Professor Charles Cobb, left, from the University of Florida and graduate student Aaron Ellrich use a tray to look for fragments dug up in The Point neighborhood in Beaufort in August 2022 during the search for Stuarts Town. PHOTOS COURTESY CITY OF BEAUFORT

On a hot, steamy August afternoon last year, two men dug in the dirt on The Green in Beaufort. Seemingly impervious to the heat, they concentrated on what they were doing.

Historical Archaeology Professor Charlie Cobb and graduate student Aaron Ellrich, both from the University of Florida, were part of a team of archaeologists and anthropologists looking for traces of a short-lived and long-forgotten Scottish settlement called Stuarts Town. Cobb said The Green was the only block in the city of Beaufort that was never actually built on, even though there were a few structures around the edges. 

Following years of study, Chester DePratter, research professor with the South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology, and Cobb launched the search hoping to find the exact location of Stuarts Town.

The Scots arrived in the Port Royal Sound in November 1684 with two small ships carrying 51 colonists. Lots were surveyed and a church was built, followed by a fort and then houses. They made friends with the Yemassee Indians, a tribe that originated in central Georgia but moved up to the Lowcountry. Encouraged by the Scots, who did not like the Spanish, the Yemassee took it upon themselves to raid a Spanish mission in Florida, hauling off prisoners to become slaves – something that was clearly against the Scots’ charter.

This was a catastrophe. The Scottish settlement was not thriving, as only 41 of more than 200 surveyed lots were occupied, and fewer people were crossing the Atlantic to fill in the colony. Duly angered, a Spanish unit of three galleons with a force of about 125 troops came up from St. Augustine, landed south of Beaufort at Spanish Point, and marched inland to the settlement. 

Over the next three days, according to the researchers, the Spanish burnt the town to the ground, and reportedly kidnapped three women whom they later released. DePratter said the Spanish weren’t sure what the Scots’ role was in the raid, but they knew the settlers had armed the Yemassee, so there had to be retaliation. The incident was barely acknowledged at home.

“After all, [the settlement] lasted less than two years. It never had more than a few dozen colonists. It was essentially defunded after the first year, and when Spanish Corsairs plundered and burned it to the ground in 1686, it was abandoned by its parliament,” DePratter said. 

The Scots forgot Stuarts Town even before it failed, because it was eclipsed by a much more spectacular failure: Scotland’s attempted colonization of distant areas, which bankrupted the whole country. 

“Scotland sponsored several colonies in the Americas, and Panama was particularly disastrous.” DePratter said. “I can’t imagine if you’re Scotland, why you would put a colony in the middle of Spanish colonies. That’s one reason why it was disastrous.”

On opening day for the dig, Aug. 8, about 100 people showed up to The Green in response to advanced publicity to see what all the excitement was about. The area of the dig was about 40 acres, bounded by Carteret Street on the west and Prince Street on the north.

DePratter wrote letters to more than 100 households in the neighborhood, asking if his team could come “disturb their well-kept lawns and dig holes in their yard.” 

“Surprisingly, 31 of those 100 responded positively, so we were able to access properties with a promise that we would do as little damage as possible, fill the holes and record all the results of our explorations. And hopefully find the remains of Stuarts Town,” DePratter said. “It’s still a very big tract of land to work on in the search for a settlement occupied for two years, making no more than a few dozen houses. Again, we might have done better if we had been able to search [more in the center of the city], because if people are arriving, they might have selected the high ground on the bluff first, rather than the low-lying ground on the point.”

Team members spread out around the city, digging on approved public grounds and private lawns. They dug 118 “shovel test” holes, some as deep as 3 feet, in search of proof, particularly charcoal. 

Artifacts were slow to surface throughout the five-day dig, but on the first day Cobb found two small pieces of Staffordshire ware, lead-glazed pottery made in England beginning in the 17th century. 

“That indicates that this at least brackets the time period,” Cobb said. “We’re interested in late 1600s. We know that this is at least potentially associated with that.” 

As the dig continued, many more pottery pieces and other artifacts, such as small bits of charcoal and glass were found.

“I think what we’re hoping to find as well as pottery like this is charcoal from when the Spanish burned the town,” said Cobb. “Those two together don’t guarantee anything, but they’re even more indicative that maybe this is the right area.”

The final results were somewhat encouraging, but not 100% conclusive, as DePratter and Cobb both said at the follow-up symposium Feb. 4. 

“I think we can conclusively say now that Stuarts Town is under Beaufort,” said DePratter at the symposium. “That is based on the accumulation of information from documents on the archaeology. And with the shovel tests, we found material old enough to be from Stuarts Town. We didn’t find a concentration. We’d hoped we would find a burned house, but we don’t know how many houses there were.”

Shards of Native American ceramics as old as 4,000 years were found in six locations. Spanish ceramics were potentially dated to the 17th century, as well as Chinese porcelain and Delft.

“These all were potentially 17th century – some of them go into the early 18th,” DePratter said, “but the fact that we found a fairly good assemblage means we’re likely in the area where there was 17th century occupation.”

All of the artifacts were logged, cleaned, catalogued and are now stored in the curation facility at the University of South Carolina. As part of preserving the story as well as the artifacts, the team were interviewed for a film that will document the entire project. There are also plans for putting together an exhibit for the Beaufort History Museum.

While it is unlikely that the next team will show up with a jackhammer and backhoe prepared to dig through asphalt in a downtown parking lot, there will be more requests to homeowners and more digs in the future. 

For more information, visit The symposium was filmed and is expected to be available on the website.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.