Why Beaufort, South Carolina, means more than you know

The stories of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 journey to America, of the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607—these stories are woven into the very fabric of the American identity. Figures like Christopher Columbus, Christopher Newport, Francis Drake, and Walter Raleigh are foundational to the history of the United States.

But what of the intervening years? What of the untold stories, myths, and legends? What of my name, and my time—the time of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés? I was one of the world’s greatest explorers, a Spanish leader who organized thousands of settlers, and who put an indelible mark on American history, yet my name has been all but forgotten in America. A wandering soul in life and death, I wish to see my accomplishments fully recognized.

I lived from 1519 until 1574; my adult years were spent in the service of the Spanish navy and the great King Philip II of Spain. Known for organizing the first successful trans-oceanic convoys and establishing St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, I first became Captain-General of the Spanish Fleet in 1554. I built royal fortresses at major Caribbean ports, defeated intruders, established numerous settlements throughout La Florida (which included large swaths of present day Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana), held the first Catholic mass on continental US territory and became arguably the most powerful naval commander in the world. For every conquest Columbus may have made, I achieved a dozen more. I’m not even bragging.

Leadership

Our great king soon named me his business partner and adelantado, or governor-general, of the enterprise of Spanish Florida; this was a great honor, as the office brought with it tremendous influence in the political sphere, exceptional wealth and great military control. As adelantado, I was largely responsible for protecting and developing Spain’s interests in the northern part of the Spanish New World. The Spanish throne charged me with building fortifications along hostile trade routes—Spain and France were warring for control of North America, while both countries battled the English fleet, pirates, native people, and brutal environmental conditions.

Thus, in 1566 I turned my attention to Parris Island in Port Royal Sound, located in modern South Carolina, where I built fort San Salvador and founded the town Santa Elena. It became the colonial capital of Spanish Florida and predates Jamestown by more than 40 years. This alone should have ranked me among the greatest explorers to step foot on American soil; our settlement was among the most strategically important in the New World, and allowed my people to exercise near-total control over La Florida and the Caribbean for decades.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Charlesfort-Santa Elena site carries significant archaeological importance and is renowned for its role in the 16th century struggle for New World dominance between Spain and France. The Santa Elena History Center in Beaufort, South Carolina offers a glimpse into this forgotten history. Battles in La Florida shaped the political, religious and social landscape of early America. The historians and archaeologists of the Santa Elena Foundation wish to share this incredible story with the world, and are hard at work building an interpretive center that will showcase Santa Elena as the principal city of La Florida.

Downfall

“This is America’s greatest untold story,” says Dr. Andrew J. Beall, Executive Director of the Santa Elena Foundation. “After it was abandoned in the late 16th century, Santa Elena slipped from memory. Parris Island became more closely associated with French exploration, and it was not until an examination sponsored by the National Park Service that historians realized how culturally and historically significant Santa Elena truly was.”

By 1569, there were more than 250 military personnel, 225 Spanish settlers, and some 40 houses on the central plaza, though life was difficult for all who called the settlement home.

“More than forty years before John Smith met Pocahontas,” Dr. Beall says, “Menéndez and his people were trading and skirmishing with Native Americans, battling European powers, and building communities.”

While military success came regularly to my fleet, Santa Elena struggled. Farmers had difficulty raising crops and livestock, Native American tribes like the Guale and the Orista suppressed growth beyond the fort’s walls, and disease ravaged the population. The settlement endured until my death in 1574. My successor, son-in-law Hernando de Miranda, provoked the local Native American tribes, which resulted in an attack that forced the remaining Spanish to flee the island. Santa Elena was sacked, and the island’s forts burned to the ground.

A story worth telling

Despite these setbacks, Santa Elena rebounded, in part by returning to the policies and procedures I had instituted as adelantado: the Spanish rebuilt the town and focused much attention on a new fort, which helped them successfully defend against, and later defeat, the Guale and Orista. Yet peace was not destined to endure; the specter of conflict with the English—a powerhouse force in North America by 1586—loomed large.

A principal town of La Florida from 1569 to 1587, Santa Elena exerted considerable power over the empire’s interests in this part of the New World, but years of colonial strife and regional conflict forced my Spanish brethren to abandon Santa Elena for good in 1587. Records were lost and destroyed, stories forgotten, and my descendants moved on. It was only during a Marine Corps training exercise on Parris Island during World War I that modern Americans finally found artifacts linking Santa Elena to its true Spanish history. Who would have thought that bits of pottery from the 16th century held so many surprises?

The missing century of South Carolinian and American history that Santa Elena represents is ripe for exploration, and the Santa Elena Foundation is poised to tell these remarkable stories to the world—stories that will rightfully place me alongside Columbus, Newport, Drake, and Raleigh in the pantheon of America’s greatest explorers. At last.

Uncover more enthralling Beaufort history!

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