After nearly two decades of digging in Burke County, a team of archaeologists discovered an unusually wide vein of discolored soil at the site of what they believed to be the Native American village of Joara. The size of the vein — nearly 4 meters across — clearly indicated a very large structure.
Thinking they’d uncovered a Native American mound, the archaeologists figured the vein would curve and reveal the mound’s overall shape, recalls site leader and Warren Wilson College archaeology professor David Moore.
But instead of a curve, they unearthed a long, straight edge, which then took an abrupt 90-degree turn.
“We knew something was going on,” Moore says. “We thought we were following the edge of the mound; it was no big deal. But when it turned like this, all bets were off.”
This find, made in the summer of 2013, served to solidify a theory the archaeologists had been testing for years. Based on the evidence, the researchers published their claim that they had found not only Joara, but also the lost Spanish fort of San Juan.
Their assertion not only provides new insights into the relationship between Native Americans of Western North Carolina and the early European explorers who first encountered them, but also forces a reconsideration of history.
Established in 1567 by a Spanish expedition in what is present-day Morganton and what was at the time the large Native American settlement of Joara, Fort San Juan and its companion garrisons mark the first European settlements in the interior of the United States. Fort San Juan predates the fabled Lost Colony — England’s first attempt at a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina — by almost 20 years, and the founding of Jamestown, near the mouth of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, by twice that.
Though Spanish accounts reference Fort San Juan and its associated garrisons, the fort’s exact location had been unknown until Moore and his team made the discovery.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Moore says. “Nobody had ever found one of these forts before.”
Digging into history
Moore’s journey to Fort San Juan began in 1986, when he was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Working on his dissertation and interested in learning more about Native American populations described by 16th-century Spanish explorers, he was considering surveying a broad collection of sites in Western North Carolina.
Today, surrounded by Native American artifacts in the archaeology lab at Warren Wilson and looking every bit an archaeologist — weather-beaten, soft-spoken, spectacled, with a physique sculpted from years in the field — Moore reflects on those early days.
“It would have taken me 10 years to do what I planned to do,” the professor says. “But luckily I had some real-life constraints on me.”
With a budget that would only support a single year at a single site, the budding archaeologist narrowed his scope. After briefly considering the Biltmore Mound, a ritual mound located on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, his adviser at Chapel Hill persuaded him to focus on the Catawba Valley.
Moore selected a piece of property in Morganton. Dubbed the Berry site, after the family that has owned it since before the Revolutionary War, the area had been partially excavated in the early 1900s. It proved fertile from the beginning of Moore’s excavations.
“As soon as I put a shovel into the ground, it was clear that there was great preservation,” he says.
The Berry site began producing a wealth of artifacts and evidence: pottery shards, projectile points, burials and traces of so many buildings that it was clear the spot had been a significant settlement for the indigenous population, ancestors of the modern-day Catawba Nation.
In the first season of digging, Moore also uncovered a metal knife that he believed was of Spanish origin. In the years to come, a team of archaeologists — including Chris Rodning of the Tulane University department of anthropology and Rob Beck, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan — and a group of eager volunteers found other European artifacts. There were fragments of armor, tools, part of a hanging scale and pottery shards.
Finding the fort
According to Spanish accounts, the Native American town of Joara was visited by explorers Hernando de Soto and the lesser-known Juan Pardo. Pardo’s expedition reportedly established Fort San Juan.
In 1556, Pardo was given a nearly impossible task by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the governor who had established Santa Elena, a Spanish stronghold on what is now Parris Island, S.C. With a party of only about 100 men, Pardo was directed to explore the interior, subdue any native tribes and find a route from Santa Elena to the silver mines of Mexico, which Spanish cartographers of the time believed to be far closer to the North Atlantic coast than they actually were.
In January 1567, Pardo was foiled by snow in his attempt to cross the mountains and backtracked to the foothills, where he set up a garrison and fortress near Joara. He named the cluster of buildings that housed the garrison Cuenca, after his hometown in Spain, and named the encampment Fort San Juan.
The precise location of the fort, as well as other forts Pardo set up in a chain across the foothills and into the mountains, was unknown. Historians’ best guesses centered on McDowell County, a few dozen miles west of the Berry site.
But after finding the trove of European artifacts on their site, Moore and Beck (who is a member of the Berry family) began to suspect that they’d found the site of both Joara and Fort San Juan. They published a paper early on, in 1994, outlining the hypothesis. It was a bold claim. No one had yet found one of Pardo’s forts.
Initially, the idea met some skepticism — “a little bit of pushback,” Moore says. The archaeologist recalls questions being raised by a professor from the University of West Georgia and graduate students from the University of Tennessee. And the professional response to the team’s conclusions came at an archaeological conference in Lexington, Ky., in the fall of 1994.
