Under the Radar

Posted On September 1, 2016

Santa Elena’s lead archaeologist solves old mystery, making South Carolina a push pin on world history map. Again! Findings to be studied in Columbia.

By Rachel Haynie

Photos by Ali Moons

Dr. Chester DePratter has become something of a detective over his career as a research archaeologist with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. Although the scientific community has taken heed of findings he and teammates have made on Parris Island, near Beaufort, SC, as early as 1979, many Columbians – South Carolinians and Americans – have not yet recognized the impact represented by new discoveries, especially when bundled with the cumulative findings that have spanned recent decades. 

Word of this South Carolina “find,” with a Columbia man as lead detective, has been no secret. But its significance has hovered under the radar.

Here’s the discovery DePratter is explaining to colleagues in his profession, as well as viewers, listeners, and readers.

A South Carolina location was chosen as the most ideal spot for a 16th century Spanish settlement and therein served as something very important to world history. What DePratter and colleague teams have unearthed and scientifically verified proves that South Carolina was one of the earliest European settlements in America. Settled in 1566, one year after St. Augustine, it was the northern-most Spanish settlement in the Americas. Spanish explorers chose this site, which they named Santa Elena, as the first capital of Spanish Florida, a vast expanse along the Eastern Seaboard.

To help the public realize the significance of this find, DePratter explains: “A baby born on Santa Elena would have been about 40 years old before the first settlers came ashore at Jamestown in 1607. That baby could have been a great-grandparent before the first Europeans set foot on Plymouth Rock 13 years later – in 1620.” 

Digging for 16th century evidence began at the Parris Island site as early as the 19th century, possibly earlier, although those initial efforts were not made by professional archaeologists. The important distinction that now is clear: Santa Elena was the first lasting settlement.

“The term lasting attests to the duration of the colony. Santa Elena made it for 21 years,” DePratter explained, “and settlement – as opposed to just a fort, with soldiers – means women and children were there, government and commerce were in use, agriculture was in successful practice, and we know there was a church. And a tavern.” 

DePratter, who has been involved in numerous projects on this eastern-most island off Beaufort’s coast, returned to the dig site in late July. This time the South Carolina team was joined by an archaeological team led by DePratter’s colleague Dr. Victor Thompson from the University of Georgia. And this time the effort was aided by new technology and techniques associated with ground-penetrating radar and other remote sensing devices. Turns out, the right place to search was below the radar! 

Found this summer was location evidence of the elusive Fort San Marcos, build in 1577. “I had been looking for San Marcos since 1993. We have known, from documentary sources, there were five forts in all on the 15-acre Santa Elena settlement and, generally, where San Marcos was. With these technological advances, we were able to determine how the fort was laid out, and where buildings stood, without digging. This gives us the information we need for interpreting what happened here 450 years ago – and for future research.” 

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Earlier this year DePratter curated, for the new Santa Elena History Center on Beaufort, SC’s historic Bay Street, the center’s inaugural exhibit, Santa Elena, America’s Untold Story. The April exhibit opening commemorated the 450th anniversary of the founding of Santa Elena, the settlement comprised of five forts. The veteran archaeologist, geologist and Columbian serves on the advisory board of the Santa Elena Foundation. 

One of the interesting facts underscored in the new exhibit is just how popular this site on Parris Island was in the 16th century. In 1562 the French explorer Jean Ribault, a Huguenot, found the bluff overlooking Port Royal Sound ideal for a settlement named for France’s child king. DePratter discovered, in the mid-‘90s, the location of Charlesfort which only endured for a year, then was abandoned. 

Just a few years later, in 1566, Pedro Menendez de Avilles, Governor of Spanish Florida, established Santa Elena, deeming the same site ideal for its northern-most settlement after having established St. Augustine and a site on the St. John’s River, near present day Jacksonville, FL. 

For the clues to make scholarly sense, artifacts collected from the site over the decades were analyzed along with documentation from Spanish archives, written in an ancient Spanish script which DePratter doesn’t read. “Fortunately, I worked with historians willing to share their findings in the archives.” 

DePratter recently convened a scholarly conference of these esteemed historians and archaeologists in Beaufort at which answers to myriad questions from a rapt audience of lay people and academics flowed freely. That April conference was dedicated to the memory and work of DePratter’s colleague and Columbia resident Stan South. Santa Elena was South’s “baby” for many years, beginning in 1979 when South found Fort San Felipe, one of the early Spanish forts that comprised Santa Elena.

DePratter joined South at Santa Elena in 1991. While searching for Charlesfort, DePratter was able to identify earlier-discovered mystery pottery as French solidifying the presence of Charlesfort; the discovery and attendant announcement made New York Times’ front page in 1996.

“I love to unravel mysteries,” he said, and that may explain why his infrequent pleasure reading includes works by Clive Cussler and Sue Grafton. “I read so much professional material, there’s really not much time for reading novels, but when I can, I do.”

More digging? He has terraced the steeply-sloped yard surrounding the Columbia home he shares with his wife, Chris, who teams with him in planting flowers and flowering shrubs. From their garden he harvests a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes. 

This summer Chris took care of most of the watering. Santa Elena was back on DePratter’s schedule. That dig site, reachable only through the gates at the U.S. Marine Training Depot base, offers little to see, now that the archaeological teams have moved on, other than stakes in the ground. “To grasp the story, the best thing to do is to go to Santa Elena History Center and take in the exhibit.” 

DePratter hopes the next phase of the exhibition at Santa Elena History Center will include some of the actual artifacts unearthed at the New World’s first permanent European settlement. “Santa Elena, right here in South Carolina, is the best preserved 16th century site because it’s on a golf course, so there are no standing structures.”

The site of Charlesfort/Santa Elena National Historic Landmark has been in the stewardship of the U.S. Marine Corps since 1915.


>> Birthplace

Alexandria, Virginia; High school years spent in Brunswick, Georgia

>> Family

Wife, Chris; two sons, David and Russell

>> Education

Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, University of Georgia

>> Title 

Research Professor, University of South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Columbia, SC. Curator and Advisory Board Member, Santa Elena History Center, Beaufort, SC. Lead archaeologist, Santa Elena site, Parris Island, SC.

>> Fields of Inquiry

Since 1989, remains of failed French attempt at colonization, Charlesfort, on Parris Island, SC; coastal South Carolina and Georgia geology and archaeology, Native American 17th and 18th century migration patterns across southeastern US; Civil War prison camps; Spanish colonial ventures in “La Florida.”

>> Reading

Mysteries, to sharpen his detective skills.

>> Hobbies