Fort San Juan Exhibit Opens at the Rural Heritage Museum

If the European settlement at Fort San Juan, in modern-day Morganton, North Carolina, had succeeded, it could have changed the history of the eastern seaboard of the United States, according to Dr. David Moore.

Moore, executive archaeologist for the Exploring Joara Foundation and a professor of anthropology at Warren Wilson College, gave an overview of the history of Fort San Juan and answered questions for visitors Tuesday evening at the grand opening of the newest exhibit in Mars Hill University’s Rural Heritage Museum, titled, “Unearthing Our Forgotten Past: Fort San Juan.”  This is the first new exhibit since the museum was closed due to COVID-19 in March of 2020.

“Unearthing Our Forgotten Past” is on loan from the Exploring Joara Foundation and reveals the findings of an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the fort, which was located at the Native American town of Joara (in modern-day Burke County, near Morganton). Mars Hill students have helped with an ongoing archaeological dig at the site.

Fort San Juan was one of six forts established by the Spanish in the Carolinas in the mid-1500s, all of which predated the English settlement at the Lost Colony by 20 years. Five of the six Spanish forts fell in 1568, in what appears to have been a concerted attack.  The Spanish occupied Santa Elena, located on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina, until 1587, when they dismantled the town and withdrew south to St. Augustine, Fla. Moore believes this withdrawal helped pave the way for English incursions into what are now the mid-Atlantic states.

The Rural Heritage Museum is open Tuesdays 5-8 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-2 p.m., and the exhibit is free.  The exhibition is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays through the end of April, and in May and June by appointment. Visit for more information on the museum and this exhibit.