Evidence of 16th-Century Spanish Fort in Appalachia?

Willie Drye in Plymouth, North Carolina
for National Geographic News
November 22, 2004

A long-standing theory says that more than four centuries ago Spanish explorers ventured into the foothills of what is now North Carolina. They stayed long enough to possibly change the course of European settlement in the New World, then vanished into the fog of time, the story says.

Until recently historians regarded a 16th-century Spanish presence this far north in North America as more theory than fact. But archaeologists working in a farm field near the tiny community of Worry Crossroads might change that perception.

Combining detective work with old-fashioned digging, the team may have unearthed ruins and artifcats—evidence that Spanish soldiers did, indeed, roam the Appalachian Mountains. The researchers think they've found the site of Fort San Juan, where Spanish explorers reportedly stayed from 1566 to 1568. The outpost was near the American Indian village of Joara, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of present-day Asheville.

While the Spaniards' stay in western North Carolina would have been brief—about 18 months—it would have been long enough to perhaps have had a profound impact. Scholars think the Spanish may have brought diseases such as smallpox to the area, which decimated the Native Americans, who lacked immunity to the contagions.

"We don't have lots of data," said David Moore, an archaeologist at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. "But what we do have suggests that it may have been a region where early European diseases contributed to a loss of the native populations."

The dramatic decline of Indian populations, plus the Spaniards' decision to abandon Fort San Juan and several other settlements, may have helped England's later colonization efforts.

English settlers tried and failed to establish a colony in 1587 on Roanoke Island on the coast of North Carolina. They established their first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

"Had these forts been established [and lasted] in the interior of North Carolina, the Spaniards would have fought harder to hold the East Coast against the English," Moore said.

And when English settlers ventured farther inland, the Indian tribes that might have opposed them were either gone or too weak to fight, he said.

Moore and several colleagues spent decades looking for clues about 16th-century Spanish incursions into North America and how those expeditions may have affected Native Americans. Among Moore's colleagues are Chester DePratter and Marvin Smith at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and Charles Hudson, now an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia.

The researchers knew that the Spanish liked to build forts near Indian villages, where they could obtain food. The team thought there were several Indian villages that might have attracted the explorers.

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