Here’s something you didn’t learn in history class: South Carolina – not Virginia – was the site of the nation’s first colony.
That’s right. The Spanish established Santa Elena in what is now Beaufort County more than 40 years before the English set their sights on Jamestown.
The reason this significant tidbit of information didn’t figure in the history books is because it’s relatively recent news. The St. Elena History Center in Beaufort aims to set the record straight and reveal the secrets of an entire “missing” century in South Carolina and US history with its display of artifacts and an evolving interpretive exhibit, “America’s Untold Story.”
Excavations brought to light this long-lost story, though archaeologists initially thought St. Elena was a French settlement. There have been many digs over the years, but it was the one conducted in 1979 that helped archaeologists conclude that the artifacts they unearthed from beneath a Parris Island golf course (the site of St. Elena) were actually Spanish. Their findings are detailed at the history center, where you can also see a 3D scale model of parts of the settlement.
Though the exhibit is designed to be a self-guided tour, docents are on hand to answer questions as you move through two floors of displays in a building that once operated as a federal district courthouse. (The holding cells are still intact and open for public viewing.)
The story of St. Elena is told through a timeline detailing all the political, religious and cultural upheaval that led to its founding in 1566. Though it was occupied only until 1587, there’s a lot to learn about those formative and intervening years. One such fun fact: The settlement served as the Spanish capital of Florida, which then stretched into what would eventually become South Carolina.
In 2001, St. Elena was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 2016, what may well be South Carolina’s best-kept secret began being told at the history center.
Because the center operates on limited hours, check the website or call before visiting. For a modest admission fee, you can take your time perusing the displays. Among the attractions for children is an excavation table where they can “dig” for replica St. Elena finds and a gift shop filled with related toys and souvenirs.
Afterward, take the free shuttle that stops at the center and go explore downtown Beaufort.