Fort Frederica National Monument | HISTORY OF FORT FREDERICA

St. Simons Island, 1742

St. Simons Island, 1742


Note: Geographical locations are described using present-day names. These are not necessarily the names used from 1500-1750.


THE SPANISH AND ENGLISH DISPUTE OVER GEORGIA

When Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the northeastern coast of Florida in 1513, Spain’s dominance of the area began, lasting all the way up until 1736. Its initial foray into North America was to set up military settlements on the Florida coast in order to protect its galleons full of plundered goods from South America that sailed back along the Gulf Stream to Europe. In fact, throughout its entire history on the east coast, Spain’s interest remained primarily in Florida and primarily military. It made very few attempts at establishing civilian settlements.

A 1539 expedition by Hernando de Soto didn’t help much to convince Spain to expand its colonization of the continent. While de Soto and his men made it as far north as Charlotte, North Carolina, and as far west as the Mississippi River and into Texas, after having lost half of his 700 men in battles with the Indians during three years of travel (and eventually dying himself), those who made it back alive to Mexico with no gold or anything else to show for their efforts had nothing good to say about the area. However, this did not stop Spain from claiming the entire North American continent as its possession. (The landing site of de Soto is part of the National Park system: De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida).

Spain’s only interest in civilian-oriented settlements was in the establishment of Catholic missions. To the Spanish, success converting native Indians to Catholicism was as valuable as gold—a converted Indian was a friendly Indian to Spain and an enemy to everyone else. Many missions were set up along the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coast in the late 1500s, including one in the Indian village of Asao on St. Simons Island where the story of Fort Frederica would develop more than one hundred years later. However, their religious efforts were not always appreciated by the Indians. In 1597, a revolt resulted in the deaths of padres from five missions ranging in location from St. Simons down to Cumberland Island, where converted Indians finally stopped the rebellion. In the aftermath, Spanish soldiers moved up the coast destroying all Indian villages that they came across, stopping only when the Indians swore allegiance to Spain.

Despite the rebellion, Governor Canzo from St. Augustine felt that the Georgia region was worth exploring because the padres who had visited the interior reported that the Indians were friendly, the land fertile, and that gold and silver could be found. While many in Spain felt that exploration north of Florida was a waste of time, Canzo pushed the idea of more missions to those who could authorize his expansion. This led to a second attempt at building missions along the coast, an effort that reached as far north as Ossabaw Island (south of Savannah).

As the Spanish galleons returned to Spain full of treasure, the rest of Europe soon wanted its piece of the pie. France attempted a settlement in 1564 in the Jacksonville, Florida, area, but were wiped out the next year by the Spanish stationed at the newly founded settlement of St. Augustine. After that, France’s efforts in North America were mainly in the regions that would become Canada and the most northern sections of the United States, except for a successful settlement in the Louisiana area, which remained under French control until 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years War (aka French and Indian War). Their original settlement, named Fort Caroline, is part of the National Park system: Fort Caroline National Memorial.

England began to actively settle the continent with the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, much to the chagrin of the Spanish. However, Spain’s King Philip IV left Jamestown alone, figuring that it would end up like England’s previous failed colonization attempts. Though it nearly died an early death, Jamestown was an eventual success, and England began to expand up and down the Atlantic coast within fifty years, ending up as far south as Charleston, South Carolina.

In the meantime, Spain increased its efforts at building missions, again figuring that converted Indians would be Spanish allies. By 1650, forty-four missions had been built ranging in location from the Florida coast to as far north as Port Royal, South Carolina. It was claimed that as many as 30,000 Indians had been converted and could be counted on as Spanish military allies. But once again, much of the mission system came to a violent end, this time after Diego Rebolledo became governor of Florida. Rebolledo was corrupt and treated the Indians poorly, which triggered another revolt in 1656. Only the most southern missions survived.

In 1665, England’s King Charles II claimed all territory down to and even past St. Augustine to be part of the Carolina colony. This prompted England and Spain to sign the Treaty of 1670, establishing Charleston as the effective border between the two countries. The land from Charleston to St. Augustine remained Spanish, though it was still empty of Spanish settlements other than a few missions that extended as far north as St. Catherines Island, an island situated mid-way between Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia, and only three islands north of St. Simons.

By 1680 the English had reliable Indian allies of their own and instigated a number of wars against the Christian Indians allied with Spain. They were able to destroy all missions down to Sapelo Island just north of St. Simons. Pirate raids from 1683 through 1686 wiped out the remaining missions on the Georgia coast, leaving Spain now concentrated in Florida, just as it had been a hundred years earlier.

