As the door closes on past eras of history, some things only exist in the memories of the people who lived it, and some things only exist in books or other writings. That doesn’t mean that they totally cease to exist, however. There are parts of the past that are still there…hidden, sometimes just under the surface, and sometimes a little way beneath the surface. Sometimes, there are clues on the surface, and other times, all you might have is a general location. Such is the case with Fort San Juan in western North Carolina. In 1566, Spanish explorer Juan Pardo began the first of two expeditions along the southeast coast of North America, establishing a series of forts in modern day South Carolina. The following year, Pardo travelled west, journeying almost 300 miles into what is now North Carolina. There, Pardo and his men constructed Fort San Juan and a small cluster of houses. Pardo named the settlement Cuenco, after his Spanish hometown.
In 2013, a team of archeologists announced the discovery of the remains of a long lost 16th century Spanish garrison in western North Carolina that predates the earliest English settlements in North America by decades. Established in 1567, Fort San Juan was just one of at least six military installations built by the Spanish across the Appalachian mountain range, stretching from the coast of South Carolina to eastern Tennessee, and the only one of the forts scientists have located so far. Because Fort San Juan was established in 1567, time had taken its toll, and the information about it’s location was scarce, as was any visible trace of its location. Fort San Juan was one of at least six military installations that were built by the Spanish across the Appalachian mountain range, stretching from the coast of South Carolina to eastern Tennessee…and the only one of the forts scientists have been able to locate so far. In the summer of 2013, a team of archeologists announced the discovery of the fort’s remains.
Archaeological work has been underway for years, revealing artifacts that suggested a Spanish settlement might have been there. During the summer of 2013, archaeologists affiliated with the University of Michigan, Tulane University and Warren Wilson College excitedly announced that they had discovered evidence of a defensive moat and other remains, definitive evidence of Fort San Juan. Nearly a decade ago, archeologists had found evidence of the soldier’s housing at Cuenco, but had been had not been able to locate the fort itself. The summer of 2013 changed all that, and was in fact it was completely by accident. The team, comprised of members from the University of Michigan, New Orleans’s Tulane University and Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, was actually researching the Mississippian built mud mounds at the Joara site when they stumbled upon evidence of the remains of the fort. An initial dig turned up soil disturbances at the site that didn’t fit with what they expected. The team brought in a magnetometer to x-ray the subsurface. This allowed them to identify the outlines of the moat was believed to have surrounded the garrison. Additional large scale excavations revealed its shape and size. A V-shaped area 5.5 feet deep, 12 to 15 feet across and up to 100 feet in length. In addition to the moat, the team recovered personal items belonging to the Spanish soldiers who lived and died at the fort, including pottery shards, nails, tacks, and iron hooks used for fastening clothing and swords. They also believe they located the gravel entry path into the garrison and the possible location of the strong house in a corner of the fort, where Spanish soldiers would have stored tools and weaponry. The group plans further excavations of the site next year.