The St. Augustine Factor

By the Spring of 2013, everything we’d evaluated told us that Santa Elena, on Port Royal Sound, had all the attributes of Jamestown, VA. It also seemed to be a big enough tourism draw to make the county a major destination. Stu Rodman and I made independent estimates of what a Jamestown-style tourism site would mean for us in four years. We both came to the same conclusion. We could expect Santa Elena to generate an additional $200 to $400 million in annual revenue for Beaufort County. That would significantly improve the economic health of the County.

By the summer of 2013, I had met with a handful of businessmen and women who said, “Let’s expose Santa Elena to the sunlight.” The archaeologists and historians had done a great job with the research. Now it was our turn to get the project out of R & D (Research and Development). Two wise business leaders said, “Let’s go.” Dick Stewart, a prominent commercial developer in northern Beaufort County said, “It is time.” And behind the scenes Gary Kubic, the County Administrator, confirmed that Santa Elena could become the big block store of the county’s historical shopping center. Kubic surprised many of us with his in depth knowledge of consumer marketing and economic development.

The Santa Elena story started to go public in September, 2013. I called together a meeting of the top national 16th century historians as well as two of the best archaeologists. Stu Rodman, Dick Stewart, and I represented the business community. This meeting was especially important because we could not start any public education or promotion unless we had a consensus on the importance of the Santa Elena story. The attending historians included Dr. Eugene Lyon, Dr. Paul Hoffman, Dr. Larry Rowland, and Dr. Stephen Wise. Representing the archaeological community was Dr. Chester De Pratter from the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Kimberly Zawacki, the Parris Island Marine Corps archaeologist.

At the end of the meeting I asked each attendee to summarize their understanding of the importance of Santa Elena. Of all of the attendees, what Dr. Lyon and Dr. Hoffman said were most important. They were the nation’s top two 16th century colonial historians. We went around the table. Dr. DePratter said, “Santa Elena is very important; but let’s not forget Charlesfort. It is the first attempted protestant settlement.” Dr. Rowland then responded, “Santa Elena is where America began!” Then, we came to Dr. Hoffman: “Santa Elena was the first major European settlement in what is now the United States. It came before Jamestown and it came before St. Augustine.” Finally, Dr. Lyon, the eminent historian, commented, “Santa Elena is a very important site.” That is all he said. I was dumbfounded. If anyone knew the huge importance of Santa Elena, it would be Dr. Lyon. He is considered the breakthrough author of the subject . . . but he said nothing.

After dismissing the meeting and thinking of Dr. Lyon’s lukewarm comment, I reminded myself of one fact: Dr. Lyon had been the Director of the Center of Historical Research for the St. Augustine Foundation for 14 years. His office was in St. Augustine. He had to feel great loyalty toward his St. Augustine associates who, for years, has been promoting the city as the oldest Spanish city in America. That reminder gave me some solace.

Then, in early January of 2014, Dr. Lyon gave me a call. “Daryl, would you mind visiting me later this month at my home in Vera Beach Florida. I have things I want to share with you.” I arrived at Dr. Lyon’s home on January 20. As soon as he answered the door, Dr. Lyon said, “Please sit next to me on the couch.” I did! Then, Gene turned to me and said, “Daryl, Santa Elena was the first major European settlement in what is now the United States. It came well before St. Augustine. St. Augustine, in fact, was an accident.”

All I could think of was what courage it took for him to say that. He knew that many of his old friends and associates might think him disloyal to them. But, in reality, he was not. In the future, if Santa Elena receives the attention it deserves, it will mean that even more people will visit Jamestown and St. Augustine . . . not fewer.