The Fall of Fort San Juan

by Rob Beck and Caroline Ketron

On December 1, 1566, Captain Juan Pardo departed from Santa Elena, the capital of Spanish La Florida, with a company of 125 men. Pardo's command was to explore the deep interior, to claim this territory for Spain while pacifying local Indians, and to forge a route from Santa Elena to the Spanish silver mines in northern Mexico. In January 1567, Pardo arrived at Joara, a large native town situated near the base of the mountains. Documentary and archaeological data indicate that Joara was in the upper Catawba basin of what is now western North Carolina. Pardo renamed this town Cuenca, after his native city in Spain; here he built a fort, San Juan, and left thirty men to defend the fort and to occupy the town. Earlier European expeditions into the interior had erected short-term, seasonal encampments, for example the winter camps that Soto built near modern Tallahassee, Florida, and in northeast Mississippi, and that Jaques Cartier built near modern Montreal, Quebec. Pardo, however, founded Cuenca and Fort San Juan in order to permanently expand the colony of Santa Elena into the northern frontiers of La Florida. In so doing, he founded the earliest European settlement in the interior of North America, north of the Rio Grande. Fort San Juan was occupied by Pardo's soldiers for nearly a year and a half, until shortly after May 1568, when news arrived at Santa Elena that this as well as Pardo's five other forts had fallen to Indian attack. With the fall of these forts ended Spain's only attempt to colonize the deep interior of northern La Florida.

Our research indicates that the Berry site--located along the upper Catawba River in Burke County, North Carolina--is the native town of Joara, location of Pardo's Cuenca and Fort San Juan. Since 1986, we have recovered numerous utilitarian Spanish artifacts at this site, including Olive Jars, majolica, lead shot and lead sprue, brass lacing tips, several wrought iron nails, and just this summer, fragments of what is probably chain mail armor. The only other identified site in the interior Southeast with a similar assemblage of sixteenth-century Spanish materials is the Governor Martin site in Tallahassee, Florida, location of Hernando de Soto's winter camp in 1539.

The Berry site covers about 12 acres, suggesting that Joara was one of the largest native towns in North Carolina during the mid-sixteenth century. Spanish artifacts, however, are restricted to a 1.5 acre section north of the mound, shown here; given this distribution of Spanish artifacts, we have focused our recent investigations in this area of the site. Our research in this area, including both magnetometer surveys and extensive excavations, have revealed at least four burned buildings that form an arc which may be open to the west. All four of the buildings are rectangular, measure at least eight meters on a side, and while unusually large, appear to have been built in an overall style typical of local, Native American structures. Our excavations suggest that all of these buildings were constructed at about the same time, used for a short period, then destroyed by fire. We believe that these buildings represent the Spanish settlement of Cuenca, and that these are perhaps the houses that quartered Pardo's soldiers stationed at Fort San Juan. That all four of the buildings were burned may serve as a chilling testament to how relations between the Spaniards and the people of Joara ended tumultuously in the Spring of 1568.

During our field school this past summer, we exposed a cross-section of one of these burned buildings, Structure 1; Tom Hargrove and Rob Beck identified this building through magnetometer survey and auger testing in 1997, and during our 2001 and 2002 field schools we defined all four of its edges as part of the Upper Catawba Valley Archaeological Project. In this paper, we report our preliminary excavations inside Structure 1, which turned out to be far better preserved than we had imagined. As we'll show, our excavations yielded abundant information about the building's construction and use, including evidence of architectural furniture such as wall benches, and artifacts that rest where they fell or lay when the burning structure collapsed. These data lend support to our hypothesis that Berry is the native town of Joara and that these burned buildings are the ruins of Fort San Juan.

The Pardo documents themselves offer tantalizingly few clues as to what kinds of material correlates we might find in association with the archaeological remains of Fort San Juan. The documents do, however, indicate two kinds of structures the company used at Joara: the fort itself, and houses where the soldiers may have lived. Here we will focus on the soldiers' houses. During his first expedition, Pardo instructed the leaders of several native towns, including Joara, to construct houses and lay up stores of grain for the soldiers to use when manning the forts and traveling on the planned route from Santa Elena across the Piedmont and mountains. When Pardo returned to Joara during his second expedition, Bandera noted that he "found built a new house of wood with a large elevated room full of maize, which the cacique of the village, who is called Joada Mico, had built by the command of the captain." Bandera noted that the structures Pardo ordered built at several of the native towns were large, and one suspects that they were considered large in comparison with the Indians' own houses. We would expect these houses to reflect native construction techniques and technologies, but it is likely that Pardo's soldiers contributed their labor and experience, as well.

