The Lost Fort of Columbus

On his voyage to the Americas in 1492, the explorer built a small fort somewhere in the Caribbean

What became of the settlement that Christopher Columbus' crew built after his flagship ran aground? Clark Moore (in Haiti near the Bay of L'Acul, where the <em>Santa Maria</em> is believed to have foundered) is on the trail: "We know Columbus built the fort inside a large Indian village." Les Stone/Polaris

Christopher Columbus, anchored somewhere along the island's Atlantic coast, upped sails to begin the long voyage back to Spain with news he had discovered a western route to the Orient. The next day—Christmas, 1492—his flagship, the Santa María, lodged in a reef. He ordered his men to dismantle the ship and build a fort with its timbers onshore. Three weeks later, Columbus finally set sail aboard the Niña, leaving behind a fortified village, christened Villa de la Navidad, and 39 sailors charged with exploring the coast and amassing gold.

A year later, Columbus returned with 17 ships and 1,200 men to enlarge the settlement. But he found La Navidad in ashes. There were no inhabitants and no gold.

Over the years, many scholars and adventurers have searched for La Navidad, the prize of Columbian archaeology. It is believed to have been in Haiti. The French historian and geographer Moreau de Saint-Méry sought La Navidad there in the 1780s and '90s; Samuel Eliot Morison, the distinguished American historian and Columbus biographer, in the 1930s; Dr. William Hodges, an American medical missionary and amateur archaeologist, from the 1960s until his death in 1995; and Kathleen Deagan, an archaeologist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, in the mid-1980s and again in 2003.

And then there's Clark Moore, a 65-year-old construction contractor from Washington State. Moore has spent the winter months of the past 27 years in Haiti and has located more than 980 former Indian sites. "Clark is the most important thing to have happened to Haitian archaeology in the last two decades," says Deagan. "He researches, publishes, goes places no one has ever been before. He's nothing short of miraculous."

Moore first visited Haiti in 1964 as a volunteer with a Baptist group building a school in Limbé, a valley town about ten miles from the northern coast. In 1976, he signed on to another Baptist mission in Haiti, to construct a small hydroelectric plant at a hospital complex in the same town. The hospital's director was Dr. Hodges, who had discovered the site of Puerto Real, the settlement founded circa 1504 by the first Spanish governor of the West Indies. Hodges also had conducted seminal archaeological work on the Taino, the Indians who greeted Columbus. Hodges taught Moore to read the ground for signs of pre-Columbian habitation and to identify Taino pottery.

The Taino, who flourished from a.d. 1200 to 1500, were about 500,000 strong when Columbus arrived. They were reputedly a gentle people whose culture, archaeologists believe, was becoming more advanced. "Taino" means "noble" or "good" in their Arawak language; they supposedly shouted the word to the approaching Spanish ships to distinguish themselves from the warring Carib tribes who also inhabited Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Male and female Taino chiefs ornamented themselves in gold, which sparked the Spaniards' avarice. Within a few years of Columbus' arrival, the Taino had all but vanished, the vast majority wiped out by the arduousness of slavery and by exposure to European diseases. A few apparently escaped into the hills.

For two decades Moore has traveled Haiti by rural bus, or tap-tap, with a Haitian guide who has helped him gain access to remote sites. Diminutive Haitian farmers watched with fascination as Moore, a comparative giant at 6-foot-2, measured areas in his yard-long stride and poked the soil with a stick. Often he uncovered small clay icons—a face with a grimace and bulging eyes—known to local residents as yeux de la terre ("eyes of the earth"), believed to date to Taino times and to represent a deity. Moore bunked where he could, typically knocking on church doors. "The Catholics had the best beds," Moore says, "but the Baptists had the best food."

In 1980, Moore showed some of his artifacts to the foremost archaeologist of the Caribbean, Irving Rouse, a professor at Yale. "It was clear Clark was very focused, and once he had an idea, he could follow through," Rouse recalled to me. "Plus he was able to do certain things, such as getting around Haiti, speaking Creole to the locals and dealing with the bureaucracy, better than anyone else." Moore became Rouse's man in Haiti, and Rouse became Moore's most distinguished mentor. Rouse died in February 2006 at age 92.

Rouse encouraged Moore, a 1964 graduate of the Western Washington College of Education, to apply to the Yale Graduate School. His application was rejected. "I didn't get the credentials," Moore said one day as he sipped a cup of strong Haitian coffee on the terrace of a harborside inn in Cap-Haïtien. "I didn't play the academic game. But as it turned out, I'm kind of glad. If I had, I'd be excavating five-centimeter holes with all the others, drowning in minutiae."

