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The Spanish Explore the Interior

Helmets like these were worn by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. This particular one can be seen at the N.C. Museum of History.On December 1, 1566, Spanish Captain Juan Pardo left Santa Elena (in present day South Carolina) with 125 men to explore the region and claim the land for Spain while pacifying local Indians.  It was also hoped that he would find an overland route from Santa Elena to the Spanish silver mines in northern Mexico.

In January 1567, Pardo and his company arrived at Joara, a large native town in the upper Catawba Valley near the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. At Joara, he built Fort San Juan, and manned it with thirty soldiers.  Although previous expeditions in the interior had made seasonal encampments or had temporarily occupied native towns, Pardo explicitly built Fort San Juan to expand Spanish holdings. In so doing, he founded the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States.

Although relations between the two groups were good initially, by May 1568, news reached Santa Elena that Indians had attacked all of Pardo’s forts and that all were destroyed.

In Morganton, where significant Spanish ceramics and hardware have been recovered, archaeologists have identified a compound of five burned buildings. It is believed that the Spanish artifacts and burned buildings represent the material remains of Fort San Juan.

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