tml> An unknown South: Pardo story helps Rowan learn about itself - Simmons

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August 29, 1999Salisbury Post; Rowan County, NC


Geitner Simmons

An unknown South: Pardo story helps Rowan learn about itself


To study the expeditions of Juan Pardo and other Spanish explorers requires looking back at what archaeologist Charles Hudson calls an “unknown South.”

The South of 400-plus years ago — when Spanish explorers trekked from Florida to Tennessee and out to Texas and Arkansas — indeed seems completely unfamiliar to most Southerners. The series I’ve done on the Pardo expedition has tried to shed some light on that “unknown” period. In the process, the series has demonstrated that Rowan County can lay claim to a notable part of the story.

W.J. Cash, a Charlotte newspaperman, rightly observed in his 1941 book “The Mind of the South” that Southern history consists of important connections linking one era to the next. He likened the construction of the region’s history to that of certain English church buildings. The exterior might have a late Gothic look, but inside, one can find Norman arches from the 1100s. “And if you look into the crypt,” Cash wrote, “you may even find stones cut by Saxons, brick made by Roman hands.”

So it is with Rowan County’s documented history. Many of the earliest, sturdiest bricks are well-known:They are the remarkable achievements from the 1700s of the county’s English, Scotch-Irish and German pioneers. But Rowan’s actual foundation was laid nearly 200 years earlier, by Spaniards.

In the 1560s, Spaniards built a fort at Guatari, an Indian settlement at the Yadkin. Spanish documents sang praises about the quality of the land. The Spanish governor intended to create his personal estate there. The Spanish renamed Guatari after one of Spain’s proudest cities, Salamanca. A Spanish missionary, Sebastian Montero, taught the Guatari Indians to recite the Lord’s Prayer. He tutored them in the Spanish language. He taught some of the Indians how to write. He led them in communion.

He may even have erected a wooden cross on the banks of the Yadkin — in an era when William Shakespeare was only a child.

And Montero’s efforts at Guatari, although transitory, still stand as the first documented success by a Christian missionary in all of North America.

The Guatari, too, deserve study. At the time of Pardo’s arrival, their chief was a woman. One of the most prominent lesser chiefs at Guatari was also female.

Guatari, located near Trading Ford, was one of two influential chiefdoms the Spanish found in North Carolina. But deciphering the Indian leaders’ true intentions —and the actual strength or weakness of their chiefdoms —is a highly uncertain endeavor. The Spanish documents are too unclear; the archaeological evidence, too fragmentary.

The Guatari series has also looked at the animals and landscapes of precolonial Rowan. It turns out that some modest-looking plants now found along Rowan’s fences and power poles are the remnants of what were once important natural habitats here, habitats that supported elk and even bison.

Telling the many stories from the Pardo era has been an immense privilege for me. What began as a straightforward historical study gradually branched out in unexpected directions, into archaeology and natural history. I will never have an opportunity to paint on such a grand canvas again.

The project began, surprisingly enough, through happenstance. About seven years ago I was to meet with Steve Bouser, then the Post’s editor, in his office. Steve was out but was expected to return momentarily, so to pass the time I looked at a pile of newspapers in his office. Ipicked up a paper from South Carolina and saw that it included a small feature story about a Spanish explorer named Juan Pardo. I glanced at an accompanying map, which showed that the Spanish had marched right into the North Carolina Piedmont.

Good heavens!

From that moment, I knew that a door was opening.

I won’t be around in 2067 for the 500th anniversary of Juan Pardo’s arrival in Rowan, but I would hope the county comes up with a proper way to acknowledge the role the the expedition played in the county’s early history.

Imagining what Rowan will be like 2067 is about as difficult as comprehending what it was like in 1567. The imagination can run wild. Given the ways of the modern world, it’s not impossible that by 2067 some corporation will have bought up all of High Rock and built a Juan Pardo Theme Park complete with a Conquistador roller-coaster, Sebastian Montero water park, and laser-light show depicting the first meeting of Pardo and the Guatari chief.

The discovery of Rowan’s part of the Pardo story can accomplish something quite positive, though: It can lead Rowan to think of itself anew. What better outcome could be asked for than for Rowan residents to appreciate the true richness of their history and to ponder the unexpected connections that abound in the human experience?

The Post’s series ends today, but Rowan’s exploration of the Guatari story is only beginning.


Geitner Simmons has been a staff member of the Salisbury Post since 1988. He starts work in September with the Omaha World-Herald in Omaha, Neb.



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