Santa Elena, Forgotten American Colonial Capital, Gets Push For Archaeological Attention

Santa Elena excavations in 1991.

Santa Elena excavations in 1991.  ( (AP Photo/South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology))

The English settlement of Jamestown, Va., may be dubbed America's birthplace, but North America's first colonial capital was actually established four decades earlier – and 400 miles away – in South Carolina.

A Beaufort-based nonprofit is working to give the Spanish town of Santa Elena its proper due and resume archaeological digs at the site located within the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, thereby attracting tourists to the area.

The effort corresponds with a federal initiative to highlight Hispanic and Latino heritage sites. The National Park Service plans to release a curriculum this fall on Santa Elena for middle and high school teachers. Spain has offered to provide software, documents and other artifacts to help tell the town's story, as part of an agreement the U.S. signed with Spain last year on the initiative.

"It's just not in the history books, and yet this was a very important part of our colonial history in the United States," said Stanley Bond, chief archaeologist at the National Park Service, which named Santa Elena a National Historic Landmark in 2001.

Even in South Carolina, students' American history books essentially skip from Christopher Columbus to the 1607 settlement of Jamestown, then on to the 1620 landing in Plymouth, Mass., barely mentioning the prior century of Spanish exploration. Essentially, that's because the English won.

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"The Spanish history of this region was co-opted by the English," said Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum, which displays some Santa Elena artifacts. "The U.S. has been very much English-centric for a long, long time."

The nonprofit Santa Elena Foundation, created last year, plans to open an interpretive center at nearby Port Royal that tells not only of Santa Elena, but its role in the European struggle for control of North America.

Though Spain was given colonial rights to America in 1494 by a Spanish-born Catholic pope – and Port Royal Sound was where its treasure ships caught the trade winds back to Europe – the French managed to settle Parris Island first, in 1562. But the French abandoned Charlesfort within a year. Spain established Santa Elena on top of the remains in 1566, and it served as the Spanish capital until 1576, when colonists fled a Native American attack. That's when St. Augustine, Fla., became the Spanish capital. Though colonists returned to Santa Elena a year later, they abandoned it for good in 1587, due to threats from the English.

The foundation hopes to open a temporary center next year and a permanent exhibit in time for Santa Elena's 450-year anniversary in 2016. The group also hopes to fund full-time archaeologists. In May, foundation members traveled to Spain to meet with officials, as well as a descendent of Santa Elena's governor, and see their historical records. The National Park Service arranged the four-day trip through the Spanish embassy.

The foundation does not yet have a total estimate for their plans. Board member Dick Stewart expects the first phase to cost $1 to 2 million.

A mere 2 percent of the site has been excavated since 1979, when Santa Elena's location was confirmed.

The state Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina has conducted excavations periodically between 1979 and 2008, as money became available. Its digs have retrieved enough artifacts to fill more than 800 cubic feet. The Marine Corps has allowed the institute to house the artifacts as long as they are properly protected. However, limited money has prevented the state from doing so.

Many items, particularly those dug up decades ago, are stored in deteriorating cardboard boxes and plastic or paper bags, said Chester DePratter, an archeologist at the institute.

Before archaeological work can resume, the entire collection must be re-packaged and re-catalogued as per the Marine Corps' expectations.

Legislators earmarked $220,000 in the state budget to help do that, easily overriding the veto of Gov. Nikki Haley, who argued private donations should pay the tab.

State Sen. Tom Davis blasted Haley for not recognizing a decades-old state obligation.

"These 500-year-old artifacts are sitting in cardboard boxes and bags and rotting away," said Davis, a Republican from Beaufort. "A private foundation can't go forward until the state has its house in order."

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