TwHP Lessons

Digging into the Colonial Past: Archeology and the 16th-Century Spanish Settlements at Charlesfort-Santa Elena

Pedro Menendez de Aviles

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress
and the National Park Service


t the beginning of the 16th century, France and Spain engaged in a series of wars. The conflict between these two powerful kingdoms spread across the globe as the French and Spanish governments fought to increase their power, wealth, and prestige in Europe.

This competition transferred to "the new world" of the Western Hemisphere, as European nations became interested in the wealth available in areas like the Caribbean. During this time of conquest and competition, France attacked Spanish ships and posed a threat to Spanish interests in North America, creating an unstable environment.

Both France and Spain raced to settle and control the southern coast of North America. On a small island off the coast of present-day South Carolina lie the ruins of Charlesfort, the French outpost for a year, which later became Santa Elena, a Spanish colonial town from 1566 to 1587. The site has been abandoned now for more than 400 years.

For more than a century, historians and archeologists have worked to piece together the story of Santa Elena. Today, documents have been found that reveal the thoughts and motivations of Spanish colonists. Excavations uncovered artifacts and outlines of homes and fortifications. This valuable evidence lets us peek into the lives of the Spanish colonists and Spain's ambitions for North America in the 16th century.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
  1. Map 1: North and South America, 1562.
  2. Map 2: 16th-Century Spanish Florida
  3. Map 3: Santa Elena and Surrounding Area.
  4. Map 4: Parris Island Golf Course and Archeological Site.

Determining the Facts: Readings

  1. Reading 1: A History of Spain's Santa Elena.
  2. Reading 2: Life at Santa Elena.
  3. Reading 3: Archeological Excavations.
  4. Document 1: Archeological Artifacts.

Visual Evidence: Images
  1. Illustration 1: French colonists near Parris Island, present-day South Carolina.
  2. Illustration 2: French settlement at the mouth of St. John’s River, present-day Florida.
  3. Drawing 1: 1578 plan of Fort San Marcos.
  4. Photo 1: Artifacts from the Charlesfort-Santa Elena site.
  5. Photo 2: Artifacts at the Charlesfort-Santa Elena site.
  6. Photo 3: Excavating Charlesfort-Santa Elena.

Putting it All Together
  1. Creating a Historical Argument.
  2. Town Planning.
  3. Analyzing Artifacts.
  4. Local History, Local Treasures.
  5. Historic Preservation in Your Community.

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This lesson is based on historic Charlesfort-Santa Elena, a National Historic Landmark located on Parris Island in South Carolina. It is among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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