From its founding 1566 to its destruction by Native Americans 18 months later, Fort San Juan was the innermost European penetration into the American interior in the 16th century. Its hard to believe that there was a Spanish Fort right at the foot of the North Carolina Appalachians in the mid 1500’s but it is true. Last June while excavating the proto-historic Cherokee town of Joara, archaeologists from Tulane, Warren Wilson College and the University of South Carolina discovered a European style moat, Spanish huts and military artifacts. Fort San Juan was built by the Juan Pardo expedition, an expedition that was instructed to follow in Hernando DeSoto’s earlier (and incredibly destructive) path in order to create a link to the Mexican silver mines. Unfortunately for them they were way off geographically and managed to anger the local Native Americans who well remembered DeSoto’s disastrous visit with his armored knights and 300 pigs 20 years before. The archaeologist from USC, Chester DePratter, is one of the foremost experts on the Spanish in the Southeast and he also worked on the coastal fort of Santa Elena on present day Parris Island, South Carolina (where the Pardo expedition set off from) with legendary archaeologist Stanley South.
For further reading on the Pardo and DeSoto expeditions I strongly recommend one of my favorite books of all time, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun and another great book, The Juan Pardo Expeditions both by the late preeminent Southeastern anthropologist, Charles Hudson.