Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the late-sixteenth century, Joara was the most dominant, and possibly the largest, town in what is now modern-day Piedmont and western North Carolina.  Located in Burke County, twelve miles north of Morganton, on Upper Creek, Joara was, according to historians, “the northeastern edge of the Mississippian cultural world.”  It served as a center of trade and a hub for travelers.  Its economic and political prominence and its location near navigable routes, major trails, and good farmland prompted Spanish explorer Juan Pardo to construct Fort San Juan near the Indian town.

At its apogee (mid-1500s), Joara was ruled by Joara Mico, who during his reign increased the town’s economic and martial dominance.  When Hernando De Soto explored the Appalachians in 1540, he noted that the town (which he called Xuala) was thriving yet not powerful.  When Juan Pardo passed through the region, however, Joara Mico had expanded his influence across the Catawba Valley, and the town rivaled other Indian powers, in particular the Guatari Mico and the Chisca. The Spanish expeditions offered the chief another opportunity to increase Joara’s regional dominance.  He allied with Sergeant Moyano and attacked and defeated the Chisca.

The town served as a transportation hub.  According to one historian, rivers and creeks surrounded it, and mountains near the town were low enough to cross.  Two major trails passed through the town: Rutherford’s War Trace and Old Cherokee Path.  The former ran westward to the French Broad River, where it intersected with another trail that led to Chiaha, the territory where Sergeant Moyano and his men would be trapped by Indians and eventually rescued by Juan Pardo.  The latter trail started in the town and passed through Chisca land on the Upper Nolichucky River and ended at what is known now as Saltville, Virginia.  This trail may have been extremely important for trade, because near Joara were three to five salt mines.  

Joara rested at the bottom of the Appalachian Mountains and served as a halfway point for not only Indian travelers but also for the Spanish expeditions.  Many languages were spoken in the town, but scholars believe the people of Joara spoke Yucchi or Cherokee.  When Juan Pardo passed through the town, he met with local chiefs from various tribes.  One meeting attracted eighteen chiefs, who according to Spanish chroniclers behaved subserviently to Joara Mico.

In great part because the Spanish abandoned Fort San Juan and the region approximately sixty years before the English moved into the area in great numbers, Joara’s decline is not recorded, and it remains a mystery.