More than 40 years before the English settled at Jamestown in Virginia, the Spanish established a town and fort on the shores of Port Royal Sound in Beaufort County, S.C.
The story of Santa Elena, founded in 1566 on Parris Island, is one of religion, geopolitics, cultural clashes, war and struggles to survive. It also is little known — even in South Carolina, where colonial European powers France and Spain established beachheads in the New World.
The Santa Elena Foundation wants to change that. The foundation is dedicated to sharing the story of Santa Elena with South Carolinians and the world. Its mission is to expand the story of North American colonization by researching, preserving and promoting Santa Elena, the first European colonial capital.
A key component of that effort will be an interpretive center showcasing Santa Elena, scheduled to open next year. The foundation is connecting with groups in Spain and Florida about exhibition loans. It also has worked to secure $220,000 from state lawmakers to help the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology protect Santa Elena artifacts and hopes to restart excavations there.
The site, surrounded today by the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, holds a special history. The deep, natural harbor of Port Royal Sound, strategically located on the Southeast coast, first attracted the French, who established Charlesfort there in 1562. Their toeholds at Charlesfort and Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Fla., alarmed King Phillip II of Spain. The pope had granted to Spain “La Florida,” which encompassed much of what today is the United States, but the Spanish had done little to capitalize on that grant before the 1560s.
The French were not long for the area, abandoning Charlesfort in less than a year. The Spanish, eager to stake their claim to La Florida, moved quickly to establish a garrison in 1565 at St. Augustine, Fla., and a permanent settlement in 1566 at Santa Elena, building on the abandoned French fort site.
Santa Elena served as the Spanish capital of Florida from 1569 to 1587. A third European power, England, sealed the fate of Santa Elena. Prompted by Sir Francis Drake’s attacks on Spanish holdings in the Caribbean in 1586, Spain — stretched thin financially — decided to retrench in St. Augustine.
For many years, Santa Elena’s history was obscured by the French activity in the same area. The site was first excavated in the 1850s, but with no written records from Spain and relying on 16th-century French illustrations of the area, historians thought the site exclusively French. During World War I, the Marine Corps began to use Parris Island as a training site and uncovered pottery from the 16th century. In 1957, National Park Service archaeologists examined the artifacts and determined they were from Spain or made by Spaniards. Further excavations determined that both the French and Spanish had occupied the site.
Santa Elena was named a National Historic Landmark in 2001 based largely on its role in the heated competition among European powers for the New World.
Now you can find the lost story of Santa Elena at the brand new interpretive center in downtown Beaufort, where the inaugural exhibit is now open along with ancillary exhibits throughout the building. Come visit and engage with the Santa Elena Foundation as we restore a “missing century” of South Carolina and American history.