The rented Jeep rocketed between ruts in the mountain road to Dondon, an old market town about 20 miles from Cap-HaÔtien. Haiti's history has marched over this road, originally a Taino thoroughfare, from colonial times, when coffee and sugar plantations enriched France, to the slave revolts of the 1790s (which led to Haiti's independence in 1804 and the world's first black-governed republic), to the 19-year U.S. occupation begun in 1915, to the rebels' toppling of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. (Haitians elected a new president, Réne Préval, in February 2006. More than 8,000 United Nations peacekeeping forces deployed in Haiti since 2004 are credited with quelling political unrest and violent gangs and reducing drug trafficking.) Moore turned the Jeep onto a side road, and we stopped in a clearing near a river. Shouldering water jugs and lunch, a pair of guides led us across it.

As we hiked, Moore explained the theory behind his search for La Navidad. He takes what might appear to be an indirect approach, locating as many former Indian sites as possible. That's partly because it is believed that Columbus built the fort inside an Indian village. "The Taino built a large village inland every 12 miles and paired it with a smaller village on the coast," he says. "The small village took care of the boats, caught shellfish and such to feed the larger. I mark the map with each village I find. A pretty pattern. I think it will eventually show where La Navidad was."

The guides stopped in front of a cave hidden by brush and ropy liana vines. Caves were holy places to the Taino. They believed that human life originated in one, and that people populated the earth after a guard at the cave entrance left his post and was turned to stone. Before entering a sacred cave, the Taino made an offering to the spirits. Because they did not believe in blood sacrifice, they gave the contents of their stomachs, an act aided by beautifully carved tongue depressors.

A mellow light filled the cave's large, domed entry chamber; to one side, a row of heads resembling a choir or jury was chiseled into the face of a boulder, their mouths wide open in an eternal song or scream. Fierce-faced carved figures marched across the opposite wall. The Taino carvings appear to warn intruders to stay out. Moore has no explanation for the figures' expressions. "I leave interpretation to others," he says. A tiny elevated room held the source of the light: a chimney hole latticed with greenery. Stick figures held forth on a wall. Candle butts and an empty bottle rested in an altar niche carved in a boulder. Under the bottle lay folded papers that Moore did not read. "Voodoo," he said.

One night, when Moore was entertaining friends at his harborside cinder-block house in Cap-HaÔtien—he lives there with his wife, Pat, a nurse from Nebraska with 16 years' service in Haiti's rural clinics—the conversation turned to the fate of the Taino. "The Taino really weren't all wiped out," Moore said. "There are groups in New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba who call themselves the descendants. They're reviving the language and ceremonies and want the world to know 'Hey, we're still here.'"

"The descendants in Haiti are secretive," a visiting archaeologist chimed in.

A guide named Jean Claude led Moore up a narrow mountain trail to a high, flat ridge that could be reached only by climbing three other mountains, a destination recalling the Creole proverb, Deyo mon ge mon ("Beyond the mountains are more mountains"). Jean Claude's brother had found a site he thought Moore should see.

The ridge had dark brown soil, which Moore said indicated that fires had burned there long ago. He took the GPS coordinates and then probed the soil with a stick, pulling out large potsherds and many seashells. There were three Indian houses here, Moore concluded. "I'm standing in the garbage dump."

Moore sat down and adjusted his hat against the sun. We were at 1,700 feet, and the trade winds dried the sweat as soon as it broke. "A fine place for a house at any time," Moore said. "Lookouts would have lived here," he added, pointing to the sweep of Atlantic coastline on the horizon. "Anyone living here would have seen Columbus' fleet come along the coast. They would have seen the fires lit by other lookouts to mark its progress, then lit their own to warn people down the way that invaders were here."

He went on: "Invaders they were. They made slaves of the Indians, stole their wives. That's why the Indians killed the Santa María crew and burned La Navidad." He gestured at a point on the horizon. "Bord de Mer de Limonade. That's where I think La Navidad is. Samuel Eliot Morison thought so. Dr. Hodges too.

"When I come back, I'll do a little spade-excavating there, at least eliminate it," Moore said. "Of course the coastline will have changed since 1492. We'll see."

Frances Maclean is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
Photographer Les Stone specializes in out-of-the-way stories.

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