Fort San Juan

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During Juan Pardo’s first expedition (1566-67), the Spanish constructed Fort San Juan near present-day Morganton, North Carolina.  

The Spanish presence in North Carolina lasted only eighteen months.  Looking for a route to Mexico, the Spaniards traveled a circuitous yet northwestern route from Santa Elena (near Tybee Island, Georgia) into northeastern South Carolina and Piedmont North Carolina.  Heavy snowfall in the mountains stopped their westward journey at Joara, an Indian town near what is today Morganton.  To ensure the procurement of food, the Spanish built Fort San Juan there.  After two weeks, Pardo garrisoned Fort San Juan with thirty men, under the direction of Sergeant Hernando Moyano and continued his westward exploration.  Moyano soon allied with local Indians to attack the Chisca.  During the second expedition (1567-68), Pardo and his men stopped at Fort San Juan to rest.  While returning to Santa Elena, Pardo left Albert Escudero de Villamar in charge of the fort and thirty men.  

Scholars offer a few reasons for the fort’s abandonment.  It was built too far inland, some argue, and its men too dependent on Indian aid.  Others, including Warren Wilson College professor and archeologist David G. Moore, argue that the Spanish offended the Indians by possibly “demanding too much food or acting indiscriminately toward Native American women.”  Whatever the case, Fort San Juan was abandoned, and the Spanish failed to claim western parts of North Carolina.Fort San Juan may have been a pivotal in colonial history. 

Built before the English established settlements in the New World, the fort represents the Spanish failure to gain a stronghold in North Carolina.  If they had been successful, a clash between two European powers more than likely would have occurred in the land.

The excavation of Fort San Juan began during the late 1980s and continues today.  Under the direction of Professor Moore, archeologists, little by little, uncover the state’s Spanish past.