Our View: Santa Elena settlement deserves new attention

It must have been quite a sight for those weary Spanish settlers to step off their ships in the 1560s and into the lushness of the Lowcountry.

What did they make of the vast array of plants and wildlife? The humidity and sand gnats? And did they have any sense of the history they were making as they built Santa Elena -- now regarded as one of the most important sites of early Spanish exploration in North America?

A group of Beaufort County residents is hoping to paint that picture for us all. Members of a new foundation are off to a great start, recently acquiring space in the old county and federal courthouse in Beaufort to create a Santa Elena History Center.

On Nov. 1, the center will open to the public with office hours, lectures and programs. Foundation leaders hope to launch their first history exhibit about Santa Elena this spring.

Work is also underway to find money for additional archeological digs. Since the 1970s, when Santa Elena was rediscovered on today's Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, just 6 percent of the colony has been uncovered. Future digs will help historians better understand what life was like for the 400 conquistadors and citizens -- some of the first Europeans to attempt to make a life in the New World.

Santa Elena is an important piece of Beaufort County history that deserves additional funding and the public's attention.

And we have high hopes that visitors from outside of Beaufort County's borders will also be interested in learning about the historic settlement that pre-dates Jamestown.

Promoting Santa Elena could even be paired with the promotion of other important Beaufort County historical sites that have failed to get adequate attention, including Hilton Head Island's Mitchelville, one of the first self-governed settlements of freed slaves that was founded in 1862.

Public officials would be smart to work with local history enthusiasts and develop a long-range plan to promote the county's rich collective history. It may be just the thing to build the area's "shoulder" tourism seasons in the fall and spring.

After all, Beaufort County has much more to offer than just beautiful beaches. It's time to showcase our roots, too.