Joara: Spain’s Roanoke Island


In 1587, John White sailed away from the fledgling English colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina over which he governed. He left with every intention of returning to a thriving settlement exactly where he left it. But as fate would have it, White returned a year later to a deserted colony with only a vague indication of the colonists’ whereabouts. White never got the chance to search for his colony, which included his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and returned to England with the unfortunate news. Many believe that England’s failed colonization attempt at Roanoke Island represents the first European settlement in North Carolina (and North America, for that matter). But it just so happened that Spain experienced these North Carolina growing pains in the Appalachian foothills at least two decades prior.

On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued his famous Doctrine of Discovery, the Bull Inter Caetera, which essentially gave Spain the exclusive right to all the land discovered by Columbus in the previous year. The next 50 years saw Spain colonizing the Caribbean and South America, while making serious – yet failed – explorations along the North American coast. These North American explorers were Juan Ponce de Leon, Lucas Vasquez Ayllón, and Hernando de Soto – famous for establishing the present city of Saint Augustine, colonizing the territory of La Florida, and exploring much of the Southeastern United States. However one Spanish Conquistador often gets neglected for his momentous explorations into the Southern inland region.

In April 1566, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés claimed the settlement of Santa Elena on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina as his capital for the colony of La Florida.[1] At the behest of King Philip II, Captain Juan Pardo arrived in North America on July 15 with 250 men to reinforce this new Spanish colony. When Menéndez reached Santa Elena in August, he made plans to send Pardo out with 125 men to blaze a road to Mexico (seems simple enough) to reach the silver mines in Zacetecas. Due to the Spaniards limited geographic knowledge of North America, they assumed that the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains were the same. So on December 1, Pardo and his men left the safety of Santa Elena and set out into the great unknown.

Well-worn Native American trails provided an inland route for the Spaniards, as explained by Juan de la Bandera, the scribe assigned to this expedition.[2] It only took a month for this contingent to trek through the Carolina Piedmont watersheds of the Wateree and Catawba Rivers. Historians and archeologists both believe that Pardo followed a similar path through the upper Catawba Valley as the earlier Conquistador Hernando de Soto.[3] Stopping along the towns and villages of these trails, Pardo exchanged goods with the Native Americans, such as metal tools and jewelry, and informed them that they were now subjects of the King of Spain (as that meant anything to them). In early January 1567, Pardo and his men reached a village called Joara along the Catawba River near present-day Morganton, North Carolina. While the location of Joara was formerly thought to be situated near Marion, North Carolina, roughly twenty miles west of Morganton, archeological evidence demonstrates that the site near Morganton is the actual location of the Native American village.[4] It is believed that Joara was the largest and most powerful village in Western North Carolina as it controlled the trading paths between the mountains and the piedmont.[5] It is estimated that the village was occupied from 1400-1600 A.D.

It was at this village that Pardo decided to construct fort which he named San Juan after himself and because they arrived on the Day of San Juan. Little did he know that this was the first inland European settlement in the present-day United States. Dr. David G. Moore explained that no evidence exists that any earlier Spanish expeditions constructed permanent settlements, as it is likely that they relied on Native American villages or seasonal encampments for shelter and foraged for food.[6] Upon observing the still snow-covered Appalachian mountain peaks to the west, Pardo decided to depart from Fort San Juan and return to Santa Elena for the next few months. He left 30 of his men to garrison the fort until his return.

The Spaniards grew adventurous in their new environment during Pardo’s absence. Under the direction of a Lieutenant Moyano, the men began venturing out into the mountains in search of crystals and gold. It was during these unapproved explorations when the Spaniards likely traveled into East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, making threats and offending other tribes on their explorations. We know this because when Pardo returned to Fort San Juan in March of 1567, he learned that most of his men were being held captive by other Native Americans up in the mountains. The task of creating a road to Mexico suddenly became more difficult for the Spaniards.

Pardo stayed at Fort San Juan for the next six months. During this time, he and his men worked on repairing relations with their host. For instance, Pardo allegedly met with two-dozen or more local chiefs; and his men accompanied local warriors to attacks unfriendly villages in the highlands of Tennessee and Virginia.[7] Pardo also constructed a string of five smaller, provisional forts along his road to Mexico between Beaufort, SC and Western Tennessee. The purpose of these forts was to establish Spanish presence along its colonial interior region; of these, Fort San Juan was the most important and served as the central location for the colonial Spanish frontier.

In November 1567, Pardo again left Fort San Juan for Santa Elena. 120 men remained inland, divided between the five provisional forts. He left Alberto Escudero de Villamar in charge with the responsibility of maintaining friendly relations with the Native Americans. That would be the last time Pardo saw his men or his fort. It is believed that the Spanish/Joara relations again began to deteriorate sometime in late-1567 or early-1568. In May 1568, however, news reached Santa Elena that all of Pardo’s forts had been burned by the Native Americans and his men killed. There are a number of possibilities as to what caused the social breakdown between the Spanish and the Native Americans: the soldier’s demand for food, disrespect of the Native women, or other inappropriate social behaviors. Zooarcheological evidence even points to this deterioration:

[F]indings indicate that during the initial occupation of Fort San Juan the Spanish soldiers were provisioned by the native townspeople with whole deer carcasses and prepared or partially prepared dishes of bear meat. Bear meat was a special food in many Southeastern Native American societies, and often reserved for esteemed guests or ceremonial occasions. The large amount of bear provided to the garrison early in its occupation suggests that the Spanish soldiers were treated as guests when they first arrived at Joara. Later in time, bear becomes rare in fort contexts and prepared meats entered the fort more often, providing evidence that the soldiers had worn out their welcome and were becoming increasingly isolated by the local townspeople and town leaders.[8]

It would be another 50 years before Europeans constructed any permanent inland settlement in the present-day United States.

Fort San Juan and Joara fell into the mists of history until archeologists from Warren Wilson College, the University of Oklahoma, and Tulane University joined together in excavating the sites of the fort and the village, now known as the Berry Site. The Berry site is still an active archeological site that continues to provide artifacts and clues into the lives of the individuals involved at this historic site.

[1] La Florida was roughly the area of North America.

[2] Robin A. Beck, David G. Moore, Christopher B. Rodning, et. el., “Joara and Fort San Juan: Colonialism and Household Practice at the Berry Site, North Carolina,” Tulane Univeristy, (accessed November 6, 2016).

[3] Warren Wilson College, “About the Berry Site,” Warren Wilson College, (accessed November 6, 2016).

[4] Robin A. Beck, David G. Moore, Christopher B. Rodning, et. el., “Joara and Fort San Juan: Colonialism and Household Practice at the Berry Site, North Carolina,” Tulane Univeristy, (accessed November 6, 2016).

[5] David G. Moore, “Fort San Juan,” NCPedia, (accessed November 5, 2016).

[6] David G. Moore, “Fort San Juan,” NCPedia, (accessed November 5, 2016); Robin A. Beck, David G. Moore, Christopher B. Rodning, et. el., “Joara and Fort San Juan: Colonialism and Household Practice at the Berry Site, North Carolina,” Tulane Univeristy, (accessed November 6, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Southern Illinois University Center for Archeological Investigations, “Zooarcheology at the Berry Site,” Southern Illinois Univeristy, (accessed November 7, 2016).

©K. Martin-Gross 2016

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