Archaeologists and co-authors Rob Beck (University of Michigan), David Moore (Warren Wilson College), and Chris Rodning (Tulane University) at the Berry site.

Rob Beck, curator of North American archaeology at the UMMAA, has been directing archaeological research at the Berry site in western North Carolina with his colleagues since 2001. In the October 2018 issue of American Antiquity (Volume 83, Issue 4), Beck and his co-authors (David G. Moore, Warren Wilson College; Christopher B. Rodning, Tulane University; Timothy J. Horsley, Northern Illinois University; and Sarah C. Sherwood, Sewanee University of the South) present archaeological evidence that suggests the Spanish fort there, Fort San Juan, failed for reasons based on social geography rather than poor planning or poor construction, as had been previously believed.

Berry is the location of the Native American town of Joara, visited by both the Hernando De Soto and Juan Pardo expeditions during the mid-1500s. In 1566, Pardo established a garrison there: Fort San Juan, the earliest European settlement in the interior of what is now the United States.

From 1565 to 1570, Spain established no fewer than three networks of presidios (fortified military settlements) across portions of its frontier territories in La Florida and New Spain. Juan Pardo’s network of six forts, extending from the Atlantic coast over the Appalachian Mountains, was the least successful of these presidio systems, lasting only from late 1566 to early 1568. The failure of Pardo’s defensive network has long been attributed to poor planning and an insufficient investment of resources. Yet recent archaeological discoveries at the Berry site in western North Carolina—the location of both the Native American town of Joara and Pardo’s first garrison, Fort San Juan—warrants a reappraisal of this interpretation. While previous archaeological research at Berry concentrated on the domestic compound where Pardo’s soldiers resided, the location of the fort itself remained unknown. In 2013, the remains of Fort San Juan were finally identified south of the compound, the first of Pardo’s interior forts to be discovered by archaeologists. Data from excavations and geophysical surveys suggest that it was a substantial defensive construction. We attribute the failure of Pardo’s network to the social geography of the Native South rather than to an insufficient investment of resources.

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Oblique view of the Berry site, taken by drone. Photo by David Abernathy.

Radar image showing the outline of Fort San Juan's moat or dry ditch.

Excavations at Fort San Juan.