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Charlesfort Identified Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Jessica E. Saraceni

[image] Sixteenth-century engraving by Theodor de Bry depicts French expedition building a fort on what is today Parris Island, South Carolina. (The Granger Collection, New York) [LARGER IMAGE]

A reexamination of pottery fragments found more than a decade ago at a site on the southern tip of Parris Island, South Carolina, has led to the identification of Charlesfort, an outpost built in 1562 by French Protestants seeking religious freedom. In 1982 Stanley A. South of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology found several sherds of French pottery among Spanish majolica and redware at the site of Fort San Felipe in the sixteenth-century Spanish town of Santa Elena. He attributed its presence to the activity of French privateers in the area. Although the institute's Chester B. DePratter had long suspected from illustrations and writings by the French expedition's leader that Charlesfort was on the island, excavations at possible locations in 1989 found nothing. He concluded that the fort's remains must have eroded into Port Royal Sound. When DePratter and South recently scrutinized Fort San Felipe's pottery, however, they determined that the French stoneware must have been left by the men of Charlesfort, whose garrison was destroyed and built over by the Spanish.

The 150-man expedition that built Charlesfort was led by Jean Ribaut, who landed in what is now Florida in April 1562 and sailed north to South Carolina, naming the rivers and erecting columns to claim the land for France. Ribaut returned to France in June to report his findings, leaving 27 men behind and promising to return in six months with supplies and more settlers. Religious civil war in France forced Ribaut to England, where he was imprisoned as a spy. Meanwhile, the men at Charlesfort had not planted crops and were starving to death after a fire destroyed their supplies. With help from Orista Indians, the men built a ship and tried to return to France in April 1563. When they ran out of food, they ate their leather shoes and jackets; eventually they drew lots and ate the loser before being rescued by an English ship. "The Spanish never acknowledged that the French were at the site four years before the establishment of Santa Elena," says DePratter. Full-scale excavations will begin at Charlesfort next April.

* Home page of the Sixteenth Century Santa Elena Research Project, from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina

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© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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