In 1700, Charles II of Spain died. He had no children, yet held claim to a vast empire. On this death bed he gave everything to Philip, Duke of Anjou, who was the grandson of France’s King Louis XIV. Phillip was also in line for the French throne, which made it possible that France and Spain might one day be united. England, Austria, and the Dutch allied to back Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I’s claim that his son, Archduke Charles, was the rightful heir to Spain. All of this started what would become known as the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714). The war was settled by treaties that fall under the title Treaties of Utrecht. One provision was that Spain would keep its American territories and that England would help defend these territories against the French in the Louisiana area.

In 1716, England decided to build a fort on the Savannah River—far south of Charleston—and in 1721, a second, Fort King George, on the Altamaha River, the northern boundary of St. Simons Island. The justification was to help secure the area against the French, but the Spanish didn’t see it that way, instead finding this a violation of the Treaty of 1670. Talks began between the Spanish Governor in Florida, Antonio Benavides, and the Carolina Governor, Francis Nicholson, to establish a new border, but no agreement could be made. However, during this time Fort King George burned down, thus temporarily removing the catalyst of the argument. The lull didn’t last long, as the fort was rebuilt, and even though it was eventually abandoned in 1727, the English still claimed the territory.

By 1732, England had a sound ally in the Cherokee Indians, which led it to be a little bolder in the disputed regions. England wanted to establish a buffer zone between Florida and Charleston, so a charter was granted by the king to Sir Robert Montgomery to establish a colony between the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers. However, Montgomery’s plan never got off the ground, which is where James Oglethorpe stepped in. A philanthropist and soldier, Oglethorpe would go on to become the founder of the Georgia colony.

THE GEORGIA COLONY AND THE SETTLEMENT OF FREDERICA

Oglethorpe saw the idea of a buffer colony as serving two purposes: defense and a way to give poor English citizens a chance at a better life by settling in America. The charter was thus granted to him by King George. The colony, which would be named Georgia, belonged to Oglethorpe for twenty-one years, after which it would revert to England. In 1733, Oglethorpe and one hundred colonists set sail for America, settling in what would become Savannah on land obtained by treaty from the Creek Indians.

Because the territory was still in dispute with the Spanish, Savannah remained vulnerable to an attack. Oglethorpe returned to England to get approval to build a fort on St. Simons Island, an island he had scouted earlier and found to be of strategic importance. He also needed more colonists to come back with him. When he returned in December 1735 with approximately 250 new colonists, he took 30 men, along with cannon, rifles, ammunition, food, and building supplies, south to St. Simons, landing on February 18, 1736. The next day work began on a fort, and an initial earthen structure was completed within a month. Named after the son of King George, Frederick Louis, Fort Frederica was improved and expanded upon over the following years, evolving into a four-sided fort of brick and tabby construction with bastions at each corner, a dry moat, and a palisade wall. Between 15 and 20 cannon were mounted when the fort was in full operation.

With a fort completed for protection, another 44 men and 72 women colonists arrived on March 16th, choosing life in Frederica over Savannah. Surrounding the fort were forty acres of cleared land, a former Indian corn field. Upon this land the town of Frederica was laid out and constructed. The land was divided into inland lots measuring 60’ x 90’ and riverside lots measuring 30’ x 60’. Each family received one lot and 50 acres outside the town for farming. Original homes were essentially huts constructed from palmetto trees and had roofs of thatched palmetto leaves. As the town grew in size and wealth, the old homes were replaced by wood, brick, and tabby structures.

Oglethorpe would go on to build other forts in the area, including Fort St. Simons (1738) at the southern tip of the island. A road connected it to Fort Frederica. The town was defended by Oglethorpe’s 42nd Regiment of Foot and portions of the Highland Independent Company, which was headquartered in nearby Darien, Georgia. About 200 soldiers were stationed at Frederica. Another hundred or so civilians rounded out the town’s population.

Life at Frederica was hard. The land was not the best for agriculture, and much of the food had to be imported from the mainland. The constant fear of an attack by the Spanish had to be endured. A third of the colonists eventually returned to England or settled elsewhere in Georgia. Those who did stay made a living largely on services, with the bulk of business being done with the soldiers stationed at the fort.

With the threat of another war with Spain looming in 1739, Oglethorpe began construction on a moat and wall around the entire town. The defenses also included two bastions on the northeast and southeast corners that could be manned by up to 100 soldiers each. None of this was finished when the Spanish invaded St. Simons Island in July 1742. Fighting only lasted a few days, and when the Spanish left, construction on the fortifications was ramped up and finally completed by the following year.

