Fort San Felipe

Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) by Francisco de Paula Martí (1762-1827)

In 1566, Spain, eager for a larger foothold in the Americas would choose a small island along the Atlantic coast, up what is now known as the Port Royal Sound, for settlement and fortification.  The island Spain chose would have a fort erected to protect the settlement.  That fort would be named San Felipe. The fort, located on what is modern-day Parris Island, stood for 10 years until it would be hastily abandoned in 1576 after the area’s native tribes destroyed it in an attack which forced Spain to abandon the area for settlement altogether.  Local legend maintains that after the 1576 attack, the attackers, former slaves (enslaved africans) and indians (of the Guale and Orista tribes) then disappeared back into the South Carolina backcountry.  Whether this eyewitness account is true or not is unknown, but evidence of african and indian cooperation in the writings of the 16th-century adelantados and conquistadors definitely support the possibility of scenes just like this.

The Uprising and Attack by the Guale on Fort San Felipe

The uprising and attack by the Guale on Fort San Felipe was just the lastest example of the african and indian cooperation documented by spanish settlers following the fall of San Miguel de Guadalupe in 1526.  San Miguel de Guadalupe is believed to have been located somewhere along the Savannah River.  The river separates main land South Carolina from main land Georgia and flows into the Atlantic Ocean after splitting into an estuary.  Wealthy sugar planter, Lucas Vasquez de Allyon of Santo Domingo, led 600 spanish settlers and 100 african slaves into a territory that includes modern-day Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina which at the time Spain called La Florida. It was the first introduction of “negro” slaves into North America.  The settlement at San Miguel lasted just three winter months.  By the time the settlers finally abandoned the colony,  the africans had revolted and ran into the woods to live with the indians and all but 150 settlers were still alive.

By the time that Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived to construct Fort San Felipe in Santa Elena, which was by then La Florida’s capital, he no doubt had already heard all the stories about the indian and slave revolt of the doomed settlement of San Miguel.

Undeterred, he also arrived with enslaved africans.

After settling St. Augustine to his satisfaction in 1565 Menendez marched north to fortify the territory along the Atlantic coast at Santa Elena on the spot of the abandoned French Fort Caroline.

Not only would Menendez bring enslaved africans with him to Santa Elena in 1565 but he would also record an even earlier impression of african settlement in 1562 among the French at Fort Caroline:

“When the Spanish conquistador Menendez arrived on August 28, 1565 not only were there black slaves and members of his crew, but he noted that his arrival had been preceded by free Africans in the French settlement at Fort Caroline, just a few miles north.” <;

From 1526 to 1576 the african and indian admixture rapidly changed the appearance of the american indians in the area.  The underground railroad before St. Augustine for the enslaved was with the indians.  Africans found refuge with the indians, formed families and rose up when they felt their lives were threatened.  The Guale and Orista indians in their earliest interactions with settlers were also victims of enslavement and kidnappings and as a result of this partnered with Africans, whether they were free or enslaved.

The attempted spanish settlements Fort San Felipe and San Miguel de Guadalupe would fuse together native american and african culture in the southeast, some of which is still glimpsed in the foodways and spiritual practices of the Gullah.

Source: South, Stanley, and Chester B. DePratter. Discovery at Santa Elena: Block Excavation, 1993. Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1996.

Image credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division


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