“There were about 50 people in the audience, and they were going, ‘No way,’” Moore says.
But the archaeological evidence continued to accumulate over the years, supporting the notion that the team had located both Joara and Fort San Juan.
“We built additional evidence every year,” Moore says.
Then, in 2013, the team uncovered the traces of unusual construction and the long straight vein of discolored soil with its 90-degree turn.
“We expected that soil to make an arc, a curve,” Moore says.
But the curve did not emerge.
“[Beck] spent all night looking at maps and thinking through stuff. Then it dawned on him,” Moore says, recalling his fellow archaeologist’s realization that the team had discovered the moat that would have surrounded Pardo’s fort.
The location of the moat — a component of typical early colonial forts — solidified the team’s hypothesis. It went beyond the remnants of Spanish artifacts found over the years and finally yielded, as Moore describes it, “clear evidence of fortification.”
“That’s about as close as you can come to proof,” the archaeologist says. “There’s just no other explanation for what this is.”
A window in time
The discoveries of Joara and Fort San Juan have transformed the Berry site — a previously unused field on a tree farm — into one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America. The find also revises history, offering tangible evidence of 16th-century Spanish settlements in the interior.
“The average student thinks that our country’s history starts with Jamestown,” says anthropologist Charles Ewen, a professor at Eastern Carolina University who specializes in the Spanish colonial period. “The work at the Berry site reminds us of this earliest chapter in the state’s colonial history.”
And an eventful chapter it was: Pardo’s garrison traded with the locals, did some amateur prospecting (according to Spanish accounts, they may have mistaken quartz for diamonds), and went on a raid with a group of Joarans that may have taken them as far as northeastern Tennessee.
Soon, however, the relationship soured. By May 1568, news came to Santa Elena that San Juan and the other forts that Pardo established had been burned and all but one of the soldiers manning them killed.
“The lost Spanish forts did not succeed, any more than the Lost Colony,” Ewen observes. “They could not succeed, as there simply wasn’t the support available to keep them supplied.”
The Spanish weren’t the only ones to lose in this early exchange, however. Native American populations in the area also suffered, entering a period of sharp decline.
“Over a 200-year period,” Moore says, “the population of Native Americans dropped in some cases as much as 90 percent.”
By the time settlers from England and other northern European countries began moving into the area in the 1700s, it was largely depopulated — a decline that began when the Spanish disrupted indigenous alliances and trade networks and made coastal settlements take on outsized importance.
Moore had set out to learn about the native people of WNC via the Berry site but found evidence of a fated encounter of two civilizations and shed a new light on a Native American society just before its decline.
Sharing the story
Today, Moore and his colleagues are working to educate the public about what the Berry site has to say about that pivotal moment in history. Moore’s goal is to bring attention to the Spanish influence on North Carolina’s colonial history. Since 2008, he’s been assisted by the Exploring Joara Foundation, whose mission is to expand public awareness and access to the site.
“To be able to share the story of the people who called this land home before us is extremely exciting,” says Marie Palacios, the foundation’s executive director.
A Morganton native, Palacios had never heard of the Berry site before the discovery of Fort San Juan. Her commitment to getting the word out about the site is motivated in part by hometown pride, she explains.
“Jamestown and Roanoke can move over,” Palacios says. “Fort San Juan was here before.”
But Moore and the foundation are working for more than bragging rights. They hope to turn the Berry site — and Catawba Meadows, its companion location in Morganton — into a premier heritage tourism attraction complete with a reconstruction of the fort and native buildings. The attractions will focus on both the site’s indigenous significance as well as its importance in European colonial history.
Currently, Palacios and Melissa Timo, the foundation’s staff archaeologist, host school groups and other organizations at Catawba Meadows and facilitate visits to the Berry site itself. They host dig days, in which the public can participate in excavation work, a field school for aspiring archaeologists and even a summer camp that attracts dozens of kids from all over the country to excavate and learn about indigenous culture.
“The opportunity to excavate and get your hands in the dirt at America’s first known inland European settlement is a tremendous opportunity,” Palacios says.
This year, which marks the 450th anniversary of the establishment of Fort San Juan, the foundation has organized some special events, culminating with the Spanish and Indian Colonial Trail Festival in Morganton in early August. The festival will spotlight regional Native American culture, as displayed and dramatized by representatives of the Catawba, Cherokee and other tribes, and will include a staging of what the encounters between members of Pardo troop and the people of Joara might have been like.
Moore, Palacios and others connected with the Berry site hope the anniversary will help raise awareness of this forgotten chapter of history. While English and Scottish settlers dominated the state’s colonial period and had a large impact in the years since then, they believe that studying Joara and Fort San Juan will provide a new sense of the United States’ place in world history and culture.
“We’re in the Deep South,” Palacios says, “and understanding that people that came here before us were different is going to be a part of enriching all of our lives.”