Joara . . . how North Carolina academicians and the news media created a myth
A grassy pasture in the North Carolina Piedmont is now being described in the news media and all references as “the site of one of the most important regional centers in the Pre-European South.” What began 30 years ago as a provincial speculation has grown into a delusion that no one dares to question. This all happened because no one bothered to fact check news releases coming out of North Carolina. The chain of incompetence eventually ran all the way up to the National Geographical Society, National Science Foundation and PBS.
Not one National Geo, NSF or PBS executive bothered to read the actual eyewitness account by a Spanish lawyer of this “regional center,” whose English translation was readily available online. If any media or foundation executive had done so, he or she would have quickly realized that they were being fed “caco de toro.”
Because these speculations now have the official stamp of approval by the National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, the North Carolina Public Television Network, the Public Broadcasting System, plus thousands of replicated newspaper articles and local television reports, poorly researched speculations have now entered the realm of assumed facts. All along, however, the emperor had no clothes.
In the journal of the two Juan Pardo Expeditions (1567-1569) his adjutant, Juan dela Bandera, described Joara as “un lugar” or geographical place. Joara is approximately pronounced like Wara (such as in the Spanish name, Joaquin) not Joe-ah-ra as stated in the two nationally televised documentaries.
In December of 1567, the Pardo Expedition was traveling generally westward from the Spanish colony of Santa Elena in Port Royal Sound, South Carolina in attempt to find the shortest route to Zacatecas, Mexico. They came to a mountain escarpment and early winter snow at Joara, which blocked their progress.
The capital of Joara was the only Native community, which dela Bandera described in Spanish as a city in his chronicles of their journeys through the Carolinas and northeast corner of Georgia. He said that the city had many temples, wide streets, plazas and houses.
The reader was never told the real name of this capital, only that Captain Juan Pardo had renamed it Cuenca after his home town in Aragon, because its geographical situation was almost identical to that of the orignal Cuenca. Dela Bandera stated that the capital of Joara was at the base of a mountain canyon, just below where four rushing mountain rivers came together. Besides the fact that that the conquistadors were trying to find a route from the South Carolina Coast to Mexico, this geographical information is extremely critical for discerning caca de toro.
Pardo ordered Fuerza de San Juan, a small infantry fort, built and garrisoned it with a platoon of soldiers. He then returned to Santa Elena to spend the winter. The following year, he passed through Nuevo Cuenca on the way to the great town of Coça (Kusa) which was in Northwest Georgia, about 50 miles southeast of Chattanooga. That is another fact for discerning caca de toro.
The journal of the Pardo Expeditions mentioned four infantry forts being built in the interior of the Southeast. All four were massacred and burned during the winter of 1568-69. Pardo did not return to the interior, but the Wikipedia article on him is absolutely false in its statement that no Spanish ever returned to the interior of North Carolina. This relatively new propaganda, inserted anonymously, to support the claims for the Berry Site in Burke County, NC.
Several North Carolina published history books describe scientific and archival evidence of Spanish-speaking miners at several locations in the mountains west and northwest of the Berry site. Radiocarbon dates for the oldest mine timbers ran from around 1590 to 1610.
In addition, the highly respected North Carolina historian, Foster Sondley, included a description of a late 16th century and 17th century Spanish gem mining colony in the Toe River Valley, immediately northwest of Burke County, NC in his history of North Carolina. Virginia historian, Brent Kennedy, has also uncovered eyewitness accounts of an “underground railroad” that conducted Spanish Sephardic refugees from the South Carolina Coast up the Catawba River Valley through Burke County and over the Blue Ridge Mountains into North Carolina and Tennessee valleys.
You may read the facts for yourself by accessing online the English translation of dela Bandera’s journal at:
Now before we go charging into Never Never Land, read one of the replicated news releases that accompanied the 2013 broadcast on PBS about the presumed location of Joara in Burke County, NC. Although the news article’s title says that the Burke County, NC archaeological site is in the Great Smoky Mountains, it is actually is on rolling Piedmont terrain, 123 miles EAST of the Smokies. So the caca de toro begins with the title.
Building a stack of cards
During the 1960s and 1970s, amateur archaeologists searched Burke County, NC sites that might have been occupied by the Spanish. In the past, very old European artifacts had occasionally been found by farmers while plowing. In particular, they were looking for a fort, built by Captain Juan Pardo in 1568, because they could not think of any other explanation for the abundance of early European artifacts.
It is important to remember that they were specifically searching for Juan Pardo’s fort, not taking the scientific approach of postulating a range of alternative explanations for the European artifacts. In fact, in an adjacent county to the north, Smithsonian archaeologists had found a site containing stone beehive shaped tombs and extensive evidence of the smelting of iron and copper.
A little over two decades ago, a team of North Carolina anthropology and history professors, accompanied by Charles Hudson, a Georgia anthropology professor, who had graduated from the University of North Carolina, were in Asheville, NC to promote their route for the Hernando de Soto Expedition. Actually, it was also the first time that they were to see their proposed route in the mountains. They had earlier determined the route via state highway maps.
