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St. Simon's Island, Georgia
Like many British settlements in the New World, Fort Frederica was as much a social experiment as it was a strategic outpost. Named for Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), the town housed both a civilian community and British troops between 1736 and 1763. Though a 1758 fire destroyed most of the town, it had been a lively commercial center and military post at the edge of British claims to land adjacent to Spanish territory. Fort Frederica did more than advance British military interests, however. Under founder James Oglethorpe (1696-1785), the settlement furthered a social agenda that advocated for penal reform and the abolition of slavery. Today, the artifacts and ruins at Fort Frederica National Monument are reminders of both the idealism of this community and the broad fortunes of two empires that struggled for control in the New World.
The settlement at Fort Frederica was one of several in the colony of Georgia headed by James Oglethorpe. At Fort Frederica, Oglethorpe envisioned a place of employment for people then trapped in British debtors’ prisons. Fort Frederica was to be a community of the “worthy poor” who would tend their own land, using what they produced to support themselves. The emphasis on enabling the poor to support themselves was in response to the mass of landless poor who were ill served by the British system of marginalization or imprisonment. Oglethorpe also welcomed religious reformers, accepting Protestants fleeing Germany and the Methodists John and Charles Wesley. Oglethorpe was also careful to ensure that the town had people of diverse occupations. For a small community in the British colonies, the town at Fort Frederica had a number of artisans practicing specialized crafts to meet the needs of colonists. In addition to being the home of skilled laborers and farmers, the fort was a defensive structure and active garrison posted with regiments of British troops.
The location of Fort Frederica, in what is today southeastern Georgia, was important to both the British and the Spanish. Great Britain had established 12 other colonies further north and had made definite claims on land as far north as Maine. To the south, the Spanish sought control over the territory between St. Augustine, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. Georgia lay in disputed territory. Troops, stationed at Fort Frederica to enforce the British claim, made up a portion of the residents in the town. From the beginning of the settlement until approximately 1749, the British and the Spanish fought to control the southern United States.
In 1739, to prepare for a war between Spain and Britain over slavery, Oglethorpe built a defensive wall that surrounded the entire town and helped to give it a fort-like appearance. The actual fort itself was a smaller building set partially within this wall. The fort was made of tabby, a kind of concrete composed of oyster shells that was used throughout the southeastern United States. Many of the other buildings in the town were at least partially built of tabby, because it was less expensive and more readily available than bricks. Barracks on the northern edge of town served as quarters for approximately 200 troops and as a hospital and prison for captured Spanish soldiers.
Fort Frederica National Monument is the site of one of the frequent battles with the Spanish. Five miles southeast of the fort town is Bloody Marsh. During the 1742 Battle of Bloody Marsh, part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Spanish attempted to advance through the region and reclaim land up to South Carolina. Led by Oglethorpe, the British held off the Spanish and prevented them from taking Fort Frederica. Although the battle was not especially vicious, the Spanish abandoned efforts to take land in the colony of Georgia after Bloody Marsh. Visitors can view the commemorative site that interprets the battle of Bloody Marsh. With the threat from Spain gone, there was little need to maintain a military presence in Georgia. Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743, and the regiment he commanded disbanded. The removal of British troops from the community in 1749 took away one of the most important sources of income for the village merchants. A disastrous fire in 1758 left Frederica in ruins.
After more than 275 years, the fort community is now an archeological site with some exposed building foundations and other remains such as portions of the King's Magazine and the entrance to the barracks. The buildings used by residents of the city included the Calwell House, home of the town’s chandler and soap maker, and the Hawkins-Davison duplex. The Hawkins-Davison houses belonged to Dr. Thomas Hawkins, a surgeon and apothecary, and Samuel Davison, owner of a tavern. The town burial ground has also been partially preserved. During their time at Fort Frederica, John and Charles Wesley preached at services held at the burial ground. Visitors can explore the archeological site on their own or with a digital tour, view the artifacts in the museum, and see a film at the visitor center on how this history was uncovered. These give a sense of how the people of the fort lived, fought, and worked during an important moment in both British and Spanish history.
As a social experiment, the community at the fort demonstrated the need for British penal reform as well as the alternative reform systems contemporary religious and social groups proposed. As a military installation, the clash of empires and ultimate British victory shaped the geography and composition of North America. The artifacts and other objects at the fort tell this unique story.