First New World fort was built by Spanish

John Noble Wilford / New York Times News Service /


Published Jul 26, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

If the Spanish had succeeded, Robin Beck Jr., a University of Michigan archaeologist on the discovery team, suggested, “Everything south of the Mason-Dixon line might have become part of Latin America.” But they failed.

Researchers had known from Spanish documents about the two expeditions led by Juan Pardo from the Atlantic coast from 1566 to 1568. A vast interior seemed open for the taking. This was almost 20 years before the failure of the English at Sir Walter Raleigh’s “lost colony” near the North Carolina coast or their later successes in Virginia at Jamestown in 1607 and at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620 — the “beginnings” emphasized in the standard Colonial history taught in U.S. schools.

One of Pardo’s first acts of possession, in early 1567, was building Fort San Juan in an Indian town almost 300 miles in the interior, near what is known today as the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the first and largest of six forts the expedition erected on a trail blazed through North and South Carolina and across the mountains into eastern Tennessee. At times, Pardo was following in the footsteps of Hernando de Soto in the 1540s.

Pardo’s orders were to establish an overland road to the silver mines in Mexico, on the mistaken assumption that the Appalachians were the same mountain chain that ran through central Mexico. No one then had a sure handle on the near and far of New World geography. Even the written records of the de Soto expedition beyond the Mississippi River did not seem to clarify matters; they did not come with maps.

After years of searching, archaeologists led by Beck, Christopher Rodning of Tulane University in New Orleans and David Moore of Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., came upon what they described in interviews as clear evidence of the fort’s defensive moat and other telling remains of Fort San Juan. The discovery in late June was made five miles north of Morganton, N.C., at a site long assumed to be the location of an Indian settlement known as Joara, where military artifacts and burned remains of Spanish-built huts were also found.

While excavating a ceremonial Indian mound at the site, the archaeologists encountered different colored soil beneath the surface. Part of the fort’s defensive moat had been cut through the southern side of the mound. Beck said further excavations and magnetometer subsurface readings showed that the moat appeared to extend more than 70 to 100 feet and measured nearly 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep, in a configuration “typical of European moats going back to the Romans.”

Other remote sensing surveys showed subsurface anomalies suggesting burned timbers of the palisades and an irregularity that may well be ruins of the “strong house” inside, where tools, weapons and lead shot were stored. Investigating these artifacts is on the agenda for next summer’s excavations, Beck said. Chester DePratter, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina who is an authority on Spanish exploration in the southeastern United States, happened to be at the Joara site as an independent observer when the discovery was made.

“I am certain that they have found the long lost Fort San Juan,” DePratter said last week. “The coming years, as the moat and blockhouse inside are excavated, will be quite exciting.”

The discovery was significant, he added, because it emphasized the Spanish advance deep into the interior by 1566, long before “the English built a fort as far inland as Fort San Juan, much less as far west as the French Broad River near Knoxville” — which was “well into the 17th century.”

Although the soldiers prospected for gold around Fort San Juan, they never found any. Yet Beck noted that much later settlers scooped up nuggets near local rivers, setting off a gold rush before the 49ers of California. Had the people of Joara given Pardo’s soldiers time to discover gold, Beck speculated, Spain would probably have flooded the area with settlers “and everything changes and nearly everybody in the southeastern part of the country might be speaking Spanish today.”

In the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina, archaeologists have discovered remains of a 16th century fort, the earliest one built by Europeans. The discovery is a reminder of a period in colonial history when Spain’s expansive ambitions were yet unmatched by England.