Layout of Frederica

Layout of Frederica

WAR OF JENKINS EAR AND THE BATTLE OF BLOODY MARSH

By 1739, disputes between Spain and England over a number of issues, including the Georgia territory, had not been settled, though negotiations were underway at the Convention of Pardo. Many politicians in England wanted to give Georgia back to Spain in order to avoid a war, but Oglethorpe was adamant that the colony was not only necessary for protecting Charleston, but also that it was rightfully England’s. In addition, the Treaties of Utrecht had given the British South Sea Company (a private and government entity) the sole right to sell Spanish colonies slaves and up to 500 tons of goods each year. This set up a lucrative black market business for other British merchants who were cut out of the deal.

By the Treaty of Seville, signed in 1729 to end the Anglo-Spanish War (1727-1729), England had granted the Spanish the right to board British merchant ships suspected of smuggling and to confiscate cargoes if found to be illegal. As English politicians debated what to do about the current situation, many British sailors came before Parliament to tell of the injustices that they had suffered at the hands of the Spanish. One such man was Robert Jenkins, who brought his severed ear to the hearings, claiming that it had been cut off by a Spanish Coast Guard captain who had boarded his ship looking for black market goods.

England demanded the end of Spain’s right to board its merchant ships, which prompted Spain to cancel the South Sea Company’s contract, withhold a £95,000 payment, and to seize all British ships in Spanish harbors. This escalated the situation, and on October, 23, 1739, England declared war on Spain. The War of Jenkins Ear—a name coined over 100 years later–had begun.

While the following narrative focuses on the fighting that took place on St. Simons Island, keep in mind that the War of Jenkins Ear was much more than a war waged between Oglethorpe’s men in Georgia and the Spanish at St. Augustine. In fact, such fighting was a very small part of the conflict. This was an all-out assault by the British on the colonies of Spain in an attempt to disrupt commerce. Fighting took place on many of the Caribbean islands such as Panama, Jamaica, and Antigua, and in South America—any place Spain had colonies.

On December 1, 1739, James Oglethorpe took 200 men into Florida and captured the Spanish forts of Picolata and San Francisco de Puo located about 20 miles north of St. Augustine. In May 1740, he took an army of nearly 2,000 men, half of them Indians, to attack St. Augustine, which had been protected by the massive Castillo de San Marcos since 1695 (part of the National Park system, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument). There was no way to take the fort directly, so his men lay siege to it beginning on June 15th. However, with the storm season approaching and supplies running low, Oglethorpe aborted the attack three weeks later and returned to Georgia. Another attack on St. Augustine was planned for 1742, but it never happened. Instead, the Spanish came after him.

Spain’s plans were to not only drive the English out of Georgia, but also to move on to Charleston. To do this there was no way to sail past the two forts on St. Simons Island, so the Spanish would first have to defeat the English at these southern military outposts. Spies had warned Oglethorpe of the plan, and he was able to round up 900 men between troops from Savannah and his Indian allies. Unfortunately, his army was still out-manned and out-gunned.

On May 25, 1742, thirty Spanish warships departed from Havana, Cuba (Spain’s main naval base in the area), and sailed to St. Augustine where they were joined by twenty more ships stationed in Florida. On June 20th, under the command of Florida’s Governor Manuel de Montiago, the ships set sail for Georgia carrying 3,000 men. However, a storm hit the next day and the fleet was scattered. Only 36 ships made it to the coast of St. Simons Island by the time the fighting started.

On July 5th, the Spanish sailed around to the southeastern coast of St. Simons, passing the blazing guns at Fort St. Simons without much problem. They next encountered four English ships, one of which was sunk and three that managed to escape and head to Charleston to raise reinforcements. With no more resistance, the Spanish anchored off the southwestern coast of the island at a place known as Gascoigne Bluff, which is located between the two forts, but closer to Fort St. Simons.

Oglethorpe immediately abandoned Fort St. Simons, destroying all guns that could not be transported easily, and moved his men to Frederica. When the Spanish came ashore they occupied the fort and used it as their headquarters.

On July 7th, the Spanish sent out two small units of soldiers and Indians to scout the road to Frederica. A small skirmish broke out when the scouts came across five English soldiers. One Englishman was killed and the rest ran back to Frederica. Oglethorpe immediately took a group of Highlanders and Creek and Chickasaw Indians and attacked the Spanish at Gully Hole Creek, only a mile and a half south of the fort, killing half the Spanish, including two officers, and taking fourteen prisoners, also including two officers. The English chased the survivors back towards Fort St. Simons, but stopped short at a good defensive spot along the road and hid in the woods. When Oglethorpe returned to Frederica, he sent more men to join those waiting to ambush the Spanish.

