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The Sad Demise of the Village of Joara

Updated on February 27, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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A weathered sign stands near a rural road in Burke County, North Carolina. Like many roadside markers, it’s supposed to indicate that something historical happened in this area. However, drivers along this road near Murphy can be forgiven if they are a bit confused by this sign, known officially as Marker Q-27. The event in question only mentions an expedition that expanded the Spanish Empire’s Florida Territory to the north more than 450 years ago.

It doesn’t mention the destination: a Native American village and future site of a Spanish fort that once existed northeast of the area. Now, surrounded by farmlands, heavily wooded groves, and a few residential areas, the sign and an archaeological excavation site are visible reminders that something significant in early American history occurred here.

Marker Q-27 is a dedication to Spanish explorer Captain Juan Pardo and the 127 men he led through the area in 1567; however, that's only part of the story. It believed he passed through this area in order to reach Joara, the Native American settlement for the Catawba Nation that once existed in what is now known as Morganton, NC.According to several accounts, It was a regional chiefdom of the Mississippian Mound Builder culture of the Southern Appalachian tribes, as well as the home of the ancestors of the Catawba Nation.

While this sign may establish a historical site, it also indicates a catastrophe, in which the people of Joara would pay the ultimate price, despite a valiant effort to keep their ancient homeland from the onslaught of European invaders

Also, the village was believed to be site of Fort San Juan, which was established by Pardo and his men. Although it would last 18 months, it would mark the northern most Spanish settlement on the Eastern seaboard, as well as the Northern boundary of the Territory of Florida.

While this sign may establish a historical site, it also indicates a catastrophe and a mystery that lingers to this day, in which the people of Joara reportedly paid the ultimate price, despite a valiant effort to keep their ancient homeland from the onslaught of European invaders. The efforts and sacrifice would actually halt the northern expansion of the Spanish Empire along the Eastern seaboard of North America.

How The End of Joara Began

from excavation at Berry Site
from excavation at Berry Site

It is estimated that Joara was established as far back as 1000 A.D. Through those years, the village would become the largest settlement in the region and was possibly a major trading center among the tribes in the area.

The story behind the demise of Joara started a few years before Captain Pardo led his men into the settlement. In 1540, the famed Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, led an expedition from Florida into the region. His logs indicated that he came across several Indian villages. Among them was a large place he named “Xuala.” The maps he had drawn of the region corresponded with the location of Joara.

At this time, the territory of Florida had been established and was becoming a regional headquarter for the Spanish Empire. Also, the empire began to expand its reach deep into Mexico, which was quickly becoming very lucrative, thanks to the establishment of silver mines.

Searching for a Road to Riches

The governor of the Territory of Florida (known as La Florida), Pedro Menendez de Aviles, wanted a route to Mexico (also, he wanted land, and conversion of the Native American to Christianity). He assigned Pardo to lead an expedition north through present day Georgia, South Carolina and through the Appalachians. At the time, it was believed, incorrectly, that the silver mines in Zacatecas, Mexico could be reached after several days’ journey once they got over the Appalachians.

In December 1566, Pardo and his men left Santa Elena (now present-day Parris Island, South Carolina). Short on supply, Pardo traveled further north, in an attempt to resupply at known Native American villages.

Contact with these villages proved to be fruitful in ways unexpected. For starters, some members of the tribes they came into contact with became a part of his army. Among them was a female believed to be a chieftain’s daughter.

The chieftain’s daughter proved to be a valuable asset. When Pardo claimed Joara for the crown of Spain (and renaming the village Nuevo Cuenca), he put her in charge of the tribes. The inhabitants knew the woman and had deep respect for her. The transition of power was easy.

The French are Coming and Moyano is in Command

show route and directions
A markerMurphy, North Carolina -
Murphy, NC 28906, USA
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Location of Q-27

B markerMorganton, North Carolina -
Morganton, NC 28655, USA
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Purported location of Joara

C markerParris Island, South Carolina -
283 Blvd De France, Parris Island, SC 29905, USA
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Originally known as Santa Elena -- the starting point for Captain Pardo's expedition.

D markerSaltville, Virginia -
Saltville, VA, USA
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Location of Maniateque, Chiska tribal village

Then, news reached Pardo that the French may invade Santa Elena. He had to return. Still, he left thirty soldiers to guard the newly established Fort San Juan and six other provisional forts in the area (four soldiers and his chaplain, Father Sebastian Montero occupied Fort Santiago, established in the village of Guatari). He left Sergeant Hernando Moyano in command.

