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Mysterious earthen fort identified on South Carolina island

Mysterious earthen fort identified on South Carolina island

Routine GIS mapping of ancient Native American shell rings in the region between Beaufort, SC and Savannah, GA revealed the walls and moat of a fort that appears to date from the late 1500s.  It is adjacent to a man-made port on an island that is already a designated a Native American archaeological zone. 

The builders of this fort chose a location that was impossible to see from either the Atlantic Ocean or Port Royal Sound.  This suggests that they might have been hiding from the powerful Spanish fleet.

Click images to enlarge to full size

MysteryFort3bThe asymmetrical earthworks with “diamond bastions” are located about 11 miles due west of Parris Island, SC  or 16 miles, if traveled by water.  The north wall of the fortification is almost exactly 100 yards in length.  This means that the fort was not built to hold a large garrison.  It is very similar to forts built by the Spanish in the Philippines in 1567 and at Santa Elena, SC around 1580.

Fort San Marcos at Santa Elena on Parris Island had a very similar shape to these earthworks.

Fort San Marcos at Santa Elena on Parris Island had a very similar shape to these earthworks.


Charlesfort was built by French colonists in 1562. It was located on Parris Island or nearby. The French erected a marble column on Daws Island to signify the claim of the King of France on the South Atlantic Coast.

Charlesfort was built by French colonists in 1562. It was located on Parris Island or nearby. The French erected a marble column on Daws Island to signify the French king’s claim on the South Atlantic Coast. When the Spanish built Santa Elena on Parris Island, the column was removed.

A region that always attracted explorers and colonists.

The coastal region between Charleston, SC and St. Marys, GA contains one of the densest concentrations of Native American and Colonial Period history in North America.  It attracted the earliest attempts by France and Spain to establish permanent colonies in North America during the 1500s.

Eyewitness accounts of Gaelic colonists in the province of Duhare (Du’H’aire in Gaelic) by two Spanish slave traders, Francisco Gordillo and Captain Pedro de Quejo, plus the discovery of bronze weapons and tools by the famous archaeologist, James Ford, on the Altamaha River, suggests that the region attracted European colonists far earlier than that.   In 1524,  explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, noted two towns in this region with Scandinavian names.

This section of the South Atlantic Coast was also the gateway for Native American colonists. Leaders of the Creek Confederacy stated to Georgia officials in 1735 that their ancestors arrived by sea and established the first Apalache-Creek town, where Downtown Savannah is located today.

The island on which the earthworks are located would be a perfect place for mariners from afar to establish a fortified trading town. The island is almost completely surrounded by tidal marshes except for a man-made harbor dug on its northwest corner and a natural, narrow isthmus connecting to the mainland on the south.  At one point, the land is only about 25 feet wide.


The island is already a designated Native American site, but it could possibly be a very important archaeological zone that could change the history books. It was briefly surveyed by archaeologist Clarence Moore in 1898 and again given a cursory look by modern archaeologists in 2002. No excavations were carried out.

The Native American inhabitants of this part of Beaufort County called themselves the Okate or Ouete. Both words mean "Water People." The "te" suffix is Itza Maya. The villages had massive round plazas. Such a round plaza would have fitted perfectly on this island.

The Native American inhabitants of this part of Beaufort County called themselves the Okate or Ouete. Both words mean “Water People.” The “te” suffix is Itza Maya. The villages had massive round plazas. Such a round plaza would have fitted perfectly on this island.

Okatie Road in Beaufort County, SC gets its name from the indigenous inhabitants of the region, the Okate. The word means “Water People” in Itsate-Creek.  It is the same ethnic name (Ocute) that Hernando de Soto encountered in Northeast Georgia.

Magnifying the satellite image a little more revealed the appearance of a semi-triangular moat connected to a canal like channel that seemed man-made.

MysteryFort1Magnifying the satellite image to the scale where humans and livestock were visible revealed a moat and bastion that was clearly man-made.  The large bastion on the southwest corner of the earthworks apparently was created by excavating oyster shells and sand from the inlet.

charlesfort-deBryIt is interesting that an inlet coming up to the walls of the fort was exactly how Fort Caroline was situated.  However, Fort Caroline was four times larger than this fort.  This fort is the same size as Charlesfort, which was constructed to hold about 50 colonists. However, an engraving from the 1570s by a man, who never saw Charlesfort, does show a triangular island in front of the western walls.

This fort most closely resembles European infantry forts from the 1570s.  They were built out of double timber walls, filled with earth.  They were primarily intended to withstand the force of musket balls and small cannon.  The 1/4th to 1/2th mile wide expanse of marshes would protect this fort from close broadsides by warships.

One feature of this fort that suggests a French design is the two different types of bastions. One is for large cannon aimed at ships and the other is square and designed for mortars and small cannon to be aimed at infantry.  There would have been earthen firing platforms along the walls in between the bastion, where arquebusmen (archaic muskets)  would be stationed.

MysteryFort2Who built this fort?

Without archaeological excavation, one can only produce educated speculations.  We know that it was a style of infantry fort from the late 1500s and early 1600s.  We also know that the builders were probably hiding from the Spanish.

This may be a small fort built by the Spanish to maintain control over a large Indian town.  Captain Juan Pardo built at least four such forts  in 1568.

The most likely candidate is Captain Nicholas Strozzi.  The Strozzi’s were one of the wealthiest families in Fiorenza (Florince, Italy) but also stalwart allies of the French.   In late 1578 Strozzi commanded a privateer ship that attacked several Spanish vessels near Cuba then sailed northward to St. Augustine and then to Santa Elena.  He found Santa Elena abandoned.

In trying to get back to sea, his flagship,  Le Prince, foundered in the shallow water on the west side of Port Royal Sound.   The crew then sailed a barque up a tidal river and built a fort, from which they planned to raid Spanish treasure ships, hauling gold and silver back from Spain.

South Carolina historians, adventurers and archaeologists have been trying to find Strozzi’s fort for 300 years.  The location of this mysterious old fort matches the known history of Strozzi’s expedition 100%.

However, the Spanish tortured or bribed local Indians sufficiently to learn the location of the Strozzi fort in late 1579.  The fort was sacked and Strozzi was hauled back to St. Augustine in chains, where he was executed.  His brother, Phillipe, met a similar fate when captured by the Spanish near the Azores Islands in 1582.

A third possibility is that this fort was part of the “underground railroad” that secretly transported wealthy Sephardic Jewish families to “New Jerusalem” in the Southern Appalachians between the 1580s and 1660s.  They were transported from the Netherlands to the Bahamas or Jamaica by Dutch ships then ferried to North America by Sephardic Jewish pirates, who would capture a Spanish treasure ship on the way home to pay for their costs.  The region between the Savannah River and Port Royal Sound is the closest point between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains.

The island appears to be the location of a large Native American or ? town.  One day, superficial surveys of the island by several archaeologists have revealed potsherds dating back to around 1800 BC.  There is no telling what else lays under its soil .


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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.



    I lived and worked for years in the low country, and the Islands. I have even been through Okatie, in Beaufort county. I did not know the history of the Natives in this area. It mostly has been ingnored locally , due to the focus of their history on European colonialism and tourism .


    Thanks for the info, I didnot hear of the French or Spanish in the area. You go to Charlestowne Landing and all you hear, is when the English first established Charlestowne. They did speak of a French spy that was sent north to see if the colony were planting indgo and other crops.


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