Santa Elena was a Spanish settlement on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, that was the capital of Spanish Florida from 1566 to 1587. It was established under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the first governor of Spanish Florida. There had been a number of earlier attempts to establish colonies in the area by both the Spanish and the French, who had been inspired by earlier accounts of the plentiful land of Chicora. Menéndez’s Santa Elena settlement was intended as the new capital of the Spanish colony of La Florida, shifting the focus of Spanish colonial efforts north from St. Augustine, which had been established in 1565 to oust the French from their colony of Fort Caroline. Santa Elena was ultimately built at the site of the abandoned French outpost of Charlesfort, founded in 1562 by Jean Ribault.
Santa Elena followed the destruction of the French Fort Caroline by Menéndez in 1565. The settlement housed a sizeable community, and became the base of operations for the Jesuits and military working in the northern zone of Spanish Florida. From this base the Spanish founded a number of other ephemeral forts as far inland as the Appalachian Mountains, but resistance from local Native American tribes and the lack of interest of Spain in the area, caused these to be abandoned, relocated or destroyed. Santa Elena was ultimately abandoned in 1587, with its survivors relocating to St. Augustine. The Spanish never pressed their colonial claims to the area again, focusing in other areas of the American continent.
Interest in the area was piqued following exploration of some part of what is now the coastal southeastern United States by Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo in 1521. Accounts of the region’s abundance from Quejo and Francisco de Chicora, one of the 70 Indians the expedition brought to Hispaniola, inspired Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón to establish the short-lived colony of San Miguel de Gualdape. This was abandoned after only a few months. In 1540 Hernando de Soto’s expedition found European goods in the wealthy town of Cofitachequi, and thus determined they were near the site of Ayllón’s colony; their accounts of the wealthy land inspired further colonial ambitions. In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano established a settlement at present-day Pensacola, Florida as a base for future colonization of Santa Elena, but this mission failed. The French also heard the early accounts and took an interest in the area; in 1562 Jean Ribault came to Parris Island and set up the short-lived settlement of Charlesfort there. However, this was abandoned the following year.
Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in 1565 in response to the establishment of the French Fort Caroline, in what is now Jacksonville, Florida, by René Goulaine de Laudonnière the previous year. Menéndez burned Fort Caroline and dislodged the French from Florida. In 1566 the Spanish shifted their efforts back to colonizing Santa Elena, and a settlement was founded in 1566. Menéndez then ordered an expedition, led by Captain Juan Pardo, to go from Santa Elena to the interior of North America. Pardo’s mission was to pacify and convert the natives and find an overland route to silver mines in Mexico. In December, 1566, a contingent of 125 men left on the first of two Pardo expeditions inland; with one fort constructed in eastern Tennessee.
The Pardo expedition created the first Spanish and European settlement in the interior of what became North Carolina. Juan Pardo led his men to Joara, a large regional center of the Mississippian culture near present-day Morganton. Pardo renamed the village Cuenca, as he claimed it for Spain. The Spanish built Fort San Juan and made a base there for the winter. Pardo left a contingent of 30 men. In an expedition the following year, Pardo went on to build five more forts, leaving garrisons down the Appalachian spine. He returned to Santa Elena without going back through Joara. After 18 months, the natives attacked the soldiers, killing all but one of the 120 at the various forts and burning all the forts. The Spanish never returned to press their colonial claim in the interior.
In 1576, natives of nearby Orista and Escamacu settlements burned Santa Elena. The Spanish abandoned Fort San Felipe, which was also burned. A year later, the Spanish returned and rebuilt the settlement, at the same time constructing a new battlement named Fort San Marcos. In 1580, the Spanish repelled an attack by 2,000 natives. After nearly a decade, in the latter half of 1587, the Spanish retreated to present-day Florida, lost interest in the area, and totally abandoned Santa Elena deciding to focus on colonizing other areas of the continent. The Escamacu people, who converted to Roman Catholicism before the Spaniards abandoned the site in 1587, kept their religion, and survived as a tribe into the early 17th century. After that their survivors were assimilated into larger tribes.
During its 21 years of Spanish occupation, Santa Elena was home to a series of fortifications, including Fort San Salvador, built by Menéndez in 1566, Fort San Felipe, established after the arrival of additional troops and supplies, and Fort San Marcos, erected during the second occupation at Santa Elena. In recent years, the site of Santa Elena has been extensively studied through archaeological investigation.