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Antiquity Vol 78 No 299 March 2004

Joara and Fort San Juan: culture contact at the edge of the world

David G. Moore, Robin A. Beck, Jr. & Christopher B. Rodning

The Berry site is located on Upper Creek, a tributary of the Catawba River, about twelve km north of Morganton in Burke County, North Carolina (Figure 1). The site covers about 5 ha and is situated on the extreme north-east margin of a 75 ha alluvial bottomland. Archaeological research indicates that it was one of the largest native towns in North Carolina during the mid-sixteenth century (Beck & Moore 2002; Moore 2002). The site was identified in Cyrus Thomas' 1891 report on mound explorations for the Smithsonian Institution, where it is described as a "Mound on the west Bank of Upper Creek 8 miles north of Morganton (about 15 feet high and unexplored)" (1891:151). Our research indicates that the Berry site is the native town of Joara, visited by the Spanish expeditions of Hernando de Soto in 1540 and Juan Pardo from 1567-1568. Pardo's Fort San Juan, constructed at Joara, is the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Berry Site location
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2: Route of Juan Pardo's first expedition through the Carolinas, 1567. Click to enlarge

Joara was the political centre of a Mississippian chiefdom, one of many that dotted the cultural landscape of south-eastern North America from c. A.D. 1000 - 1600 (Anderson 1994; Beck 2003; Beck & Moore 2002; Hally 1994; Muller 1997; Smith 2000). During the mid-sixteenth century, Joara sat at the north-eastern edge of the Mississippian cultural world and at the north-western edge of the Spanish colonial frontier. Our research into the long-forgotten episode of Fort San Juan's founding and subsequent fiery destruction promises to help re-write the history of European exploration and settlement in eastern North America, offering a new and deeper appreciation of Spain's early presence in this colonial borderland and of the subsequent transformation of native societies.

On December 1, 1566, Captain Juan Pardo departed from Santa Elena, the capital of Spanish La Florida (located on modern Parris Island, South Carolina), with a company of 125 men (DePratter et al. 1983; Hudson 1990). Governor Pedro Menéndez de Aviles commissioned Pardo to explore the interior, to claim the land for Spain while pacifying local Indians, and to forge a route from Santa Elena to Spanish silver mines in northern Mexico. In January 1567, Pardo arrived at Joara, a large native town located at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains (Figure 2). Pardo renamed this town Cuenca, after his own native city in Spain, and built Fort San Juan de Joara, leaving thirty men to defend the fort and occupy the town. In so doing, he founded the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States. Earlier expeditions into the interior had erected short-term, seasonal camps. Pardo, however, intended for Cuenca and Fort San Juan to permanently expand the colony of Santa Elena into the northern frontiers of La Florida. Pardo's soldiers occupied Fort San Juan for nearly eighteen months, until shortly after May 1568, when news reached Santa Elena that the people of Joara had destroyed Fort San Juan during a surprise attack (Hudson 1990:173-177), rebuffing Pardo's effort to extend Spanish colonial ambitions into their domain. With this disaster ended Spain's only effort to colonise the northern interior of La Florida.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Plan view, Berry Site excavations
Figure 4

Figure 4: Olive Jar fragments, Berry Site

Much of our previous research has focused on identifying the material correlates of Fort San Juan. Documents from the Pardo expeditions record two kinds of structures that the Spaniards used at Joara: the fort itself, and the buildings that quartered Pardo's soldiers. Neither Pardo nor Bandera, his scribe, specifically described Fort San Juan in their accounts, but Bandera did describe the construction of Fort Santiago, built at another native town called Guatari (Bandera 1990:284; Hudson 1990:151). Fort Santiago's construction involved a considerable amount of earth and wood, including bastions and a tall palisade. Bandera also described houses that native people built for the Spaniards. During his first expedition, Pardo told the leaders of several native towns, including Joara, to build houses and to lay up stores of grain for the soldiers. Bandera noted that the structures Pardo ordered built at several of the native towns were large, and one suspects that they were considered large in comparison with the Indians' own houses. We expect these houses to reflect native construction techniques and technologies, but it is likely that Pardo's soldiers contributed their labour and experience, as well.

