could set the stage for a new niche tourism market, giving thousands a new reason to visit Beaufort County, say foundation members.
"Tourism is one of this area's biggest economic drivers," said Stu Rodman, a Beaufort County councilman and member of the Santa Elena Foundation's board of directors. "But you always have to keep adding new things to have people come and decide this would be a good place to revisit or come to retire. So we see this as an overall good for the county, for its history but also for development."
Attendees gather in the courtroom of the former Federal Courthouse on Bay Street, Beaufort, as Santa Elena Foundation Executive Director Andrew Beall, left, speaks Oct. 8, 2015, during the foundation's "Celebrate the Space" event in its new building. Plans call for the courtroom to be converted into exhibition space for the foundation's museum. Jay Karremail@example.com
Foundation members have been successful so far in getting the attention of local and state leaders.
• Raised about $1.1 million in donations and grants from the county, state and private donors for archaeological preservation and the history center.
• Acquired space for the Santa Elena History Center, taking over the recently vacated federal district courthouse building owned by the Beaufort County government on Bay Street. On November 1, the center will open to the public with office hours, lectures and programs. Foundation leaders hope to launch its first interactive public history exhibit and an archaeological research lab in the space beginning this April as part of a celebration of the 450th anniversary. The foundation has already trained 18 volunteer docents on the history of Santa Elena who will staff the center.
• Met twice with Spanish ambassador Ramon Gil-Caseres and purchased an exhibit from a Spanish government cultural outreach office, highlighting Spanish colonization in the 16th century. The exhibit will be the bones of the Santa Elena History Center's first exhibit along with additions specific to local history.
Above: Andy Beall, center facing, executive director of the Santa Elena Foundation, listens as the captain of the El Galeon, a 16th-century Spanish galleon replica, talks about the ship and its workings on Oct. 5, 2015. The ship was docked off River Street in downtown Savannah, Ga. The Santa Elena Foundation is working to bring the ship to Beaufort next year for the 450th-anniversary celebration of Pedro Menendez de Aviles' landing in Port Royal. Drew Martinfirstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Beall, the foundation's new director, said the group has accomplished more than most expected in two years, relying only on a group of passionate volunteers and one paid staff member.
"There is a large pool of talent here," Beall said, a former international business executive, who became involved with the group after researching the impact a historical center could have on the local tourism industry. "People may be retired but they have a lot of expertise in things like business, museum curation or education that we've been able to access."
HISTORY IN BOXES
About 850 boxes full of pieces of Santa Elena's history sit in storage in Columbia -- coins, pottery, weapons, religious icons and jewelery unearthed by archaeologists over 30 years of archaeological digs .
Foundation members hope to one day bring the artifacts home to the fledgling center.
Above: Chester DePratter, photographed Oct. 8, 2015, at a Santa Elena Foundation event, is an archaeologist who has worked for the last 30 years to excavate the Santa Elena site. Jay Karremail@example.com.
Money was also needed to process the items to current standards, according to one of the project's lead archaeologists Chester DePratter. With prompting from the Santa Elena Foundation, the state Legislature approved $220,000 in 2014 along with $125,000 donated by the U.S. Marine Corps to maintain the materials already found at the settlement.
DePratter has been working to catalogue the artifacts and is preparing a proposal with the foundation for future archaeological research on the settlement site that will be submitted to the U.S. Marine Corps. He hopes to excavate likely thousands of artifacts still left in the ground.
Beaufort County, has also approved four separate grants totaling $250,000 to the foundation out of the local accommodation tax fund, dedicated to promoting local tourism. The City of Beaufort contributed an additional $10,000 to the group.
Foundation director Beall said searching for major private funding and applying for more grants is the next most important step for the foundation.
"Changing history is hard, building something out of nothing is difficult," Beall said. "But we are off to a good start."
Santa Elena Foundation co-founder Daryl Ferguson photographed Oct. 8, 2015, with an item on display during the foundation's "Celebrate the Space" event in the old Federal Courthouse on Bay Street, Beaufort. Jay Karrfirstname.lastname@example.org
Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.
- Efforts target bringing Beaufort County's past into the present, August 16, 2015
- Santa Elena experts compiling information to guide foundation's efforts, August 14, 2014
- Santa Elena Foundation heads to Spain for research, May 9, 2014