Early in the morning, they told a breakfast meeting of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce that the Capital of the Ancient Cherokee Nation, Guaxule, was on the Biltmore Estate near Asheville and that both De Soto and Pardo spent the night there. Pardo’s journal never mentioned Guaxule, while the De Soto Chronicles never mention Joara.
They next went to my office, where two state archaeologists and I told the esteemed academicians that there were no occupied Indian villages on the Lower French Broad River, when de Soto and Pardo were roaming through the Southeast. I was director of the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission. We told them that no 16th century European artifacts had been found in the Asheville Area and also showed them maps that showed the French Broad River Basin always being occupied by allies of the French, the Shawnees, until 1763, when the region was seized by Great Britain.
Even after all these years, I remember the meeting distinctly, because at the time, the 1939 De Soto Commission, plus all history books and references, had stated that Guaxule was located in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia. The professors laughed at me when I mentioned this.
This belief is probably not true, but a Georgia state historical marker still states it as a fact. There is a reason for the long held belief that De Soto came through the Nacoochee Valley. From the day, the first American settlers arrived throughout the 19th century, farmers constantly dug up very old European artifacts of all types, including swords, mining tools, cooking pots and matchlock muskets. The quantity of Early Colonial Period artifacts, found in the Nacoochee Valley, vastly exceeds that found in Burke County, NC.
The professors ignored us and that afternoon gave a press conference on the Biltmore Estate*, with the same message as at the Chamber breakfast. They then picked up a check from the Biltmore Estate. Presumably, they also got a check from the Chamber, but I was not a witness to that. Very soon thereafter, a state historical marker was put up in Asheville, announcing that De Soto and Pardo visited the great Cherokee town of Guaxule on the Biltmore Estate. Now there were two states claiming the location of Guaxule.
*The Asheville-Citizen Times covered this event, but I had a personal connection. Mimi Cecil, the wife of Bill Cecil (owner of the Biltmore Estate) was a member of our commission! She said that the professors approached Bill long before doing their “highway map” study of Western North Carolina with the news that both Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo had come through Asheville. The Biltmore Estate donated funds to the professors in order to promote tourism in their region. It was NOT a quid pro quo situation in which their dinky little mound would be named the place where De Soto spent the night. The professors made this announcement unilaterally in order to flatter their patron.
When the book, The De Soto Chronicles, was published in 1993, it described Guaxule as a minor village that was probably near Asheville and that de Soto passed through there on the way to Chiaha, a larger town downstream on the French Broad River. Both sites were uninhabited in the mid-1500s.
When in 1997 Charles Hudson published his version of the De Soto Expedition, Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun, he described a different route for De Soto. De Soto was only within the boundaries of North Carolina for about two weeks or less, yet Hudson made that his most important chapter, “De Soto in the Land of the Cherokees.” There are absolutely no Cherokee words mentioned in The De Soto Chronicles. Hudson called the towns with Creek or Itza Maya names, “Ancient Cherokee words, whose meanings have been forgotten.”
In Hudson’s version, while supposedly heading west from Cofitiachequi to Coça in Northwest Georgia, De Soto had instead turned due north to visit the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, then retraced his route SOUTHWARD back into the North Carolina Piedmont then turned northward to spend the night in a small village named Xuale. The Spaniards left Xuale quickly because the hamlet had few food reserves. Hudson placed Xuale at a little known location called the Berry Site in Burke County, NC.
Hudson then stated that ” Xuale was probably the same word as Joara” and that during the next 20 years it would grow into the great regional capital that Pardo named Cuenca. Hudson then directed de Soto northward to tour the northwestern corner of North Carolina and then cross over via an unspecified route into northwestern Tennessee, where Chiaha was located at an unspecified location. In other words, the Spaniards now were traveling an additional 350 miles in rough mountain terrain during a period of two weeks.
By the time of Hudson’s book being published, I was living in Northwest Georgia and working long hours on the plans to repair several historical landmarks, which had been severely damaged by Hurricane Opel the previous year. Few people knew about my work experiences in the Asheville. Virtually no one knew about my background in Mesoamerican architecture. The route for De Soto in Hudson’s book obviously contained some malarkey, but the book had gotten very positive reviews and was being heavily promoted by the media in North Carolina. No one in academia dared to challenge the ridiculous route that he had proposed through North Carolina.
After the publication of Hudson’s book, archaeology classes from Warren Wilson College in Asheville began digging at the Berry Site, while archaeology classes from Appalachian State University began investigating the three foot high mound on the Biltmore Estate that the academicians had called Guaxule. In 2001, the Appalachian State archaeologists were forced to announce what we had already known 15 years earlier, the Biltmore Mound was a Woodland Period site and showed no evidence of contact with Europeans. They then changed their spill to be that the dinky little Biltmore Mound was the oldest known Cherokee architecture. French maps showed all of western North Carolina occupied by the Creeks and Cherokees until after 1701.
In 2004 there was national media saturation and a National Geo TV documentary about the Berry Site probably being Joara. Remembering the poppycock in the Hudson book, I was surprised, but assumed that the National Geographic Society had verified everything before issuing a large grant and then producing a TV documentary.
