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Volunteers help community bring a piece of history home

By Sgt. Dengrier M. Baez | Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort | February 26, 2016

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  Two bright yellow moving trucks parked by the quaint white-painted building in a small downtown street. On the adjacent street, looking past the road, sail boats of all sizes anchored in the bay. The beeping of a forklift and voices of the volunteers filled the air. 

  The voices came from eight Marines from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and volunteers from the local community as they helped move articles that are part of a Santa Elena Foundation historical exhibition. The volunteers, in coordination with the foundation staff, moved and transported the articles from St. Helena Island to the Santa Elena History Center in downtown Beaufort. 

  “It took a long time to organize all this, but I’m glad it worked out,” said Guy Collier, the project leader with the foundation. “Not many people know about Santa Elena and how it’s an important part of our history.”

  The mission of the Santa Elena Foundation is the discovery, preservation and promotion of the “Lost Century” of European colonization through the international story of Santa Elena, the 16th Century La Florida settlement that became the colonial Spanish capital in present-day United States, according to the Santa-Elena.org site.

  “It’s not every day we get to do things like this since our operational tempo is high,” said Lance Cpl. Marvin Edwards, an air defense operator with the Early Warning Control Detachment, Marine Air Control Squadron 2. “I am always looking for opportunities to volunteer and, when I heard from my staff sergeant about this, I signed up right away. Helping out the community we lived in is always a good feeling.” 

  The historical exhibition was first put together and displayed by the Spanish Government in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the port town of St. Augustine, Fla., where it was then purchased for the foundation. St. Augustine is the oldest, continuously occupied, European city, port, and parish in the continental U.S. 

St. Augustine was founded on Sept. 8, 1565, by Spanish Adm. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Menendez would play a vital part in the development of Santa Elena soon after. 

  The deep and natural harbor of Port Royal Sound first attracted the French who established Charlesfort there in 1562. The French settlement at Charlesfort and Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Fla., alarmed King Phillip II of Spain. 

  The Spanish did not capitalize on the Papal decree giving all undiscovered land in North and South America, excluding Brazil, to Spain before the 1560s. Much of that land made up what today is the United States, according to the site. 

  The French abandoned Charlesfort in less than a year. The Spanish, eager to stake their claim to La Florida, quickly established a garrison at St. Augustine and a permanent settlement in 1566 at Santa Elena, building on the abandoned French fort site.

  Santa Elena served as the Spanish capital of La Florida from 1569 to 1587. A third European power, England, sealed the fate of Santa Elena. Prompted by Sir Francis Drake’s attacks on Spanish holdings in the Caribbean in 1586, Spain — depleted of its financial sources — decided to retrench in St. Augustine, according to the site.

  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. Today, Santa Elena is surrounded by Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island.

  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, according to 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. The Santa Elena exhibition is planned to be brought to the depot to be display at the Parris Island Museum.

  With the work completed, the volunteers all sat around at the end and shared a meal and a conversation. Thanks to the effort of the Santa Elena Foundation and the helping hand of the volunteers a vital piece of South Carolina and American history will be shared with the world.

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