With the abandonment of Santa Elena in 1587, Spanish interest in Port Royal waned. It was simply too far from Spanish supply lines and lines of communication. Through time, knowledge of the locations of Charlesfort and Santa Elena were lost. Beginning in the late 17th century, historians and residents of Port Royal Sound identified a fort moat on the southern tip of Parris Island as Charlesfort. Throughout the 19th century, visitors to that fort dug up and removed relics for their curio cabinets. In 1922, Major George Osterhout, a Marine stationed at Parris Island, conducted extensive excavations in the "Charlesfort" moat, and he and General Eli Cole published the results of that work. Four years after Major Osterhout completed his excavations, the U.S. Congress erected a large granite monument within the walls of the presumed Charlesfort.
Almost immediately, historians began to dispute the identification of the Parris Island fort as French. Mary Ross and Jeannette T. Connor among others were deeply involved in the study of documentary sources pertaining to Spanish Florida. South Carolina historian A.S. Salley also was involved in this dispute. Based on their study of those records, these three historians (among others) believed that the fort excavated by Major Osterhout was really one of the later Santa Elena forts, most likely Fort San Marcos. Major Osterhout, however, was unfazed by their arguments and persisted throughout his life in the belief that he had excavated the remains of Charlesfort.
The ongoing dispute over the identity of the ruins on Parris Island continued for another thirty years before it was resolved. In 1957, Albert Manucy, a historian with the National Park Service in St. Augustine, traveled to South Carolina to study Osterhout's collections. Objects available to Manucy included nails, a 5-inch cannonball, a bronze artifact, assorted metal hooks and straps, unidentified iron objects, sections of palisade posts, and assorted ceramic fragments. Based on his familiarity with Spanish materials from St. Augustine, Manucy concluded that the materials excavated by Osterhout were Spanish in origin. Major Osterhout had not found Charlesfort.
In the two decades following Manucy's work, there was only occasional speculation on the location of Charlesfort, but interest in Ribault's settlement remained great. Beginning in 1979, one of us (S. South) began excavations at the site of Santa Elena, and from that work grew an interest in the location of the earlier French settlement. Through the years, South visited and tested a number of possible locations for Charlesfort, including the southern end of Port Royal Island, Pigeon Point north of Beaufort, and the grounds of the U. S. Navy Hospital on Port Royal Island. None of these prospects produced either French artifacts or earthwork remnants, however.
Between 1979 and 1985, South conducted several testing and excavation projects at Santa Elena. He worked on identifying the location of the Spanish town through excavation of three-foot squares distributed across the site on a thirty-foot interval grid. Once he identified the concentration of Spanish artifacts within the presumed town boundaries, he began excavating a series of buildings and wells used by the town's residents. In 1979 he excavated part of Fort San Marcos (Osterhout's Charlesfort), but he of course found nothing French.
In his excavation of three foot test squares in 1979, South found the moat of a fort located along the marsh edge 200 yards north of Fort San Marcos. After consultation with historians, South identified this fort as Fort San Felipe (II) constructed in 1570. In 1982, South excavated the northwest bastion of that fort, and in subsequent seasons, he excavated most of the area within the moat. At the time, South thought he was digging a Spanish fort, but he did report that there was some possible French material in the collection he excavated.
Several years later, DePratter became interested in the Charlesfort search because of this focus on archaeology and history of the early colonial period. After reviewing French documentary sources, he proposed to South the investigation of a portion of Parris Island's shoreline just north of Santa Elena that he felt was a likely location for Charlesfort. Following the excavation of a trench nine-tenths of a mile long in 1989, DePratter and South concluded that if Charlesfort had once existed along that stretch of shoreline, it had eroded into the marsh.
In 1991, South and DePratter renewed archaeological work at Santa Elena following a five year hiatus: in 1991, 1992, and 1993 they excavated a large residential structure in the high status part of town. As DePratter became more involved in the Santa Elena project, he became interested in the five Spanish forts that were built there, and he began trying to recreate the fort sequence and the locations of those forts. After a review of previous discoveries at Santa Elena, DePratter proposed in 1993 that Fort San Felipe, a Spanish fort at Santa Elena, might have been built on the site previously occupied by Charlesfort.
In Spring, 1993, DePratter and South found a Spanish pottery kiln at Santa Elena: discovery of the kiln generated a great deal of interest in the site and its potential for additional important discoveries. Later in 1993, South and DePratter received a Department of Defense Legacy Resource Development grant through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. As part of the research funded by that grant, they began looking at collections from all previous Santa Elena excavations to see if they contained remains of pottery vessels made in the Santa Elena kiln. At the same time, they were hoping to identify French-made pottery that would relate to the French occupation of the site, particularly in Fort San Felipe.
We were still faced with the possibility that the French materials were used by the Spanish inhabitants of Fort San Felipe between 1566 and 1570, because Pedro Menéndez did attack and capture a number of French ships in the early years of the Santa Elena settlement. In order to investigate this possibility, we plotted the distribution of the French materials within the fort and compared that plot to the distribution of the Spanish ceramics. If they two groups of material were used by the Spanish, they should have the same distribution. We found, in fact, that the two groups of material were distributed quite differently: they must then belong to two occupational episodes.
This restricted distribution within Fort San Felipe, as well as the total absence
of French ceramics from the excavated portion of the town of Santa Elena, finally
convinced us that we did in fact have a distinct, sixteenth century French occupation
represented in the Fort San Felipe collection, and we able to conclude, based on
all available evidence, that this occupation must be Charlesfort of 1562-1563.
Now we are in the next stage of this long-term project. Excavations at Charlesfort were conducted in Spring, 1997. The remaining portions of the fort interior will be excavated, and previously excavated features (wells, postholes, ditches, etc.) will be re-examined. The southwest bastion of the fort will be completely excavated, as will portions of the northern, western, and southern moat segments. Once this work is completed, we expect to be able to fully document the French occupation at Charlesfort and its relationship to Spanish Fort San Felipe (I) which was built on top of it.