More than a century before English settlers founded Charles Towne on the banks of the Ashley River, both the Spanish and French created early fortified settlements on Parris Island near the entrance to Port Royal Sound.
Santa Elena facts
Its relatively small and fairly undisturbed site contains the remains of three well-dated fort sites (two Spanish of 1566 and 1577 and one French of 1562) and two town sites.
Charlesfort-Santa Elena represents the only French and Spanish attempts at occupation in South Carolina.
The site's first historically reported structure was built in 1562 by the French and was described as a blockhouse of logs and clay, thatched with straw, with a ditch around it and having four bastions.
In 1566 the Spanish built a fort, named San Felipe, near the Charlesfort site, and it was occupied until 1576 when an Indian uprising forced the Spanish to bury the heavier cannon and leave.
In 1577, the Spanish returned and built San Marcos fort about 100 feet from the San Felipe site. Both were built solidly of cedar and were accompanied by a town.
Source: S.C. Department of Archives and History
Their 16th century settlements did not last, and their primary sites are far from today's tourist trails, fully encompassed by the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
But a newly established group aims to draw new attention to what some consider the "lost century" of this state's history.
And their efforts will take a major step forward this week, as five top scholars meet in Beaufort to create a timeline of the Santa Elena Settlement, a timeline that will help guide further research. They will unveil their findings Friday at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.
A nonprofit group known as the Santa Elena Foundation formed in February and organized this week's session, said its executive director, Dr. Andrew Beall.
The experts include historians Karen Paar of South Carolina, Eugene Lyon of Florida and Paul Hoffman of Louisiana, and archaeologists Chester DePratter, who discovered the related Huguenot settlement of Charlesfort, and David Moore, who helped discover Fort San Juan, an inland settlement near Morganton, North Carolina.
"These people are very esteemed and knowledgeable, and we feel very comfortable that what they tell us will set up a reference for future research," Beall said. "To our knowledge, this group of five have never come together."
The Santa Elena site became a National Historic Landmark in 2001, largely because it illustrates the competition for the New World. The story begins when the Pope gave the King of Spain "La Florida," which then included much of what today is the United States.
French explorer Jean Ribault actually arrived first in what is now South Carolina, founding Charlesfort on Parris Island in 1562, but that settlement survived only 10 months.
Concerned about the French inroads here, the Spanish founded Santa Elena in 1566 on the same Parris Island site, and it served as the capital of Spanish Florida from 1569 until 1587 - when England's Sir Francis Drake's attacks on Spain's New World presence led to the consolidation of its operations in St. Augustine, Fla.
"It was not a failed settlement, it was an abandoned settlement because of the English threat," Beall said.
"Our desire is not to compete with the other settlements, Jamestown and St. Augustine. We're trying to add to the history."
This week's meeting of historians caps a busy half-year since the foundation got legally recognized. Aside from Beall's hiring, its major developments include the following:
The Legislature set aside $220,000 to help the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology protect existing Santa Elena artifacts.
The foundation welcomed Alvaro Armada Barcaiztegui of Spain to its board. He is a direct descendent of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of Santa Elena, and devotes part of his time to promoting five centuries of his family's history, including its legacy in the New World.
The foundation made a bid for property on Port Royal for its future home, but the State Ports Authority did not accept it.
The foundation is considering possibly occupying the soon-to-be-vacated federal courthouse in Beaufort as a temporary home. By next year, it hopes to build an interpretive center to showcase Santa Elena.
In anticipation of opening such a center, the foundation has networked with institutions in Spain and Florida about possible loans of exhibitions.
The foundation and DePratter are preparing a proposal for future archaeological research on the settlement site, a proposal to be submitted to the U.S. Marine Corps.
"There's only a very small percent of the total site that has been explored, so there's lots of archaeological work yet to be done," Beall said. "(But) it's not readily accessible. The Marine Corps' mission is to make Marines, not to dig up artifacts."
Board member Daryl Ferguson said the Santa Elena story says three things: The Spanish, not the English, were the first to settle America; the Spanish colonial history has been overlooked because the English eventually won the territory and wrote its history; and the first European colonial capital was here in South Carolina.
"What's extremely rewarding to us is the amount of interest that has occurred and the amount of support we've gotten from Beaufort County, the press, and the local community," Beall said. "People are excited about it. I'm having a hard time finalizing the strategic plan because things are changing so quickly."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.