MORGANTON — Sir Walter Raleigh, our state capital’s namesake, started North Carolina by sending the first European settlers to Roanoke Island at the Outer Banks. They tell the tragic tale of the Lost Colony whose settlers disappeared into the mists of time, marking the failure of Raleigh’s dream but a harbinger of things to come.
That’s what they told me in school. And they were dead wrong.
But I don’t blame my schools. Because my history teachers back in the day did not know.
So I traveled here to one of my old stomping grounds where once upon a time I plied a newsman’s trade. This time, though, I came seeking historical truth and to see our history books being rewritten.
European settlement in North Carolina actually began along an obscure creek running down from the Blue Ridge Mountain crest not far west of here in the hometown. Nearly 20 years before Raleigh’s Lost Colony the Spanish actually got things started.
Much like the Vikings who came to Newfoundland before Columbus discovered America, the Spanish came to North Carolina before Raleigh’s settlers discovered the Outer Banks. The Vikings forced us to rewrite our history books; we await to see about the Spanish in the N.C. foothills.
The Spanish colony failed, as did the Lost Colony after it and the Viking colony before it. But had the Spanish succeeded here, Carolina del Norte would’ve been far different today. And you just might’ve been reading this newspaper in Spanish right now.
OK, here’s the story. Spanish soldiers set out from modern-day Parris Island, S.C., of Marine-base fame. They traveled up what we now call the Catawba River and settled initially in January 1567 at an Indian village named Joara.
The Spanish called their beachhead Fort San Juan, with a population of 30 soldiers. It became the largest of six Spanish settlements and the culmination of nearly 30 years of Spanish exploration in our region. They believe another settlement was on the Yadkin River at modern-day High Rock Lake in Rowan County.
After about a year-and-a half, though, our region’s natives had had their fill of the Spanish, responded with war and wiped them out. Who says the Indians never won?
Then Englishman Sir Francis Drake burned Spanish St. Augustine, Fla., in 1586, opening the way for the English to come to Jamestown, Va., in 1607 and the rest, as they say, is history.
We didn’t know all of this until 2005, when archaeologists hit the jackpot and found Spanish artifacts at the site of an old Indian village at the conjunction of what we now call Upper and Irish creeks north of Morganton.
There’d been stories of early Spanish settlement in our region but no evidence. In 2013 archaeologists concluded that they had indeed found the remains of a Spanish fort, the first European settlement in North Carolina. Scientific research continues.
To learn more I dropped in on the first-ever Spanish & Indian Colonial Trail Festival last month that commemorated the 450th anniversary of the settlement’s founding.
The festival’s highlight was a first-ever reenactment of the initial meeting of Spanish and Indians with a short history lecture by the project’s lead archaeologist.
“The Indians had been expecting them for weeks,” archaeologist and college professor David Wilson told a festival crowd of a couple-hundred. The Spanish had been tracked by the natives.
After flag-waving Spanish colonial reenactors from modern-day St. Augustine marched into a re-created Indian village in a very nice Morganton park along the Catawba River, Wilson told the crowd that the natives at the time, “were not simple people.” The visiting Cherokee Warriors of Anikituhwa, a dance and Indian-history group, played the role of the host Indians who exchanged trade goods.
“They understood diplomacy,” Wilson said of the earlier natives. “They had not seen people like this, though.”
The natives turned against the Spanish. “We can only imagine why,” Wilson said.
The Spanish probably ran out of items to trade, the archaeologist speculated. The Indians “decided this experiment was too one-sided,” Wilson said.
He told me afterward that the Joara Indians’ descendants would help form the Catawba Indian Nation that still exists today.
The Morganton-based Exploring Joara Foundation, which hosted the festival, is trying to get the word out. It has a new museum exhibit that will be traveling around the state.
“There is so much history here,” Wilson told the crowd. “We can only imagine.”
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.