Later that afternoon, 300 Spanish troops departed north along the road. When they reached the awaiting English the fighting began, but hidden well in the woods, the Spanish were not able to hit anyone. The English, on the other hand, had no problem killing a few Spanish soldiers. However, despite what appeared to be shaping up into a certain victory, the English turned and ran. Two miles up the road they met Oglethorpe, who was able to convince them to return south and resume the fight. These men were joined by a platoon of his 42nd Regiment of Foot, a few Highlanders, and some Indians, about fifty men in all. When they reached a bend in the road that was flanked on one side by marsh and the other by thick forest, they once again slipped into the woods and waited for the Spanish.

Figuring that the English had high-tailed it back to Fort Frederica, the Spanish continued their march up the road. When they reached the bend, they decided to take a break. Once they had laid down their weapons and began their meal, the English sprung the ambush, and with only fifty men were able to kill 200 of the 300 Spanish troops; they suffered no casualties. Then named the Battle of Blood Bend, in modern times the encounter would become known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh, as it is said that the marsh ran red with blood that day.

The victory did not end the fighting. The English retreated back to Fort Frederica and began preparing for an attack while Indians continued to harass the Spanish at Fort St. Simons. Not wanting to venture out on the road again, which was so narrow that they often had to march single file, the Spanish decided on a naval attack of Fort Frederica. On July 11th, three Spanish galleys moved up the coast to just outside the fort in search of a place to land the men. Once spotted, the English opened fire, and the ships retreated back to Gascoigne Bluff.

Oglethorpe sent a message to Charleston saying that two British warships is all that it would take to drive off the Spanish fleet, which certainly was not the case. Heeding Oglethorpe’s word, only two ships were sent to Frederica, but when the sailors saw fifty or so Spanish ships, some of which had arrived after the Battle of Bloody Marsh, they turned around and sailed back to Charleston. Though certainly not what Oglethorpe wanted, this action was taken by the Spanish to be a sign that the ships were returning to muster a much larger fleet.

On July 12th, Oglethorpe took his men south to once again attack the Spanish, but a Frenchman in his army gave a warning shot and took off running for Fort St. Simons before anyone could catch him—turns out that he was a Spanish spy. Not to be deterred, Oglethorpe came up with a brilliant plan to write a letter in French as if it were from a friend of the traitor, making it look as if the man was really an English spy giving bad advice. He paid a Spanish prisoner to return to Fort St. Simons and deliver the letter to the Frenchman. Upon arrival, the man was searched and the letter was found. Though his life was spared, the Frenchman was nearly hung as a double agent.

The Spanish, not knowing what the truth was regarding the Frenchman, having seen the two English ships sail back to Charleston for possible reinforcements, and being low on food and water, packed up and left the next day, though before doing so they burned Fort St. Simons to the ground. Spain never attempted an invasion of the English settlements in North America again.

While the fighting that can be attributed to the War of Jenkins Ear was largely over by 1742, in reality it just became part of a larger conflict, the War of Austrian Succession. In fact, a number of smaller wars melded into this global conflict, which wasn’t settled until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

THE FALL OF FREDERICA

The heyday of Frederica was shorted lived. Once the Spanish threat was eliminated after the War of Jenkins Ear, the need for such an outpost was diminished. In 1749, Oglethorpe’s 42nd Regiment of Foot was disbanded. Because many of the citizens of Frederica relied on the military for their businesses, the town began a slow decline. A fire destroyed much of it in 1758, and most homes were never rebuilt, though a few people did remain on the property. The excavation of one home site found mainly 19th century artifacts, including a U. S. penny from 1798, indicating that the house was built in the late 1700s.

The fort remained in use a little longer than the town remained active, though by 1763 only a dozen men manned it, and this was mainly just to keep the place from falling apart in case it was ever again needed for defensive purposes. In 1767 it was abandoned completely, seeing service again only briefly during the American Revolution. At this time the British took over the island and destroyed most of the fort.

While the rest of St. Simons Island went on to prosper after the Civil War, when interest in transforming the Georgia islands into resorts was high, nearly all signs of Frederica were gone by the early 1800s. In 1909 the Georgia Society of Southern Dames first proposed to save the site for historical purposes. The town had completely vanished, and all that remained of the fort was the crumbling walls of the powder magazine and part of the barracks that had been built in town. It took nearly thirty years of effort, but in 1936 the Fort Frederica National Monument was created, setting into motion the means to stabilize the ruins and excavate the town site as you see it today.

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Last updated on April 4, 2022
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