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.
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, but the settlement attempt lasted 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.
Today, there are efforts to share the lost story of Santa Elena through programs and a travelling exhibit, all administered by Coastal Discovery Museum.