Bandera also listed the supplies that Pardo left at each of the interior forts. Most of the artefact classes on these lists never entered into Spanish-native trade networks, so their presence on archaeological sites is strong evidence of extended Spanish occupation, rather than ephemeral contact or trade. During his expeditions, Pardo left the following supplies for Fort San Juan: 235 lbs of arquebus powder; 201 lbs of matchcord; 235 lbs of lead; 4 crossbows; 240 crossbow bolts; 34 lbs of nails; 42 chisels; 6 shovels; 4 mattocks; 4 picks; 2 socketed axes; and 4 iron wedges (Hudson 1990:148, 150). In addition to these supplies left at the fort, Pardo carried 72 litres of wine, which was almost certainly carried in the ceramic vessels usually referred to as Olive Jars - the typical containers that colonial Spaniards used for transport and storage. We therefore expect the archaeological sites of Fort San Juan and Joara to include artefact classes that did not enter Spanish-native trade networks and that are very uncommon, or altogether absent, from other 16th century sites - especially lead shot, nails, iron tools, and Spanish ceramics.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Caparra Blue Majolica (1492-1600), Berry Site
Figure 6

Figure 6: Brass aglets from Berry Site

Archaeological and documentary evidence (Beck 1997b; Worth 1994) indicate that the Berry site is the location of Joara and Pardo's Fort San Juan. Surface artefact collection and gradiometer surveys have been conducted over the entire 5 ha site (Beck 1997a, Hargrove & Beck 2001; Schroedl & Moore 2002). Excavations - totalling some 825 m_ to date - have been limited to a 0.5-ha area (Figure 3) adjacent to the earthen mound (Beck & Moore 2002; Moore 2002). Since 1986, we have discovered numerous sixteenth-century Spanish artefacts at the site, including Olive Jar (Figure 4) and majolica fragments (Figure 5), Mexican Aztec Red ceramics, lead shot, brass lacing tips (Figure 6), wrought iron nails (Figure 7), chain mail fragments (Figure 8), and a handful of glass beads (Beck 2002; Moore & Beck 1994; Moore 2002; Worth 1994).

Although the Berry site (i.e., Joara) covers more than 5 ha, the Spanish artefacts are restricted to a small area on the northern end of the site. Our excavations in this area have revealed the well-preserved remains of four burned structures (between 65 and 80 m2 each) that form a distinct compound around a possible central plaza (Figure 9). Pit features in the plaza contain glass beads and brass lacing tips from Spanish clothing, and a line of burned posts near one of the buildings suggests that a wooden stockade may have enclosed the compound (Best & Rodning 2003). This compound, we believe, constitutes the burned remains of Fort San Juan.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Barrote-type nail, Berry Site
Figure 8

Figure 8: Chain mail fragments, Structure 1, Berry Site

Our Upper Catawba Valley Archaeology Project URL link is:

Our work inside one of the burned buildings, Structure 1 (Figure 10), has revealed an extraordinary degree of architectural preservation, including intact features such as carbonised wooden posts that still remain upright and fallen roof timbers that still retain their bark; we have found burned sections of wooden wall benches made of split oak, with split cane mats (Figure 11) still attached to the benches (Beck & Ketron 2003). Artefacts inside the building were laying in place where they fell or were left on the day that Fort San Juan was destroyed - decorated ceramic pots, a clay smoking pipe, and possible wood-handled tools. We discovered fragments of chain mail armour on the floor of this structure, and some of its well-preserved wooden timbers were apparently notched with metal tools in a European style of construction (Figure 12). We believe that this was one of the buildings that quartered the soldiers stationed at Fort San Juan, and what is more, we have yet to enter the other burned buildings in this area. We have every reason to believe that they are just as remarkable in their contents and preservation. That all four were burned serves as a chilling testament to how relations between the Spaniards and the people of Joara ended tumultuously in the spring of 1568.

