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Pieces of the past: Story of Santa Elena, a significant Spanish settlement, emerges in fragments

For years, no one knew one of the most significant archaeological finds in South Carolina history lay hidden under a golf course.

The Spanish settlement of Santa Elena -- one of the most important sites of early Spanish exploration in North America -- was a city lost to time for more than 300 years. While written accounts proved that the colony, built in 1566, had existed, its exact location had been a source of scholarly debate for decades.

That is, until a group of archaeologists began to dig at the golf course at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in 1979, a place usually reserved for golf carts and military officers dressed in plaid.

What they unearthed proved that the storied colony had existed right here in Beaufort County.

And today -- four decades later -- a group of residents are working to tell the settlement's story. The Santa Elena Foundation has already raised more than $1.1 million in grants and donations to fund a history center and more archaeological work at the site.

Next month, the foundation will open the new center in the former federal courthouse in Beaufort. And in April the group plans to commemorate the colony's 450th anniversary with a festival and the opening of an interactive historic exhibit.

It was a lot of luck in the 1970s that made it all possible.

Five things Santa Elena teaches about American history

1. Jamestown and Plymouth Rock were far from the beginning of America.

More than 40 years before English settlers came to  the New World, Spanish adventurers created an empire of explorers across North and South America, including a city named Santa Elena that would last 21 years. Its remnants sit on today’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Just 6 percent of the historic site has been excavated.

2.  Florida is not just a state.

The vast Spanish claim to 16th century North America was known as La Florida or Spanish Florida. The empire spanned from the Southeast United States to Canada. Santa Elena was its first capital and its principal city for nearly a decade.

3. France and Spain fought for Native American souls.

In the mid-1500s, Spain and France were warring over their Catholic and Protestant faiths. The bitter feud extended into a fierce race to settle the New World. Both countries sought to conquer the land in part to convert native people to their faiths. Spanish Catholic priests from the Jesuit order, for example, created a mission near Santa Elena, but it was soon dismantled when local tribes rebelled.

4. Spanish has been an American language for centuries.

Some of the first Europeans to live in America spoke Spanish rather than English. Historians believe the narrative of America’s Spanish colonial heritage and sites like Santa Elena will be of increasing importance as the U.S. Spanish-speaking population increases.

5. Monuments can be wrong.

A monument on the Santa Elena site misidentifies the settlement as Charlesfort, a settlement by the French. The monument, built by Congress in 1925, was placed after early excavators made incorrect assumptions.

Learn more at http://santa-elena.org/.


Stanley South, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina, was called to the Parris Island golf course on a hunch in 1978 by Joseph Judge, then the associate editor of The National Geographic Magazine.

Judge believed Santa Elena may lie somewhere underneath the green, based on research by historians Paul Hoffman of Louisiana State University and Eugene Lyon of Vero Beach, Florida.

Judge, South, the two historians and a few other archaeologists agreed to meet at the course one day in 1978 to discuss the possibility. And as they walked the site, speculating about what they might find under the ground, South spotted something.

A musket ball.

Then, he found an Indian pottery fragment.

And then a piece of 16th century Spanish pottery.

It felt as if the artifacts glowed in his hands, South later wrote in his book, "Archaeology at Santa Elena."

"These fragments represented a major archaeological doorway to the past," South wrote. "We had found our first archaeological clues to Santa Elena's past beneath our feet!"

The eventual discovery of Santa Elena by South's team was featured on the front page of the New York Times on July 13, 1979.

"We have found what seems to be one of the major historical sites in the United States," Robert Stephenson, director of the University of South Carolina's Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the newspaper.

South and his colleagues would go on to spend some 30 years -- when they could get funding -- uncovering the past of Santa Elena, adding a new dimension to the understanding of Spanish colonialism and the European roots of the nation.

