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The Spanish take the lead in colonizing and exploiting the lands from the Caribbean, through what is now Central America and into much of South America. Their successful colonies thrive on sugar production, a valuable commodity, but one that demands a lot of labor.
With the introduction of unfamiliar European diseases, five decades would see a drastic decline in the native population, leaving an enormous need for people to work the fields. And that meant the importation of slaves from Africa into the New World.
Even more important to the Spanish crown is the flow of silver from the mines at Zacatecas in the north central part of present-day Mexico. Treasure-laden ships ply the Atlantic, returning to Spain with the wealth of the new colonies, vulnerable targets for privateers from rival nations.
King Philip envisions a Catholic colony called La Florida, a vast area North of the Caribbean that will offer a defense for his treasure vessels. He sends Spanish forces under Captain Juan Pardo to establish a fort at St. Augustine, wipe out a French outpost near the mouth of the St. Johns River and then establish a beachhead on tip of present-day Parris Island. From here, he begins his ill-fated march into hostile Indian territory in a vain effort to establish a road to Zacatecas. Pardo and his men have no idea of the vastness of this New World and would not even dream that the silver mines are more than 1700 miles away!
Captain Pardo's 120 men follow Indian trading paths, carrying weapons and gifts for exchange but almost no provisions. He was expected to march to the silver mines and return in nine weeks. [Harry Watson]
By New Year's, 1567, they eventually reach Joara, a large native town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Winter is fast approaching and the Spanish build a fort to wait out the snows before heading west. Fort San Juan becomes the first European settlement built in North Carolina. The Indians at first considered these newcomers as possible allies against their traditional enemies and were generally welcoming to the Europeans. [David Moore]
They will eventually build six forts, from the coast of South Carolina to the mountains of eastern Tennessee, supplemented by native-built corn cribs to supply the Spanish soldiers stationed along this road.
The Spanish supplied virtually nothing to the natives, failing to recognize the importance of reciprocal trading to build a successful relationship with the Indians. Pardo leaves a small garrison at each fort and returns to his fort on the coast. The Spanish and the Native Americans co-exist peacefully at first, but the relationship goes bad and the Indians have finally had enough. In May of 1568, they attack all the forts, killing all of Pardo's men but one who survives to deliver the bad news to the Spanish captain.
With native support now gone, the Spanish retreat to Saint Augustine and King Phillip's dream of an expansive North American colony fades. Never will there be an attempt by the Spanish to settle the interior of North Carolina. But the Europeans leave a trail of unfamiliar diseases behind, and when Europeans return again, many towns and villages would be a memory.