Acknowledgements: This project has been supported by Warren Wilson College, Western Piedmont Community College, an Historic Preservation Fund grant from the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), the Historic Burke Foundation, the Burke Historical Society and numerous individuals. We would also like to recognize the late Thomas Hargrove and the late Charles Carey whose efforts were responsible for the magnetometer study that first identified the burned buildings at Berry.


  • ANDERSON, D.G. 1994 The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
  • BANDERA, J. de 1990 The Bandera Relations. In C.M. Hudson (ed)The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 pp. 205-321. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.
  • BECK, R.A., Jr. 1997a The Burke Phase: Late Prehistoric Settlements in the Upper Catawba River Valley, North Carolina. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
  • BECK, R.A., Jr. 1997b From Joara to Chiaha: Spanish Exploration of the Appalachian Summit Area, 1540-1568. Southeastern Archaeology 16(2): 162-168.
Figure 9

Figure 9: Plan view of Structure 3, looking north, following plowzone removal (structure measures 8.5 m by 8.5 m)
Figure 10

Figure 10: Excavation trench across Structure 1, looking north, revealing intact architectural remains (excavation trench measures 2 m by 6 m)
  • BECK, R.A., Jr. 2002 "What is Fort San Juan?" Paper presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Biloxi, Mississippi.
  • BECK, R. A., Jr. 2003 Consolidation and Hierarchy: Chiefdom Variability in the Mississippian Southeast. American Antiquity 68(4):641-661
  • BECK, R.A., Jr., & C.V. KETRON 2003 "The Fall of Fort San Juan? Excavating a Burned Building at the Berry Site." Paper presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • BECK, R.A., Jr. & D.G. MOORE 2002 The Burke Phase: A Mississippian Frontier in the North Carolina Foothills. Southeastern Archaeology 21(2):192-205.
  • BEST, M.S. & C.B. RODNING 2003 "Mississippian Chiefdoms and the Spanish Frontier: An Overview of Recent Excavations at the Berry Site in Western North Carolina." Paper presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • DEPRATTER, C.B., C.M. HUDSON, & M.T. SMITH 1983 The Route of Juan Pardo's Explorations in the Interior Southeast, 1566-1568. Florida Historical Quarterly 62:125-158.
  • HALLY, D.J. 1994 An Overview of Lamar Culture. In D.J. Hally (ed) Ocmulgee Archaeology 1936-1986 pp. 144-174. University of Georgia Press, Athens and London.
  • HARGROVE, T. & R.A. BECK, Jr. 2001 "Magnetometer and Auger Testing at the Berry Site (31BK22), Burke County, North Carolina." Paper presented at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Chattanooga, Tennessee.
  • HUDSON, C.M. 1990 The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.
  • MOORE, D.G. 2002 Catawba Valley Mississippian: Ceramics, Chronology, and Catawba Indians. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
  • MOORE, D.G. & R. BECK, Jr. 1994 "New Evidence of Sixteenth-Century Spanish Artifacts in the Catawba River Valley, North Carolina." Paper presented at the 51st Annual Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Lexington, Kentucky.
  • MULLER, J. 1997 Mississippian Political Economy. Plenum Press, New York.
Figure 11

Figure 11: Structure 1, collapsed and burned remains of wooden wall bench with attached split cane matting
Figure 12

Figure 12: Structure 1, roofing timber with square-cut notch, possibly cut with metal tools (notch measures 12 cm long by 5 cm deep)
  • SCHROEDL, G.F. & P.A. MOORE 2002 "Geophysical Survey at the Berry site (31BK22), Burke County, North Carolina." Paper presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Biloxi, Mississippi.
  • SMITH, M.T. 2000 Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
  • THOMAS, C. 1891 Catalog of Prehistoric Works East of the Rocky Mountains. Bulletin No. 12, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • WORTH, J.R. 1994 Exploration and Trade in the Deep Frontier of Spanish Florida: Possible Sources for 16th-Century Spanish Artifacts in Western North Carolina. Paper presented at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Lexington, Kentucky.

Moore: Warren Wilson College
Beck: Northwestern University
Rodning: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

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