Southeast Excursions: Go 5 centuries back at Joara’s field day

Finding broken shards of pottery, crusted lead shot, or rusty iron nails in the dirt doesn’t usually call for celebration – unless their discovery provides the evidence needed to prove the existence of a long-suspected 16th-century European settlement near Morganton, northwest of Charlotte.


Morganton is 68 miles from Charlotte, about a 90-minute drive, one way.

To see and do

Between 1566 and 1568, Spanish explorer Juan Pardo led two expeditions into what is now North Carolina. As he moved through the interior, he established six fortified settlements at various points along the way. It was long suspected that one such stronghold was located near present day Morganton, in close proximity to a Native American village named Joara (pronounced “Jo-WAR-ah”). Though the location of the village was documented in the late 1800s, it has only been in recent years that discovery of a variety of items of European origin has proven that Fort San Juan, and the accompanying Spanish colony of Cuenca, was indeed located at this spot. Fort San Juan was the first European fortification built in the interior of the New World.

Although relations among the Spanish and Indians began well, something happened that caused friction between the two groups. According to contemporary Spanish records, about 18 months after its construction, the Indians destroyed the colony and Fort San Juan and killed all but one of the soldiers garrisoned there.

Since it is an active archaeological site, visitation is necessarily limited. The site’s major annual event for the general public is the annual Archaeology Field Day, to be held June 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free. Activities will include tours of the compact excavation site, displays of Spanish and Native American artifacts, flint knapping and pottery demonstrations, and a spear-throwing competition using an atlatl – an early Native American spear. Lunch will be available for sale on site.

Other times during the year, the general public is encouraged to visit the Interpretive Center and Living History Village currently being developed at Catawba Meadows Recreation Park in Morganton. There, you can see a palisade, reconstructed Indian huts, and a sampling of some of the artifacts uncovered so far at Joara.

If you’re going

For information about the programs at Joara, or details directions to the site: