On Christmas, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ran aground on a reef somewhere in the Caribbean. He orded the timber salvaged to build a fort, and when Columbus set sail a few weeks later to return to Spain, he left behind 39 sailors in a new village named Villa de la Navidad. A year later, when he returned with over a thousand men intent on searching for gold, the village was burned to the ground.
While it’s thought to be in Haiti, the site of Villa de la Navidad hasn’t been confirmed. That’s not for lack of trying; the village, and the story of its demise, have become something of a unicorn for archaeologists and researchers studying Columbus’ travels. But, as the Smithsonian’s Frances Maclean explained in a 2008 dispatch from Haiti, the most unlikely searcher for La Navidad is Clark Moore, a now 69-year old construction contractor from Washington. During his three decades digging around Haiti, Moore has discovered close to a thousand former Indian sites. Maclean’s narrative is great:
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.
In the 80s, a team from the University of Florida thought they’d found La Navidad, but were unable to confirm that they’d found the fort’s existence. At this point, the feeble wooden structures Columbus left behind are unlikely to have survived the Haitian weather in any recognizable sense, and finding de facto proof of La Navidad’s existence is a real long shot. But the story of Moore, the amateur archeologist who’s made waves in his quest for Columbus’ lost fort is still a gem. And imagine: 39 men, left behind in a new world to search for riches. The story of La Navidad is crazy to think about, and offers insight into just how incredible Columbus’ journey was.
Image via the Smithsonian
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.