Fort Frederica National Monument | FREDERICA TOWN SITE

Site of the former town of Frederica

Site of the former town of Frederica

TOURING THE TOWN OF FREDERICA

When James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1732, he did so for two reasons. One was to create a defensive buffer zone between the Spanish in Florida and one of England’s most import colonial towns, Charleston, South Carolina. His other reason was to provide a second chance at life for poor English citizens who had nothing worth living for back in England. When he set up Fort Frederica in 1736 on St. Simons Island to help defend the newly settled town of Savannah, he also planned a city around the fort where colonists had an opportunity to prosper. Each family was given a home site within the town and fifty acres elsewhere on St. Simons for farming.

Unfortunately, Frederica had a short life span. Once the threat of an attack by Spain was over and the military left the island, colonists lost their main source of income, which was doing business with the soldiers at the fort. Within twenty-five years after it began, the town was nearly empty; one hundred years later nothing remained but a few ruins of the fort and barracks. The town had vanished.

In the 1950s, archaeologists attempted an excavation of Frederica with hopes of not only unearthing the foundations of some of the original buildings, but also of identifying them and their owners. Historical documents pertaining to Frederica included descriptions of the town’s layout and an accounting of buildings and owners, plus personal journals and even a book written by one of the original settlers, so there was plenty of detail about the town.

With all of the buildings having been lost to time, there was no “ground zero” so to speak, a point on the landscape at which to begin when it came to identifying any excavated foundations. However, if the foundation of one unmistakable building could be discovered and positively identified, the rest of the building locations could be pinpointed because the layout of the town was a simple grid system, and records listed the owners of each lot. The Rosetta Stone turned out to be the Davidson-Hawkins house. According to documents, only two houses in the entire town shared a common wall, so when a building foundation with a shared wall was unearthed, the identity was known with certainty.

Davidson-Hawkins House foundation at Fort Frederica National Monument

Davidson-Hawkins House foundation at Fort Frederica National Monument

Other buildings were identified by artifacts found on the site. For example, if broken bottles and other items common to a pub were found, and a pub had been described in the historical documents as being in the general area, then the archaeologists knew the identity of the building. Once a few structures were positively identified, the holes in the map could be filled in.

Foundation of a home at Frederica lived in by Francis Moore, James Oglethorpe's secretary

Foundation of a home at Frederica lived in by Francis Moore, James Oglethorpe’s secretary

Visitors to Fort Frederica National Monument can take a Ranger-guided tour of the town or explore the site on their own. Of course the best way to learn about Frederica is on a tour, but if you can’t fit one into your schedule, you can still get information about the town from a free park brochure available at the Visitor Center and from information panels located throughout the park.

Ranger gives a tour of Fort Frederica

Ranger gives a tour of Fort Frederica

Regardless of how you opt to tour the town, exploration of Frederica begins on a paved path at the back of the Visitor Center. The pavement gives way to a wooden boardwalk that ends where the town gate once stood.

Path from the Fort Frederica Visitor Center leads to the site of the original town gate

Path from the Fort Frederica Visitor Center leads to the site of the original town gate

If you notice, there is a deep gully to your left and right. This is what remains of a moat that surrounded the town. Palisade walls hewn from the local trees once stood on both sides of the moat. An earthen wall called a rampart was located next to the inner wall. To invade the town, an enemy would have to scale the first wall, cross the moat, and then scale the second wall, all the while being shot at from the soldiers located on the rampart.

Layout of the Frederica's defenses

Layout of the Frederica’s defenses

Original moat around Frederica (Fort Frederica National Monument)

Original moat around Frederica (Fort Frederica National Monument)

On your own, once you enter the town you are free to roam around as you please as long as you stay off of the excavated sites and remain on the obvious paths, all of which are former streets. A wide lane runs down the middle of the site and leads to the ruins of the Fort Frederica powder magazine on the Frederica River. This lane is the original Broad Street. The National Park Service has placed signs at intersections to identify the location of streets per the historic map. A Ranger-guided tour sticks to sites along Broad Street and ends at the powder magazine.

Broad Street lead through the town and to the Fort Frederica powder magazine

Broad Street lead through the town and to the Fort Frederica powder magazine

The general route of a self-guided tour of Frederica is to take Broad Street all the way down to the fort site, then take a right and circle back to the Visitor Center, passing along the way the remains of the military barracks and the site of the northeast bastion that stood at one of the corners of the town wall. For the most part, stick to the areas where you see information panels. Every place else is just an empty field.

Layout of Frederica

Layout of Frederica

Most of the excavated sites are along Broad Street, but you will see a few on some of the secondary streets. Feel free to make a side trip to see them, but return back to Broad Street. If you were to keep walking on a side street past the manicured lawns and all the way to the forest, you would eventually come to the gully of the moat. I do not recommend doing this, as grass and brush grow a little taller beyond the grounds maintained by the National Park Service, and ticks love to lurk in such vegetation.

While the location of every building in the town is now known, only a few have been excavated. This is due to the expense of an archaeological dig, plus the fact that after each excavation the knowledge gained about the town and life in the 1700s became less and less. To customize an old adage, “If you’ve excavated one building, you’ve excavated them all.”

Home of Patrick and Priscilla Houstoun at Fort Frederica National Monument

Home of Patrick and Priscilla Houstoun at Fort Frederica National Monument

The residents of the buildings have also been identified thanks to the meticulous record keeping of the British officials in charge of the town and the journals of some of the colonists. At each excavated site is an information panel detailing who lived at the home, and on display are artifacts found at the particular site. Essentially what you have is an outdoor museum.

The nicest home in Frederica was owned by candlemaker John Calwell

The nicest home in Frederica was owned by candlemaker John Calwell

Artifacts found at the Calwell house (Fort Frederica National Monument)

Artifacts found at the Calwell house (Fort Frederica National Monument)

The sites that have been excavated are covered in shells. Though many of the buildings were made of tabby, a concrete-like material made from oyster shells, the covering of the ground with oyster shells has no historical significance. The shells simply help with erosion and keep weeds from growing on the site.

Shells cover the excavated sites at Fort Frederica to help fight erosion

Shells cover the excavated sites at Fort Frederica to help fight erosion

The National Park Service also maintains a garden near the Visitor Center, so you actually come to this before reaching the town site. Grown here are plants typical of a mid-1700s kitchen garden in Colonial Georgia. Gardening would have been done by women, whereas raising crops was a man’s job.

Kitchen garden at Fort Frederica National Monument

Kitchen garden at Fort Frederica National Monument

A walk around Frederica covers a little over a mile and will take most people no more than an hour. I did a thorough exploration of the fort and town and spent 1.5 hours.


HISTORY OF FREDERICA

While Spain had been in North America since 1513, its interest in the east coast remained primarily in Florida and primarily military. Outside of scattered coastal Catholic missions, it made very few attempts at establishing civilian settlements. However, this did not stop Spain from claiming the entire North American continent as its possession.

England, on the other hand, 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 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 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.

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 fifteen and twenty 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.

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, part of the War of Jenkins Ear. 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. However, Spain never attempted an invasion of the English settlements in North America again.

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 turned up mainly 19th century artifacts, including a U. S. penny from 1798, indicating that the house was built in the late 1700s.

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 6, 2022
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