A team of archaeologists, including Stanley South and Chester DePratter, first excavated the site of Santa Elena at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island from 1979 to 1985. Parris Island Museum

ABOVE: A team of archaeologists, including Stanley South and Chester DePratter, first excavated the site of Santa Elena at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island from 1979 to 1985. Parris Island Museum

Today, less than 6 percent of the site has been uncovered, according to Chester DePratter, an archaeologist who worked with South and has since taken over excavation work at Santa Elena.

It has been several years since the last dig, but DePratter hopes work will continue in light of renewed local interest in the settlement.

In January 2014, a group of Beaufort County activists formed the Santa Elena Foundation, with the goal of telling the colony's story.

The effort has given hope for funding more archaeological work to reveal details of the storied city where Spanish citizens were some of the first Europeans to try to make a life in the New World.

The site also holds the key to artifacts from French colonists who settled the area, several Native American tribes, inhabitants of long-gone plantation and the U.S. Marines Corps that converted the land into a training ground in 1917.

"All you have to do is dig 16 inches into the dirt and you've gone through 10,000 years of history," said DePratter, who went on his first expedition to the site in 1984. He remembers digging and finding 16th century weapons and coins as golf balls whizzed past his head in the middle of the 8th fairway on the military golf course. "Plus we've also got the most golf balls of any archaeological dig in history."


Scholars long knew that somewhere on the S.C. coast, an expedition led by the renowned explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, governor of the Spanish claim to North America, built a fort and settlement in 1566.

Menendez was sent with generous funds from King Phillip II who was bent on securing the continent for Spain to prevent the French from taking the land and protect Spanish treasure routes.

Life was often hard at Santa Elena with outbreaks of disease, hunger and storms, but the settlement seemed to thrive with some 60 homes and up to 400 people living there at its peak, according to historians.

It eventually became the capital city of the Spanish claim in North America, which was home to about 160,000 Spaniards.

A map of the area surrounding Santa Elena in the 16th century created by archaeologists Chester DePratter and Stanley South.

A map of the area surrounding Santa Elena in the 16th century created by archaeologists Chester DePratter and Stanley South. Submitted image.

But in 1576, American Indians became angered by the Spaniards' demands for food and supplies when their shipments from Europe grew thin.

They burned most of Santa Elena to the ground. The women of the settlement had to drag the city's resistant leaders to boats as flames engulfed their fort, historian Eugene Lyon wrote in "Santa Elena: A Brief History of the Colony."

"As they sailed out of the (Port Royal) sound, the last thing the surviving Spaniards saw was a smudge of smoke that marked the destruction of ten years of work and hope," Lyon wrote of the moment.

Despite the attack, the Spanish returned to Santa Elena the next year to salvage their capital city.

Santa Elena was eventually abandoned in 1587 after Sir Francis Drake attacked the other major Spanish settlement in the New World, St. Augustine.

The settlers of Santa Elena were called there to help defend the city and never returned. Spanish leaders opted to consolidate their remaining forces at St. Augustine, which became America's first permanent settlement.

Santa Elena was left to recede into the marshes. It was later inhabited by American Indians, covered by a plantation, developed into a home for freed slaves and eventually was the site of the military golf course before it was finally rediscovered in 1979.


There is a clear reason Santa Elena took so long to uncover. For a century, archaeologists believed the site belonged to the French, the bitter enemies of the Spaniards at Santa Elena.

"It was the constant fear for the settlers that the French may claim Santa Elena," historian Paul Hoffman said. "The struggles between the Spanish and the French are one of the central drivers behind the colony, but then of course for years people assumed the ruins were French."

There was a good reason for the confusion. The Spanish came to Santa Elena following a short-lived French colony also on Parris Island founded by the explorer Jean Ribaut.

Ribaut built a French fort, Charlesfort, in 1562, four years before the Spanish arrived and founded Santa Elena on the same island.

The French settlement lasted only 11 months, compared with Santa Elena's 21 years.

