But the best known expedition, that of Hernando de Soto in 1539, left behind very little documentation about where the Spaniards went. The researchers had little to work with to determine where the Indian villages may have been.
About 20 years ago, however, DePratter came across a detailed account of a later expedition commanded by Captain Juan Pardo. The account was written by Juan de la Vandera, a scribe on the expedition who told the story of Pardo's attempt in 1566 to find a route from the Spanish port of Santa Elena (now Parris Island, South Carolina) to the Spanish gold mines in Mexico.
The scholars compared de la Vandera's account with what they already knew about 16th-century Native Americans in the area and pieced together a theory about where the Spaniards went and where Indian villages may have been. Still it was only a theory.
Then in the early 1980s the scholars got a break in their search for clues. Robin Beck, a student, showed some artifacts he'd found near Worry Crossroads to Hudson and others. Hudson, who wrote a book about Pardo's expedition, wondered if Beck had found the location of the Indian village of Joara. And if that was true, a Spanish fort might have been nearby.
The theory began to take on substance when archaeologists discovered the remains of four buildings in the nearby field that likely were part of Fort San Juan. They also found artifacts that, Moore said, the Spaniards "never would have traded to the Indians." These included lead shot used in the Spaniards' primitive firearms, nails, fragments from an olive jar, and small brass clothing items.
Hudson said the evidence of the Spanish presence is "not very spectacular stuff," but he doesn't think there's any other way these artifacts could have been found in the North Carolina foothills. Hudson said he and his colleagues have "advanced the first sustained argument" for the existence of Fort San Juan.
"Who could have made sense of finding that number of pieces of Spanish material in that location, apart from what we have done?" he said.
This past summer was the fourth season for the excavation at Worry Crossroads. The National Geographic Society funded the latest dig, during which evidence of a fifth building from the old fort was apparently discovered.
The archaeologists will resume their work next summer.
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