Ten years ago
THEN, on March of 2006, I found just the type female herd dog puppy that I was looking for, near Lenoir, NC . . . which is near the Berry Site, aka Joara. Expecting to see spectacular mountain scenery and large mounds, I took along my camping equipment. I planned to camp out in the deep mountain gorge near the site of Joara.
It was nothing. The Berry Site is a level pasture in the North Carolina Piedmont. There is no canyon. There are no whitewater rivers coming together in a gorge. The nearby stream is what in Georgia we call a branch. The mound was a single, barely visible, bump. A flier obtained from the Burke County Chamber described the Berry Site as “an important Cherokee or Catawba town in the Late Mississippian Period with as many as 25 houses and a great mound that was visited by Spanish explorers, Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo.” Twenty-five houses? . . . that’s barely a village.
Instead of camping out, I drove back home and researched the available references, plus a chain of academic papers and grants that had given legitimacy to the claims made in the flier. The famous Smithsonian Institute ethnologist, John Swanton, had stated that the area around Burke County, Lenoir and Old Fort, North Carolina had been occupied by the Yuchi Indians until occupied by British settlers in the mid-1700s. He had specific references to back up his statement.
What immediately became obvious was that from the beginning in the 1970s, the only assumption by North Carolina academicians was that Juan Pardo and/or Hernando de Soto had traveled through Burke County and Asheville. In exactly the same mentality that they re-created Cherokee history, these North Carolinians were always looking for “proof” that their first assumption was correct.
This is a very dangerous way to carry out research. One tends to see only that evidence that proves one right . . . and if there is none, to concoct fabricated evidence.
The initial academic grant applications for archaeological studies had been endorsed by Charles Hudson in 1997, after the publication of his book. A legion of North Carolina anthropology professors provided glowing endorsements in the peer reviews. Thereafter, a chain of grants based on the legitimacy of the first one, eventually culminated in large grants from the National Geographic Society and National Science Foundation.
No one ever stopped the process and said, “Hey, this archaeological zone bears no resemblance to the Joara in the Spanish archives and it is ludicrous to think that Juan Pardo would head north into North Carolina from a location near Savannah, GA to reach Mexico. You have absolutely no proof that even if this site was visited by Pardo, it is Fort San Juan.”
Then what is the Berry Archaeological Site?
The 2007 round of publicity described 16th or 17th century European artifacts, such as a scale, being found in the burned-out ruins of one house at the Berry Site. The 2013 round of publicity and PBS documentary showed a relatively short section of log palisade in the village site and stated that it was proof that this was the site of Fort San Juan.
No one on the TV program mentioned that virtually all major Muskogean towns had log palisades. It was stated that Historical Period Cherokee villages didn’t have palisades. The other “proof” of the palisade being European was that it was built at a different time than nearby house footprints. However, the entire village site has not been excavated, so the palisade may relate to another village plan.
The news release and TV documentary provided no proof that Europeans had built this wall. Perhaps they did, maybe they didn’t.
That the Berry Site was the site of a small Native American village with a single mound, there is no doubt. However, when archaeology professors call this small village “the regional center of that part of the Southeast during the Mississippian Period” on a nationally televised program, I question the validity of their PhD or wonder if they have become so obsessed that they have gone delusional.
There is absolutely nothing that specifically links this particular ruin with either the large indigenous town at Joara or Fort San Juan. What are alternative explanations?
1. Otari – A brief mention is given in Juan dela Bandera’s report of a small mission and garrison that Juan Pardo established in the Native village of Otari. Its location is somewhere to the north of Santa Elena, near or in the mountains.
A friar, a teenage boy and a squad of soldiers were sent to Otari to establish the fortified mission. It was common in the 16th century for Spanish friars to be provided a teenage boy for unspecified reasons. Nothing more is mentioned about the mission.
2. Sephardic Refugee Way Station – Since the Berry Site is exactly on the route described by Brent Kennedy that late 16th century and 17th century Sephardic refugees took, this village may have functioned as the “base camp” where they rested before making the arduous journey over the mountains, or perhaps waited for snows to melt.
3. Gold miners – The ruins of two 16th or 17th villages containing European habitations, plus many European tools and some indigenous artifacts, have been found in the fertile bottom lands of the Nacoochee Valley, where the Georgia Gold Rush began. The characteristics of these artifacts and archaeological sites seem to match the descriptions of what is being found at the Berry Site. Burke County, NC was one of the earliest locations where gold was mined in the British colonies. Even today, there are 26 active gold mines in Burke County, NC.
In 1821, a group of North Carolina families purchased over 7,000 acres of land in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia from some Creek and Uchee Indians, who were under the political umbrella of the Cherokee Nation. So the often told story that the Cherokees were removed from the valley in the Trail of Tears so Georgians could get at the gold, is just not true.
A few years after the white families arrived, it became generally known that the new settlers had rediscovered the gold deposits there, kicking off the nation’s first major gold rush. Guess where these North Carolina settlers came from?
Now you know.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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