The Spanish chose Parris Island for their destination to keep French explorers from reclaiming what they believed was a prime strategic post.

When the first excavations of Parris Island began in the 1850s by enslaved laborers, they discovered a gate that archaeologists mistakenly believed belonged to the French Charlesfort.

Beaufort County residents spent decades referring to the area as Charlesfort until the Marine Corps began to use the area as a training site during World War I.

The Marines filled in a moat still partially visible and uncovered pottery from the 16th century when they built their training grounds in 1917.

The Marines drew complaints from locals for building on the historic site, so in 1923 the Corps assigned Major George Osterhout a team to excavate the site.

The major was not a trained archaeologists and declared that the fort was French Charlesfort. And in 1925, Congress erected a monument to mark the site.

"To their credit they were only about 250 yards away," said DePratter, the archaeologist who would go on to find the correct site of Charlesfort in 1996.

Years after the Marines' excavation, historians would begin to suspect the discoveries of artifacts in the 1920s excavation were actually Spanish, leading the team that would eventually uncover Santa Elena to the site in the late 1970s.


The very first 1979 excavation by South's archaeological team consisted of just 45 small test digs. And by luck, they found the traces of one of Santa Elena's five forts.

The team picked the site, South would later write, because it was shaded from the sun underneath an area of trees and off the golf course.

"There was some luck," DePratter said. "They happened to dig and find a fort almost right away."

By another lucky stroke, the archaeological features were actually well preserved in spite of the sites' age and the development of Parris Island. The golf course created a layer of topsoil, preserving the site's artifacts and leaving it largely free of construction.

Excavations continued from 1979 to 1985 and then resumed when the team received more funding in 1991.

So far, archaeologists have found a residence of a wealthy family in the city, have identified two of Santa Elena's five forts and have been able to learn about how the city operated, traded and survived based on items they used in everyday life including weapons, building materials, games and pottery.

An archaeologist digs at the site of Santa Elena as golf continues at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in the 1980s. Parris Island Museum

ABOVE: An archaeologist digs at the site of Santa Elena as golf continues at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in the 1980s. Parris Island Museum

In 1994, DePratter conducted more than 1,400 "shovel tests" to map the limits of the town, which they determined was about 20 acres. The next year, his team discovered the real Charlesfort, which lay buried beneath one of the forts of Santa Elena, called San Felipe.

The archaeologists have found a Catholic cross, coins, jewelry and the oldest Spanish kiln ever discovered in North America.

But DePratter says a lot more lies under the surface.

DePratter's team at the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology hope to identify Santa Elena's small Catholic church, the section of the town where the everyday people such as soldiers and settlers lived and the home of the governor of the Spanish empire, Pedro Menendez, a figure that stands tall in Spanish colonial history.

There is also no detailed map of Santa Elena as so much still has to be discovered.

In 2001, the site became a national historic landmark and the Marine Corps closed the golf holes that covered where the colony once stood.

That protection took some of the urgency out of the excavation, though archaeologists have returned on shorter trips most summers, DePratter said.

"We knew then that it couldn't one day be built over without us being able to stop it," he said. "It has protection. It will be there. We just needed the funding to do it."

In 2014, the Santa Elena Foundation helped lobby the state Legislature to dedicate $220,000 to DePratter's work to allow him to reprocess the more than 850 boxes of artifacts archaeologists have already found at Santa Elena.

The foundation has also brought a new understanding to the work they have already completed.

"Historians and archaeologists have been talking about Santa Elena for a long time," DePratter said. "But ordinary people don't read those academic journals. Now the hope is that people that live here can access this history. They can learn why Parris Island became one of the most important Spanish ports in all the new world, why people risked life and limb to live here."

DePratter hopes to return to Santa Elena to do more work this summer and for many more afterwards.

"There are whole structures and stories from the settlement we haven't been able to find yet," he said. "So we are far from done."

Follow reporter Erin Heffernan on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.

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