Santa Elena History Center

The story of Santa Elena, founded in 1566 on Parris Island, is one of religion, geopolitics, cultural clashes, war and struggles to survive. It also is little known — even in South Carolina, where colonial European powers France and Spain established beachheads in the New World. The Santa Elena Foundation wants to change that. The foundation is dedicated to sharing the story of Santa Elena with South Carolinians and the world. Its mission is to expand the story of North American colonization by researching, preserving and promoting Santa Elena, the first European colonial capital.

For many years, Santa Elena’s history was obscured by the French activity in the same area. The site was first excavated in the 1850s, but with no written records from Spain and relying on 16th-century French illustrations of the area, historians thought the site exclusively French. During World War I, the Marine Corps began to use Parris Island as a training site and uncovered pottery from the 16th century. In 1957, National Park Service archaeologists examined the artifacts and determined they were from Spain or made by Spaniards. Further excavations determined that both the French and Spanish had occupied the site. Santa Elena was named a National Historic Landmark in 2001 based largely on its role in the heated competition among European powers for the New World.

Now you can find the lost story of Santa Elena at the brand new interpretive center in downtown Beaufort, where the inaugural exhibit “Santa Elena: America’s Untold Story” is now open along with ancillary exhibits throughout the building. Come visit and engage with the Santa Elena Foundation as we restore a “missing century” of South Carolina and American history.


1501 Bay Street
Beaufort, South Carolina



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