Structure 1 at the Berry site is a large, rectangular or square building that measures about 8 meters on a side; it is considerably larger than most native buildings in the North Carolina piedmont and mountains, but may be the smallest of the four burned buildings we've identified at the north end of the site. Our plan this summer was to excavate a cross-section of the building across the area that appears to have been its entryway--during our 2002 excavations, we identified doorway trenches on the building's west corner. We excavated three contiguous 2 by 2 meter units across the interior of the building, from north to south, approximately one meter inside the doorway trenches. One of our most pressing questions leading into these excavations was the depth of Structure 1's preserved remains. From Beck's auger testing during the 1997 season, it seemed clear that all of the burned buildings were semi-subterranean structures, but due to subsequent plowing from 1998-1999, it was unclear how much of the house basin fill remained intact. Suffice it to say that Structure 1 exceeded all of our expectations, in this and many other regards.

We began along the north edge of the building, and proceeded to remove what we interpreted as a fill between the outer, wooden walls of the building and the edge of the basin cut. In this and all other excavations inside the building, we excavated 1 x 1 meter quadrants within 2 by 2 meter units, and all of the deposits were waterscreened, save those taken for soil and flotation samples. Excavation of this 'foundation fill' showed that the basin fill was intact to an average depth of 20 cm, and demonstrated that the foundations of the building were indeed constructed in a basin, with upright timbers forming the walls of the structure. The timbers seem to have been placed at regular intervals, about 40 centimeters, very near the bottom edge of the basin cut; after the timbers were in place, the builders of the house filled the space between the timbers and the slightly sloping walls of the cut with a very clean, homogenous soil--some of this soil may have been left over from when the builders dug out the basin itself.

After removing this outer fill, we moved to the actual architectural remains. With the plowzone removed from the top of the basin fill, we could clearly distinguish the wall area from the inner portion of the building: the walls area was marked by bright red, highly fired soil, and we could see the tops of what appeared to be intact posts. The area immediately inside the walls, while still characterized by fired soil, charcoal, and wood, was more homogenous and brown. As we worked our way through the basin fill in this unit, we began exposing numerous carbonized posts and fallen timbers. Some of the posts were still upright, and many of the horizontal timbers appear to have fallen from the roof. The upright post stumps were puzzling at first, as they do not actually continue down to the floor of the building; rather, they seem to rest on pedestals of soil. We now believe that--when the building was destroyed--those parts of the posts of that were above the structure floor burned quickly and carbonized; those parts that were below the floor received too little oxygen to burn, and as such rotted into the 'pedestals' of soil upon which the carbonized stumps now rest.

Amidst the horizontal timbers--again, probably roof beams--we found large, broken sections of two soapstone-tempered pots: one of these is a typical Burke-style, complicated-stamped jar with a folded rim and stamped with a figure-9 design; the other is a plain burnished pot with a flared rim. Both seem to have been smashed when the roof collapsed, and at first we assumed that they either had been sitting on the floor or hanging from the rafters, but subsequent excavations along the south edge of the building suggest that they were sitting upon a wall bench when the structure burned.

Our excavations in the center of the structure suggest that the collapsed remains slumped shortly after the building burned to the ground, and that they were subsequently covered with a layer of homogenous fill that leveled the surface over Structure 1. The excavation profiles from the center of the structure's interior suggest that these deposits of post-collapse soil were basket loaded fill. This fill may, as noted, have served the functional purpose of leveling the slumped center of Structure 1, but it also served to bury the building's remains, and probably to remove its traces from view. It may be significant, in this regard, that there is no evidence of any subsequent construction activity in or around this building. Sarah Sherwood of the University of Tennessee removed several soil profile columns from Structure 1 this summer, and we hope that her microstratigraphic analysis of these soils will shed more light on the process and nature of their deposition.

As along the north edge of the building, burned timbers and fired sand continue in thick deposits beneath this primary layer of homogenous fill. We uncovered one of what was probably one of four center posts in this area, directly across from the doorway. This large post was carbonized upright in the ground, and measured approximately 20 centimeters across. The horizontal timbers, many of which still have their bark intact, are probably white pine and are positioned as they fell when the walls and roof caved in towards the center of the structure during burning. The orientation of the timbers of the roof and walls illustrate how the building collapsed inward: they radiate towards the center of the building.

