The history of Joara and Fort San Juan

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Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

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Here’s a great nugget for your next local #TBT trivia night. Joara, or Fort San Juan, a.k.a., the first European settlement in the interior of the present-day US, was right here in NC – just down the road in Morganton (about an hour from Asheville)

The spot, which is also referred to as The Berry Site (in recognition of the Berry family, who owns the land), was initially an Indigenous settlement and became the base of operations for Captain Juan Pardo, a Spanish explorer, in 1567 (see his travel route here). That early date means it predates both Roanoke (by 20 years) + Jamestown (by 40 years)

Today, teams of archaeologists + students – many from Warren Wilson College – work at the site, which is also a field school, to uncover artifacts + data about the settlement and its rich history. The public can also visit the site through camps, public lab nights, dig days + other educational opportunities for kids and adults hosted by the nonprofit Exploring Joara Foundation (EJF). Note: In-person programs are currently on hold due to COVID-19.

Here’s what to know about Joara –

  • The Indigenous town was settled between 1400-1600 C.E. (Common Era). The area had been a home for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Joara was one of the largest Native American towns in the region during its time.
  • Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to visit the site, in 1540. 
  • Juan Pardo visited in 1567 – when he would establish Fort San Juan as a colonial outpost. He and his army arrived at the colonial capital of La Florida, Santa Elena (on what is now Parris Island in SC) in 1566 with the intention of claiming the interior of southeastern North America for Spain. The goal? To establish colonial settlements on a route that would link Santa Elena with Zacatecas, Mexico – the site of silver mines.
  • Spanish soldiers lived at Joara – and the neighboring colonial town of Cuenca – alongside the native inhabitants beginning in January of 1567. In the spring of 1568, the native communities burned Fort San Juan along with four other forts and one strong house established by Pardo – after mounting tensions between the two communities. 
  • The experience and its effects shifted Spanish colonial powers from pursuing military operations + exploration to missionary work + trade
  • In 1891, the Smithsonian Institution officially listed the site as an unexplored 15-foot-high earthen mound between two rivers in the Catawba Valley. Archaeological excavations began in earnest in the 1980s. The first Spanish artifacts were identified in 1994. The site was officially discovered in 2013 – after 27 years of excavations.

Since that time, archaeologists have uncovered parts of the Native American town, like hearths + postholes, as well as the mound site + monumental town pole at the former fort. Structures mix Native American + Spanish building techniques and design. Artifacts of both Indigenous and colonial life, including pottery and even food, also show the relationship between the settlers and the Indigenous community. 

Want to visit? The EJF built a Living History Center outside the site at Catawba Meadows Park, also a notable archaeological area, that’s open to the public, and they’re currently raising funds to build a replica of Fort San Juan. They’ve also been hosting virtual events. And, if you become a supporting member, you’ll get extra perks, like special Members’ Days, hands-on archaeology labs + invites to special events

And, you can visit the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center (223 W. State St., Black Mountain) now, which is running an exhibition all about Joara (face masks + social distancing required).

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