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Field Day at the Berry Site: Explore Fort San Juan, the Oldest European Settlement in the Interior of America

By Travis Miller

Courtesy of the Exploring Joara Foundation
Courtesy of the Exploring Joara Foundation

June 16, 2014. Warren Wilson College, Western Piedmont Community College and the Exploring Joara Foundation invite the public to a field day event at the Berry Archaeological Site in Morganton on June 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors will have the chance to see a portion of the newly discovered moat, which was found during last summer’s excavations.

The Berry Site marks the remains of Fort San Juan, one of six fortifications built during Juan Pardo’s 1566 Spanish expedition into the inland of America. The fort was built on the native settlement of Joara, a Mississippian culture center believed to have been home to the ancestral Catawba.

The 1566 expedition was decades before the establishment of Jamestown and the Lost Colony of Roanoke, making Fort San Juan the oldest known European settlement in the American interior.

Field day activities at the Berry Site include archaeology demonstrations, displays of Native American artifacts recovered from the site, hands-on learning activities and pottery demonstrations. Admission is free and parking is available on-site, though $5 donations per car are encouraged.

The site is famous in archaeology, having been featured in Smithsonian, National Geographic, American Archaeology, Discover, The New York Times, and in the UNC-TV documentary The First, Lost Colony. 

“The significance of the Berry site and Fort San Juan cannot be understated,” said John Krebs, Staff Archaeologist at the Exploring Joara Foundation.

“It’s the earliest interior fort in what is now the United States. It is significant because it [represents] the most in-depth effort to colonize the United States. [The Spanish] were looking for gold and silver and many don’t realize that had they found that gold here, there’s no doubt that they would have sent waves of armies … making this area still under Spanish control right up until today — it would have changed the true course of history.”

The expedition ended entirely once Fort San Juan and the other Spanish forts were destroyed by natives in 1568.

The field day event offers a unique chance to explore the fascinating story of Fort San Juan firsthand and learn in-depth about the history of the region’s people, their way of life and their first encounters with Europeans, so take advantage of this opportunity.

The Berry Site is located at 1700 Henderson Mill Rd. outside of Morganton. For more information about the event and to learn more about the many other year-round events offered by the Exploring Joara Foundation, visit ExploringJoara.org or call 828-439-2463.