HILTON HEAD, S.C. -- Spain's first known settlement in what is now South Carolina was founded, ironically enough, by the French.
French explorer Jean Ribault established the first known European settlement in the Lowcountry in 1562, although it wasn't much of one. Seeing the value of the natural port now known as Port Royal, he left 27 or 28 men on what is now Parris Island and continued back to France. But before he left, he and his men built Charlesfort for the area's protection.
Learning of Ribault's incursion into what he considered to be his country's territory, the Spanish governor of Cuba, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, left with hundreds of men to run the French out of the continent. But they were already gone.
Ribault had promised to come back for his men when he left them in 1562, but a year came and went with no sign of the explorer (he was tied up by the religious wars then raging in Europe). The men at Charlesfort rebelled, murdered their commander and built a boat to sail back to France. Three made it.
In any case, Spanish soldiers sent to destroy the French fort found it abandoned. They had been ordered to burn the fort and fill its moat in with dirt; it is known that they burned its buildings. Archaeologist Chester DePratter believes that they failed to fill in the moat.
Spanish soldiers probably built a tiny blockhouse near the French ruins -- records show its name as Fort San Salvador, although they reveal little else -- and quickly replaced it with Fort San Felipe when 1,500 reinforcements arrived in 1566. The latter fort was built "right smack dab" on top of Charlesfort, probably for the obvious political statement that would make, Mr. DePratter said.
For the next 10 years, Fort San Felipe and the city that grew up around it -- Santa Elena -- served as the capital of Spain's vast North American territories, said Carol McCanless of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. About 400 people lived in the city.
Menendez was called back to Spain, where he died soon after his arrival. His successor as North America's governor proved unpopular, and Indians soon rose up and chased the Spanish away. They stayed away for a year.
In 1577, the Spanish returned to Santa Elena, where, of course, everything had been destroyed. Spanish soldiers built yet another fort, this time named Fort San Marcos. The new Santa Elena was no longer capital of the entire continent, but it did have a resident governor of the territory it controlled. His name was Gutierre De Miranda.
The wealthy governor kept his town together, building at least two buildings of his own on two lots in town and prospering. Once again, the city survived for 10 years, giving its residents a relatively comfortable life on the eastern side of Parris Island. But in 1587, word of English Capt. Sir Francis Drake's exploits around Spanish St. Augustine sealed the Lowcountry town's fate.
Desperately afraid of the English captain, Spain consolidated its soldiers -- and their families, the bulk of the population of Santa Elena -- at St. Augustine. Santa Elena was once again abandoned, this time for good.
The fort and town were burned and eventually forgotten. Plantations and farms came and went on the fertile ground; Marines built barracks there in World War I. A golf course was built over much of it in the latter half of the 20th century.
Excavations early in the 1920s showed the city's approximate location. Stanley South of the University of South Carolina's South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology began excavations in earnest in 1979 at the behest of the National Geographic Society.