Santa Elena The 1500s Capital of Spanish Florida in South Carolina

People excavating the foundation of a military structure
Part of the French fort underneath Santa Elena during archeological excavations. NPS photo.
The town of Santa Elena on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina was the sixteenth-century capital of Spanish Florida. It was founded in 1566 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles (who had previously served the Spanish government as a privateer) to prevent the French from expanding their colonies into the area claimed by Spain as La Florida. From 1562 to 1563, the French had occupied the area in a settlement called Charlesfort, but lacking supplies, abandoned the area three years before Santa Elena was established. Several Spanish forts protected Santa Elena, including Fort San Salvador, Fort San Felipe (built directly on top of Charlesfort), and Fort San Marcos.

From Santa Elena, the Spanish expanded inland, building forts into the Appalachian Mountains and working to “pacify” the Native Americans through trade, violence, and conversion to Catholicism. Native Americans burned these forts, and Spain did not rebuild them. The Native Americans around Santa Elena also objected to the Spanish presence. In 1576, Native Americans from the nearby towns of Orista and Escamacu burned Santa Elena, which the Spanish rebuilt. In 1580, 2000 Native Americans again attacked the settlement, but were repelled. In 1587, the Spanish left Santa Elena, relocating to their settlement at St. Augustine, Florida to focus on colonizing other areas.

Archeology in and around Santa Elena goes back to the mid-1800s, with excavators disagreeing whether the town was French or Spanish. In 1957, National Park Service historian Albert Manucy studied the artifacts and identified them as Spanish colonial. They included pieces of pottery olive jars, plates, and other types of vessels. Later excavations (beginning in 1979) by archaeologists at the University of South Carolina, identified several structures, including a moat that surrounded Fort San Felipe, several buildings arranged around a central courtyard, a fortified house, and a Spanish pottery kiln (the only one to have been found in North America). As well as pottery pieces, artifacts found include food remains (shells from oyster, clams, and conch; pig bones, fish bones, egg shells, and seeds from watermelon, squash, and hickory nuts), building materials, items representing clothing (tips of laces called aglets, buttons, buckles, and hooks), weapon parts from crossbows, swords, pikes, and artillery, and other objects including an intact wooden barrel, thimbles, fish hooks, dice, and straight pins.

Santa Elena is the earliest known and surviving example of planned urban occupation in the United States. But, there is no map of Santa Elena made during the time of its Spanish occupation. Archeologists used maps of planned communities founded in Spain at the same time as Santa Elena to help them understand the town. Excavations reveal that the town was home to as many as 60 houses and upwards of 450 settlers and soldiers.

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Last updated: September 20, 2022