Founded in April 1566 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés on present-day Parris Island, Santa Elena was the northernmost settlement of the Spanish province of La Florida. At that time La Florida in theory extended from the Florida Keys north to Newfoundland. Spaniards had used the name “Santa Elena” for the area around Port Royal Sound south to Tybee Island, Georgia, since 1526, when Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón’s expedition explored these lands on August 18, the feast day of St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine. Fear that the French would claim the excellent harbor at Port Royal Sound led Menéndez to the Parris Island site, where in 1562 Captain Jean Ribault had built the short-lived Charlesfort in the name of France’s king. Challenges from the French and, later, the English shaped Santa Elena’s history in important ways.
Santa Elena was the capital of La Florida for much of its first ten years, during which time the growing settlement conducted political and religious outreach to the native population of a broad region. As part of these interactions, the Spaniards also sought to extract food and labor from the Indians for this growing colony, which chronically faced supply shortages. The company of Captain Juan Pardo arrived at Santa Elena in July 1566 to strengthen the Spanish presence there after a mutiny took most of the initial one hundred soldiers from the fort. Efforts to bring native peoples inland under Spanish rule began when Pardo led expeditions from Santa Elena northwest through present South Carolina into North Carolina and eastern Tennessee in 1566 and 1567. The Spaniards’ goal of evangelizing the Indians gained more attention when Jesuit priests arrived in La Florida in 1566. They attempted to found missions in the Santa Elena area and, when those failed, one on the Chesapeake Bay. This effort resulted in the massacre of several priests and the withdrawal of the Jesuits from La Florida in 1572. Members of the Franciscan order arrived the next year and continued this work in the area of Santa Elena. The Spaniards’ demands on the Indians grew as families arrived in the town, beginning with a 1569 expedition of nearly two hundred colonists. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés brought his own wife and household to Santa Elena in 1571. Conflict between the settlers and members of Menéndez’s extended family, who governed during his frequent absences from La Florida, soon tore this small community as each group sought to assert its privileges. War with the Orista, Guale, and Escamazu tribes eclipsed these concerns in 1576, as these peoples—angered by years of Spanish demands and abuses—united to drive the Spaniards from their lands.
Indians destroyed Santa Elena in 1576, but one year later Spaniards rebuilt there by order of their king, who feared that the French would learn of their absence and occupy this site. The French had indeed returned to Port Royal Sound, where the ship Le Prince wrecked crossing the bar. Many of the survivors perished when Indians attacked them in the belief that they were Spaniards. Those whom the Indians spared became valuable allies to the Orista and Guale chiefdoms. With the combined French and Indian threat that continued into the early 1580s, military concerns dominated the second period of Santa Elena’s Spanish occupation. St. Augustine became the colony’s capital under Pedro Menéndez Marqués, whom Philip II appointed to replace his now-deceased uncle Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as governor. Spaniards rebuilt the town of Santa Elena, and families occupied it once more, but they lived under military rule with no municipal institutions through which to assert their rights. A guarded peace returned in early 1583, after Pedro Menéndez Marqués launched a war of fire and blood against the Orista and Guale chiefdoms, which was followed by a severe drought. Santa Elena was once again a thriving community—albeit one supported by the Spanish crown—when Philip II ordered the town’s abandonment following Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 raid on St. Augustine. The English attack raised yet again the issue of the Florida settlements’ vulnerability. In August 1587 Pedro Menéndez Marqués arrived at Santa Elena and carried out the command to destroy the Spanish fort and town and relocate its inhabitants to St. Augustine. In 1979 the archaeologist Stanley South verified that Parris Island was Santa Elena’s location, and since then he and others have conducted excavations there. The National Park Service designated the Charlesfort–Santa Elena site a National Historic Landmark in January 2001.
Lyon, Eugene. Santa Elena: A Brief History of the Colony, 1566–1587. Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1984.
Paar, Karen L. “‘To Settle Is to Conquer’: Spaniards, Native Americans, and the Colonization of Santa Elena in Sixteenth-Century Florida.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999.
South, Stanley, Russell K. Skowronek, and Richard E. Johnson. Spanish Artifacts from Santa Elena. Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1988.