We had initially intended to excavate all of this two- by six-meter section of Structure 1 down to the floor of the building. However, we had not expected the quantity of preserved wood and plant remains within the collapse fill, and thus were only able to expose a single one by one meter unit, just inside the doorway, through the floor of the structure. In this doorway area, we found large intact sections of vegetable fiber, possible leaves from cane plants, that appear to have been sandwiched between shafts of split oak; these fiber sections and wooden elements are either roof fall or a parts of a rectangular doorframe. We encountered subsoil immediately under the floor, and the floor itself was covered by a very thin lens of organic staining or deposition, suggesting that the house was occupied for a relatively brief period of time.

We found some of the most remarkable elements of Structure 1 in the southernmost of our excavation units. In the western part of this unit, near the center of the structure, we found two timbers that appear to have been cut by metal tools. The first of these is cut by a deep groove, V-shaped in profile, which looks strikingly similar to a metal axe cut. The second timber is marked by two notches, a round notch on one end and a square cut notch on the other. The round notch corresponds to a very similar notch cut in a timber on the other side of the structure, suggesting that these two timbers were complements of one another, serving similar needs on opposite sides of the building. The square cut notch has very straight, regular edges, and would probably have been difficult to achieve with stone axes. What is more, this technique of timber notching seems more likely to have been a European construction practice. Thus, while the overall plan and organization of Structure 1 match native practices, conceptions, and technologies of house construction, the probable metal cut timbers suggest that Europeans--probably members of the Pardo expedition--may have worked together with native craftsmen to build this structure.

Even by the standards of preservation we had seen thus far in Structure 1, the architectural furniture was unexpectedly well-preserved along the south wall of the building. The split oak elements of the wall bench, carbonized when the building burned, are laying where they collapsed, their orientations either perpendicular to, or parallel with, the orientation of the wall posts. Also in this area, several sections of the split cane matting that covered the wall bench are carbonized and intact. Here, the matting is still attached to a wooden element of the wall bench, and here, a ceramic pipestem fragment is still resting on the seat of the bench, where it must have been left before the building burned.

Less than a meter away from the pipe, we found these two wooden shafts, also on the bench, that appear to be prepared tools, or tool handles--that is, their wooden surfaces are well-finished and smoothed, possibly even planed, and as such they are not structural debris. We were amazed to find that the wooden shafts were laying next to a large fragment of carbonized animal hide with long, course hairs--probably bear--that may have been a blanket left on the bench. The thickness of the fragment suggests that it was folded at the time of the fire. We removed the hide and the wooden shafts in a single pedestal block, and they are awaiting laboratory analysis. We also removed this section of a wooden plank, seen here in situ draped with vegetable fiber, possibly from the wall of the building; it, too, awaits lab analysis.

Although most of the artifacts we recovered inside Structure 1 are clearly native items (the ceramic pots and the pipe, for example), we did find two small pieces of twisted iron wire in the waterscreened materials from this section of the house. Stan South and Chester DePratter have identified these as fragments of chain mail armor. Individual chain mail links routinely separated from their coats of armor--archaeologists found many such fragments, for example, at the site of Soto's first winter encampment at the Governor Martin site--and our fragments may well have been lost on the seat of the bench, or else ended up under the bench on the floor of the building. In any event, our recovery of the chain mail, together with the metal cut timbers, strongly supports our interpretation of this building as a soldiers' quarters for the Pardo expedition. The timbers suggest that soldiers helped to build the structure, and the mail fragments suggest that they lived within it before its destruction.

To sum up, our excavations this summer show that Structure 1 was built in a style that was typical of native buildings, but that certain elements of its construction exhibit non-native, European techniques and technologies. Also, while most of the building's contents are native, the chain mail links suggest that Spanish soldiers may have spent time inside the structure. These details are what we would expect for the soldiers' houses built during the Pardo expedition: these men brought only those items of European material culture that they could carry on their backs, and thus most of their material possessions at Joara were probably native in origin. Also, while the documents indicate that Pardo commanded the Indians to build the houses, it is reasonable to expect that the soldiers of the expedition participated in their construction.

This summer, we exposed but 12 square meters of Structure 1, a building that covers at least 64 square meters. What is more, there are three other burned buildings like Structure 1, and we have no reason to doubt that these others are any less remarkable in their contents and preservation.

  In the Swannanoa Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains