On a monument at the tip of Parris Island, a tile plaque proclaims, “Aquí estuvo España” (“Here was Spain”). The plaque refers to the colony of Santa Elena, located at this site from 1566 to 1587, but the Spanish presence in South Carolina extended much longer than those twenty-one years. Some of Spain’s earliest efforts at exploration, evangelization, and settlement in the present-day United States Southeast took place within South Carolina’s boundaries. The Spaniards’ activities in South Carolina became more sporadic after their withdrawal from Santa Elena in 1587, although they did not formally relinquish their claim to these lands. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, South Carolina was the launching ground for challenges by the English and their Indian allies to Spanish rule in the Southeast. Spain’s presence in South Carolina effectively ended in the seventeenth century, but the late twentieth century saw an influx of people of Hispanic descent into parts of the state once ruled by Spain.
Spanish ships likely had sailed along the present-day South Carolina coast since early in the sixteenth century, but the first documented appearance of Spaniards in these lands took place in 1521, when Pedro de Quejo and Francisco Gordillo stopped in the area of Winyah Bay on a slave-raiding expedition. This visit would have an important influence on later Spanish efforts to conquer and settle the American Southeast, for among their captives was a young man the Spaniards called Francisco de Chicora. Francisco’s description of his homeland inspired Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a royal official who became his owner in Hispaniola, to request a contract to conquer and settle these lands for Spain. Francisco’s stories entered the written record when he and Ayllón visited Spain and spoke with two of the main chroniclers of that age. Ayllón’s expedition departed Hispaniola with some six hundred participants, including Francisco, in 1526. Its ships landed first in the area of Winyah Bay, where Francisco and the other Indian interpreters fled from the Spaniards. Ayllón ultimately founded the town of San Miguel de Gualdape on the coast of present-day South Carolina or Georgia. Due to death and dissent, the settlement lasted only a matter of weeks, but despite the grim accounts given by the survivors, the tales told by Francisco de Chicora and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón inspired European interest in this land for years to come.
Spain’s next major expedition to present-day South Carolina brought the Spanish into the interior of the state. Hernando De Soto and his army of six hundred crossed the Savannah River from present Georgia in April 1540 in the area of the Clark Hill Reservoir. The expedition came in search of the chiefdom of Cofitachiqui and its reported wealth. The Spaniards found one of the chiefdom’s main towns after they traveled southeast to the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and then north along the Wateree to present-day Camden. At a mortuary house in Cofitachiqui, De Soto and his men found Spanish artifacts that they believed had come from the Ayllón expedition, perhaps as tribute or through trade with coastal peoples. More than twenty-five years later the Juan Pardo expeditions that departed from the Spanish town of Santa Elena in 1566 and 1567 and headed northwest across present South Carolina into North Carolina and Tennessee visited some of the same towns and found that memories of the De Soto expedition endured there. The De Soto and Pardo expeditions provided valuable glimpses into the lives and cultures of these inland peoples, even as contact with the Spaniards had a devastating effect on them.
The settlement of Santa Elena, founded in 1566 on Parris Island, was Spain’s most significant venture in South Carolina. Its influence lingered after Spaniards abandoned the town in 1587. Occupation of Santa Elena was key to Spain’s struggle with France over control of North America’s Atlantic coast. Santa Elena was also central to the Spaniards’ outreach to the native peoples from a broad region. It served as the launching point for exploration and evangelization efforts, as well as the extraction of labor and tribute. Indians visited and even lived at Santa Elena, where they encountered not just Spanish soldiers but also families. Spaniards and Indians battled one another repeatedly during Santa Elena’s Spanish occupation, although its last several years brought a period of relative peace. After Spaniards withdrew from Parris Island, Indians came to live at this site. In the mid–seventeenth century they and the nearby Escamazu sold corn to the St. Augustine garrison, but they never converted to Catholicism or moved into Franciscan missions such as the Guale of present Georgia. Spaniards traveled to the South Carolina coast to conduct this trade, but inland journeys were more rare. In 1628 Ensign Pedro de Torres visited Cofitachiqui to verify reports of white horsemen seen in the interior. His expedition found no such men, whom the Spaniards believed were Englishmen from Jamestown, but they did find an abundance of pearls at Cofitachiqui, as the De Soto expedition had more than eighty years before. Spaniards’ fears of English colonization grew more immediate with the founding of Charles Town in 1670 and Stuart’s Town in 1684 on Port Royal Sound. A Spanish raid destroyed Stuart’s Town and attacked the homes of some of Charles Town’s prominent citizens in 1686, but the Carolinas remained in English hands. Spanish influence gradually receded into peninsular Florida until Spain’s final withdrawal from these lands in 1821.
The last decade of the twentieth century brought an interesting postscript to the story of the Spanish in South Carolina, as emigrants from countries once part of Spain’s American empire entered the state in record numbers. Among the areas with the largest Hispanic population in the 2000 United States Census was Beaufort County, the land where Spaniards once built Santa Elena, a little piece of Spain.
Bushnell, Amy. Situado and Sabana: Spain’s Support System for the Presidio and Mission Provinces of Florida. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Gannon, Michael, ed. The New History of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Hoffman, Paul E. A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Hudson, Charles. The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566–1568. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.
–––. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Hudson, Charles, and Carmen Chaves Tesser, eds. The Forgotten Centuries:
Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521–1704. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Lyon, Eugene, ed. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. New York: Garland, 1995.