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Warren Wilson Archaeological Field School 2004


Project Background
In Search of Fort San Juan: Sixteenth Century Spanish and Native Interaction in the North Carolina Piedmont

David Moore, Warren Wilson College
Robin Beck, Southern Illinois University
Christopher Rodning, The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Excavations since 2001, led by archaeologists from Warren-Wilson College, Southern Illinois University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill--working together as the Upper Catawba Valley Archaeology Project--have discovered the burned remains of Fort San Juan de Joara, the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States. Our investigations at the Berry site, located in the Catawba River valley in western North Carolina, have uncovered the remarkably intact and buried remains of four huts that housed the 30 Spanish soldiers stationed at Fort San Juan. Occupied from January 1567 to the spring of 1568. Fort San Juan was founded 40 years before the English colony of Jamestown and 20 years before Sir Walter Raleigh's "Lost Colony" at Roanoke. Our research into the long-forgotten episode of Fort San Juan's founding and subsequent fiery destruction promises to help re-write the history of European exploration and settlement in eastern North America, offering a new and deeper appreciation of Spain's early presence in this colonial borderland.

On December 1, 1566, Captain Juan Pardo departed from Santa Elena, the capital of Spanish La Florida (located on modern Parris Island, South Carolina), with a company of 125 men. Governor Men�ndez commissioned Pardo to explore the interior, to claim the land for Spain while pacifying local Indians, and to forge a route from Santa Elena to Spanish silver mines in northern Mexico. In January 1567, Pardo arrived at Joara, a large native town located at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Pardo renamed this town Cuenca, after his own native city in Spain, and built Fort San Juan de Joara, leaving thirty men to defend the fort and occupy the town. In May of 1568, news reached Santa Elena that the people of Joara had destroyed Fort San Juan during a surprise attack, rebuffing Pardo's effort to extend Spanish colonial ambitions into their domain. With this disaster ended Spain's only effort to colonize the northern interior of La Florida.

We have identified the Berry site--located outside Morganton, in Burke County, North Carolina--as both the native town of Joara and the location of Fort San Juan. Since 1986, we have discovered numerous 16th-century Spanish artifacts at the site, including Olive Jar and majolica fragments, lead shot, brass lacing tips, and wrought iron nails. Covering more than 12 acres, the Berry site (i.e., Joara) was one of the largest Native American towns in North Carolina during the mid-16th century, but Spanish artifacts are restricted to a small area on the north end of the site. Our excavations in this area have revealed four remarkably intact burned buildings that form a distinct compound around a possible central plaza. Pit features in the plaza contain glass beads and brass lacing tips from Spanish clothing, and a line of burned posts near one of the buildings suggests that a wooden stockade may have enclosed the compound. This compound, we believe, constitutes the burned remains of Fort San Juan. Our 2003 excavation inside one of the burned buildings revealed an extraordinary degree of architectural preservation, including intact features such as carbonized wooden posts that still remain upright and fallen roof timbers that still retain their bark, and burned sections of wooden wall benches made of split oak, with split cane mats still attached to the benches. Artifacts inside the building were laying in place where they fell or were left on the day that Fort San Juan was destroyed--decorated ceramic pots, a clay smoking pipe, and possible wood-handled tools. We discovered fragments of chain mail armor on the floor of this structure, and some of its well-preserved wooden timbers were apparently notched with metal tools in a European style of construction. We believe that this was one of the buildings that quartered the soldiers stationed at Fort San Juan, and what is more, we have yet to enter the other burned buildings in this area. We have every reason to believe that they are just as remarkable in their contents and preservation. That all four were burned serves as a chilling testament to how relations between the Spaniards and the people of Joara ended tumultuously in the spring of 1568.

By combining archaeology and ethnohistory, our continued research at Berry offers a truly unique insight into the beginnings of European colonialism in North America. Our web site contains images and reports of our daily work at the Berry site.

Project Directors

David Moore (Ph.D. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 1999) has been actively involved in the archaeology of North Carolina�s mountain and western Piedmont regions for over 25 years. He served for 18 years with the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and has been teaching full-time at Warren Wilson College since 2000. He has directed major excavations at numerous sites in North Carolina including Hardaway, Warren Wilson, and Berry. His work in the upper Catawba Valley began in 1986 with excavations at the Berry site as part of his dissertation research. He returned to the Berry site in 1997 with Robin Beck and Thomas Hargrove for a preliminary proton-magnetometer survey. The University of Alabama Press recently published a revised version of his dissertation, Catawba Valley Mississippian: Ceramics, Chronology, and Catawba Indians (2002). He is also the author or co-author of several articles on the archaeology of western North Carolina, including a recent article co-authored with Robin Beck on the late prehistory of the Upper Catawba Valley. In 2000, Moore formed the Upper Catawba Archaeology Project with Robin Beck and Christopher Rodning.

Robin Beck (Ph.D. Northwestern University 2004; currently Visiting Scholar at Southern Illinois University) has been a member of the Upper Catawba Valley Archaeology project since 2000. In 1996, as part of his M.A. project at the University of Alabama, he directed a settlement survey of Upper Creek-Warrior Fork, the tributary of the upper Catawba River along which the Berry site is located. He co-directed a proton magnetometer survey at the Berry site in 1997, and it was during this survey that the burned structures were first identified. He co-directed excavations at Berry in 2002 and 2003, and he has conducted extensive research and published on the routes taken by early Spanish expeditions through the southeastern United States. Beck has also conducted extensive research and written on Mississippian chiefdoms in the Southeast, including a recent article in American Antiquity, flagship journal of the Society for American Archaeology. Since 1998, he has also worked in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia and Peru, and from 2000-2001 directed excavations at the site of Alto Pukara in Bolivia as part of his dissertation research at Northwestern.

Christopher Rodning (Ph.D. Candidate, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) has been involved in the archaeology of western North Carolina and the Appalachian Summit area since 1994. He has been a member of the Upper Catawba Valley Archaeology Project since 2000, and co-directed Berry site excavations in 2001, 2002, and 2003. As part of his dissertation project at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Rodning has conducted extensive analysis and published on Mississippian ceramics, mound architecture, and mortuary practices at the Coweeta Creek site in western North Carolina. He recently edited a special volume of Southeastern Archaeology, which focused on Coweeta Creek, and in 2001 the University of Florida Press published his edited volume Archaeological Studies of Gender in the Southeastern United States (co-edited with Jane Eastman). Chris has published numerous articles on the late prehistoric and early historic native societies of the southern Appalachian region.


30 June 2004 | David Moore | Warren Wilson College Archaeology Home Page | (828)771-2013