Moyano proved to be a bad choice. In Pardo’s absence, Moyano was busy creating war with other tribes in the region. In the spring of 1567, Moyano led a combined force of natives and Spanish north to attack and destroy the Chiska tribe’s village of Maniateque (near present day Saltville, Virginia). Next, after returning to FortSan Juan, he attacked the village of Guapere (in present-day Tennessee), then marched west to Chiaha where he built a fort and waited for Pardo’s return.

The attacks on the tribes in the region did not set well with the nearby tribes. When Pardo returned, he was swamped by numerous complaints. Also, the delicate relationship between the two cultures was cracking. Matters were not helped by Moyano’s abuse of power that left the inhabitants complaining about Spaniard’s habit of hoarding the settlement’s food, canoes and women.

A Massacre Changes Everything

Despite how dicey the situation was, Pardo had another problem; Sgt. Moyano was short on supply and was encamped in Chiaha. He left a garrison at Fort San Juan and at three other fort in the region and went to fetch Moyano’s troops. After resupplying Moyano’s troops, Pardo turned the rest of his expedition back to Santa Elana, leaving behind the garrison he assigned to Fort San Juan and Joara. This would turn out to be a fateful decision.

No sooner than when Joara’s expedition returned to Santa Elena, news came that the Indian rose up against the Spaniards left behind. Fort San Juan was burned to the ground and all but one member of the garrison was slaughtered.

The uprising and massacre that followed was more than a setback for Pardo and the Spaniards. They’d never return to the region, ending all hopes of expanding the Spanish Empire into the exterior of North America.

Another Enemy Attacks Joara

The people of Joara, on the other hand, didn’t have time to savor the victory. Outbreaks of small pox and other diseases introduced by the Europeans decimated the population. Also, many Indians had been taken as prisoners, and supplies in the settlement were drastically reduced.

It is not known exactly when Joara was abandoned. Also, the reason for its abandonment is still a mystery. What was known was that Joara slipped into myth, seemingly vanishing off the face of the Earth.

For years, the only indication that a large Native American settlement existed in the region came from log and diary entries from Spanish expedition members.

Not Totally Lost to History

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But, Joara and Fort San Juan wouldn’t remain lost to history for long. In the 1960s archaeologists started their search for the lost settlement. It was soon discovered in Burke County. In the 1970s, they discovered that the site (known as the Berry Site – named after the family that owned the property where these discoveries were made) held a significant amount of Native American artifacts. This was evidence that the settlement was more than just a small Native American village.

In 1986, FortSan Juan, or what remained of it, was finally rediscovered. The fort’s demise was evident. The charred wood and huts confirmed what had been written so many years ago. Still, the site leaves many questions. One of them is what happened to the Native Americans who once lived there?

Today, archaeologists still work on the site. In some cases, guided tours are given of the place. Still, there’s much to be learned from the artifacts. One thing is certain; Marker Q-27 may need to be rewritten to truly tell what happened here.

Update 2017: Someone Questions the Official Story

History may have to be rewritten, as suggested in the final paragraph of the original text. For many years, many scholars have stated that Joara was a village and that the Spaniard under Captain Pardo came to it and renamed it Nuevo Cuenca -- named after Cuenca in Spain. The accounts go on to claim that this became the northern most stretch of the Territory of Florida (as well as the farthest extend of Spanish rule on the Eastern seaboard of North America). Also the Berry Site has been reported in numerous media outlets and journals to be the site of the lost village.

However, as of 2017, a writer is challenging many of these concepts. In several postings on the site peopleofonefire.com Richard Thornton, president of the Appalachia Foundation and architect, stated than many facts about the Joara were incorrect.

While this is one person stating this, it appears Thornton may have some familiarity and expertise in the region, history, building structures of the Native American tribes there.

In brief, he makes the following claims:


  • Joara was described in written accounts from Pardo's adjunct, Juan dela Bandera as being a geological region rather than a village. A village fitting the description may have been found within the distance of this area.
  • Spanish miners were in the area long after the four small garrison forts were destroyed.
  • There were several known Native American Village in the area; however the description for the journal of the expedition seemingly indicated that area believed to be Joara village was actually in another area other than the Berry Site.
  • The Berry Site could have been a Sephardic Refugee way station for those traveling along an escape route that went over mountains to the west (late 16th and early 17th century).


He also states that the real story of Joara can be found in the translation of dela Bandaras journal, which -- he points out -- many scholars seemingly ignored.

There's no doubt that there hasn't been others to corroborate this account; however, Thornton does point out to certain clues that the deserves further investigation. As for now, it's conjecture.

© 2017 Dean Traylor

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 5 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job, Dean. Very important topic. Learned a lot. Thx. Sharing.